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From Cancer Patient to a Multimillion-Dollar Beacon of Hope

From Cancer Patient to a Multimillion-Dollar Beacon of Hope
Image credit: Photography by Rick Dahms
A healthy glow: Lee Rhodes of Glassybaby.

Businesses often start with a "light-bulb" moment, but Lee Rhodes' Madrona, Wash.-based Glassybaby kicked off with a flicker instead.

In 1998, Rhodes was raising three young children while battling a rare form of lung cancer. Exhausted, afraid and enduring her third round of chemotherapy, she found immediate comfort in the light of the votive candleholder her husband brought home from his glass-blowing class.

Rhodes was inspired to create--and start selling--a line of votives. Over the next three years, she worked with various artists to perfect her designs before selling them out of her garage. She also gave the pieces as gifts to friends and acquaintances battling cancer. 

American Cancer Society Stats
1,596,670: Number of new cancer cases expected in 2011, not including certain skin and noninvasive cancers

1,500: Approximate number of people per day expected to die of cancer in 2011

After her divorce in 2001, Rhodes--now in good health--dove into Glassybaby. By 2003, the demand for Glassybaby votives exceeded the space of her home business, so Rhodes opened a glass-blowing studio in a former dairy processing plant in Green Lake, Wash. Glassybaby remained there until 2007, when Rhodes bought her current studio in Madrona.

By the end of 2011, production will reach more than 500 Glassybaby products per day. But even as she worked to build the business, Rhodes didn't forget the people she met during her own days fighting cancer, some who had trouble affording basic necessities and even transportation to their treatment sessions because of their illness.

"Most people don't understand that it's sometimes the difference between having something to eat or paying for the bus ride," she says. "How can you get well when you have to make those choices?"

Rhodes decided to help light the way through financial support. To date, Glassybaby has donated more than $600,000 to charities that help cancer patients meet their day-to-day needs, including the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Gilda's Club New York City, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Camp Korey, a member of the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps for sick children, founded by Paul Newman.

The company's success also caught the eye of another entrepreneur: Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos approached Rhodes in 2008 about the possibility of purchasing a portion of Glassybaby. At first Rhodes declined. But after meeting with Bezos, she was so impressed with him that she agreed to sell him 20 percent of the company. She says Bezos has been a "phenomenal sounding board" who has helped her develop ideas to expand the business and compete with the floral industry via same-day delivery service.

However, unlike Amazon.com, Glassybaby has added only one product to its line--a drinking glass version of its votive holder. Rhodes sees no other line extensions in the company's immediate future.

"When you feel you just can't go on, and you take a few moments to light a Glassybaby and calm yourself and your kids down, it's a daily ritual that really works," she says. "I don't know how I would add a plate or vase to that."

Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the October 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Light Hearted.

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