Her company, Art For A Cause LLC, employs people with mental and physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and autism. "We don't employ them because we feel sorry for them but because everyone deserves a chance to work, and they do a great job," she explains.
Knoppe Reed, 45, started the company, which creates and sells hand-painted tools and furniture, in her kitchen in 1998. She had just left the corporate world and was looking for a career that could make a difference in the lives of others. During her time off, she started painting furniture and tools, selling them and donating a percentage of the proceeds to charities.
In 2000, she was invited to give a presentation in a special education class at a local school. She was so impressed with the students that she came up with an idea to help both her company and the class. "I showed them how to sand and prime my tools, and I offered to donate a percentage of the revenue to the class," she says. After dropping off her first set of tools, she expected to hear back from the students in about a month. Two days later, she received a call from the teacher who said the class was finished with the first set and ready for the next. "I couldn't tell them I didn't have any more customers," says Knoppe Reed, "so I had to figure out how to get more customers so I could have more work for these students."
Today, special needs children and adults in classes and organizations throughout Michigan help Knoppe Reed build her tools, and she plans to launch similar programs in California and Maine. She also hires full-time special needs employees to work at her Birmingham, Michigan, office. She predicts 2008 sales will reach $2.5 million.
Knoppe Reed markets her tools to gift retailers, including Ace Hardware and Hallmark, and they can now be found in about 4,000 stores around the world. "It's a gift with heart and soul," she says. "When people give it, they feel good, because they know how it's made."
JJ Ramberg is the host of MSNBC's small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch.com.