These Inspiring Startups Make Giving a Core Part of Their Missions


Entrepreneurs know best that when there is a need, they should be the ones to fill that need. But when that need is a deeply important human need, businesses must take a different approach.

Solving these problems can be incredibly rewarding, but it isn’t easy. Companies with give-back programs -- such as TOMS Shoes -- have to find a way to sell product and be profitable, but also to give back to the community. Often, companies will adopt a one-for-one policy, where a customer purchases an item and the company donates one to match. Still, this road can be long.

Despite the challenges these companies may face, they continue to chase their core mission: to help others.

We talked to the founders of several companies with inspiring give-back programs to see how they did it:

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Jacqueline and Scot Tatelman, co-founders of STATE

Can you give us a brief description of STATE?

Scot: STATE Bags is a Brooklyn-born, one-for-one bag company. For each bag we sell, we hand deliver a fully stocked backpack to American kids living in situations of need. We carry out motivational bag drops to try to get kids to beat the odds around them.

Jacqueline: We have backpacks for men, women and kids. We are combining fashion with function and fun. We’ve really expanded and introduced some accessories. Our mission is amazing and it’s who we are, but we are equally proud of our product.

What inspired you to start this company?

Scot: Jacqueline and I started a nonprofit summer camp eight years ago for kids living in tough neighborhoods in Brooklyn. We started seeing kids carrying their stuff in trash bags and it tore us up and didn’t make any sense. At the same time, seeing companies serving kids overseas doing great work, but our focus was kids here so we wanted to take that one-for-one model home.

Why is a give-back program important for you?

Scot: It’s a huge part of everything we do. We were working with kids in underfunded, overlooked neighborhoods way before this company was even created. We were seeing and hearing stories for a really high need happening in our backyard. More so, not just for stuff, they need positive role models and messaging. Before we were selling bags, we were giving bags. It’s who we are.

Jacqueline: One of the things we have seen is that oftentimes they aren’t allowed to just be kids. They have to take care of siblings, parents, grandparents. There is so much going on in their lives. They get a new possession but they get the opportunity at our bag drops to just be kids. They soften, they dance, they’re silly, even if it’s just for an hour. That’s something that always hits with me.

How many backpacks have you given away?

Scot: We have donated thousands and thousands across the country in over 30 cities. We are donating over 30,000 bags this summer.

Have you changed the program at all?

Scot: It’s evolved. The mission was so important but we started leading with the mission, but we quickly noticed that if the product isn’t cool then we are dead in the water. We can have a great mission and authentic story, but if people aren’t interested in the product we can’t sell bags to give bags. Now we lead with the product, and we are selling a lot of bags, which means we can give a lot of bags.

What have you learned from the process?

Jacqueline: Every single day we are learning something new. We came into the business a little raw. Every day is a learning curve. It’s hard to build a brand. It’s hard to get people to convert to your brand or even just pay attention to what you’re doing. We are still climbing that mountain.

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Heather Hasson, co-founder and CEO of FIGS

Can you give us a brief description of the company and your product?

FIGS is a lifestyle company for healthcare professionals that gives back. Our product is awesome medical apparel -- scrubs, life wear and under scrubs. We design and manufacture the products that we feel today's healthcare professional deserves to keep with their 12-plus-hour shifts and help bring some comfort and happiness to their day.

What is your give-back program? How does it work?

Our give back program is called "Threads for Threads." For every pair of scrubs sold, we give a pair to a healthcare provider in need around the world. We also name all of our products after places we've donated. Giving back is a huge part of everything we do.

Why is your give-back program important? And what impact has it made?

We feel very passionately about our Threads for Threads program. The impact it's made on the people we give to is first and foremost. Over 75,000 scrubs have been donated across 26 countries. It really impacts our customers as well. Many of them become doctors, nurses, health practitioners so they could give back, help people, make a difference.

Threads for Threads allows them to effortlessly continue that mission and extend it around the world. The actual act of donating the scrubs also has an impact on reducing the spread and infection of disease, when a clean scrub is worn it can reduce the rate of infection by over 66 percent, so the medical benefits are significant and very meaningful to us.

Related: Richard Branson, Sara Blakely and Other Entrepreneurial Stars Are ...

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Stacey Effman, co-founder 12|12

Can you give us a brief description of the company and your product?

12|12 was started by two moms who felt the market was lacking quality, super soft, organic clothing options for modern parents looking to give their kids a clean beginning. Our values are kinder, simpler, greener, better. For every purchase, we donate an item from our collection to Baby2Baby.

What is your give-back program? How does it work?

Through our get and give initiative, for every purchase, we donate an item from the collection to Baby2Baby, a charitable organization that serves over 100,000 children a year.

Why is your give-back program important? And what impact has it made?

When starting this company, it was important to us to not only serve our customers, but to serve a greater good as well. We want to be able to impact the lives of children in need, and we want our children to be raised with these values as well. It’s about creating a company that is more than its products and brand, that is about something bigger than itself, bigger than us. We want to know that we are leaving the world a little better off than before we started.

How many products have you donated or given away?

To date, we have donated over 150 baby garments. We are still new, with big plans to be donating many more times that and are looking forward to making a difference in the lives of numerous children in need. The more we can tell people about us, the more we can donate.

Have you changed your program to make it more efficient or impactful? What have you learned?

We have learned that even one donated piece of clothing can make a difference. When researching charitable organizations to partner with, we fell in love with Baby2Baby and their dedication to children in need. We asked them what happens if we only sell one product, and their response was, “that is one more child we have helped clothe.” We know that even while we are small, we are making a difference, and as we grow, we will continue to do the same.
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Luck Iron Fish

Dr. Gavin Armstrong, Founder and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish

Can you give us a brief description of Lucky Iron Fish?

Founded in 2012, Lucky Iron Fish is a certified B corporation with big aspirations: to tackle and wipe out iron deficiency in the developing and developed world. Its carefully formulated and tested cooking cast iron fish, seen as lucky in Cambodian culture where it was first introduced, has been shown to reduce instances of iron deficiency and provide an entire family up to 90 percent of their daily iron intake for up to five years.

What inspired you to start this company?

During my undergraduate studies, I completed a two-week field course in Botswana and an internship in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps, which opened my eyes to the realities of abject poverty and malnutrition.

In my senior year at the University of Guelph, I came across an ad to commercialize a health innovation concept called Happy Fish. Chris Charles, a PhD candidate in biomedical science, developed the Happy Fish following a trip to Cambodia, where he made the shocking discovery that 50 percent of Cambodians are affected by iron deficiency. In fact, as many as 3.5 billion people suffer from iron deficiency worldwide, which can result in anemia, weakness, impaired cognition and increased risk of illness, particularly in women and children.

I took the plunge, responded to the ad and eagerly worked to scale up the invention, first by modifying its shape and brand to Lucky Iron Fish, then by setting up our for-profit operations infused with social good.

What is the "giving back" aspect of your company? What impact has it made?

Giving back is fully baked into our business model -- through our “Buy One Give One” program, we give a fish to someone in need for every fish purchased online. At the end of 2015, approximately 70,000 fish were sold and another 40,000 donated, with an estimated 84,000 families benefiting from using Lucky Iron Fish.

We also give back in other significant ways: From the very beginning, we wanted to develop a simple innovation that could transform the face of health. Lucky Iron Fish is easy-to-use, cost-effective and proven -- our clinical trials have shown a substantial reduction in instances of iron anemia among women and an improvement of both stored and circulating iron when used daily, up to 90 percent of the required dose, with no observed side effects.

We provide work opportunities to 50 Cambodians with disabilities through the Watthan Cooperative, most of whom are landmine victims.

Our education campaigns about iron deficiency and nutrition also help Cambodians make better health choices that improve their productivity, which in turn contributes to the local economy.

Why is it important to you?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been hardwired with a drive to help level the playing field. Knowing that today, more people are leading healthier, more fulfilling and productive lives thanks to Lucky Iron Fish couldn’t be more gratifying. But we have so much more to accomplish. The World Bank estimates a $70 billion loss of GDP every year due to iron deficiency, let alone the billions of people who are affected by and struggle daily with the condition. I’m deeply committed to reaching 1,000,000 fish sold and 1,000,000 more donated by 2020.

Our goal is simple: To “put a fish in every pot,” and put an end to iron deficiency around the world.

Reporting for this slide by Rose Leadem.

These Inspiring Startups Make Giving a Core Part of Their Missions

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