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Finding the Light with Lee Rhodes

November 3, 2018

It’s easy to verge on the hyperbolic when discussing the sheer significance of fire in the span of human history. Part of that power is practical, but there’s a deeply spiritual element to flame that still resonates with us today — perhaps more so than ever, in fact.

Lee Rhodes doesn’t blow glass, and she didn’t set out to sell votives or start a business. Instead, after a life-threatening fight to regain her health, she found a connection with something bigger than herself: the transformative power of light and color.

 

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Good Companies: How did the idea for glassybaby come to you?

Lee Rhodes: In the mid-‘90s, when I was 32, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. I was in and out of chemotherapy and went through three different cycles before I made it to the survivor stage. During the treatments, I noticed that lots of people wouldn’t be able to make it — maybe they couldn’t find childcare, or get a bus pass, or pay the $18/hour for parking. It opened my eyes to the fact that the little parts of cancer can be expensive and difficult, creating un-anticipated stressors that prevent people from getting the care they need.   

Around that time someone gave me a small piece of hand blown glass, and one night I was sitting at the kitchen island feeding my kids, and I just dropped a tea-light into it. I was stunned! This tiny cup lit up like a little firefly, and something in that moment helped me realize that I needed to do something bigger than myself — that was the beginning of glassybaby. It started small, friends and family would buy them to light for me, to help get me through my last chemotherapy treatments.

By 2001 we were selling them out of my garage to people all over the country. The color and movement of the light help people to relax, it takes them to a place where they can concentrate on something beyond themselves. I committed to growing the business, and we began giving 10% of the revenue away. Now, we’re giving away $1-2 million a year to cancer care organizations.

 

GC: This was all in Seattle, correct? Was there anything about getting started in that time and place that helped everything come together?

LR: Oh yeah, I couldn’t have done it in any other city. It’s a really entrepreneurial town in general, and people support their homegirls. We also have a lot of glassblowers here in Seattle, it’s kind of the perfect place for a company like ours to do the manufacturing. Plus, in terms of the timing, we started before things became absolutely unaffordable!

 

glassybaby lee rhodes interview founder entrepreneur good companies

GC: Do you do the glassblowing yourself? What’s the creation process like?

LR: I don’t blow glass, I’m terrible at it; it’s humbling how difficult it is. It’s so hot, and you can’t take anything back — once it’s spinning at the end of your pipe, if anything happens it’s a done deal.

No, we have a really excellent team of manufacturers, who I’m very committed to — but I am 100% involved with the design process. Glass blowing is all physics and science. We have 450 colors that stay the same (as long as we can get the right color bars from Europe), but we add different layering processes, mixing colors and metals to come up with new designs each year.

Our glassblowing classes and workshops have actually had an interesting side effect. People get a first-hand appreciation for how incredibly hard this is to do, the skill it takes, the experience of being in front of a 2000 degree furnace. It all sort of validates the price point of our pieces, because now they understand what goes into each one.

 

GC: What’s surprised you the most since starting glassybaby?

LR: I can still walk into any of our stores and be immediately moved by the effect. These pieces are made from nature, and you can feel the impact of the color and sand and glass. Each one takes four glassblowers nine minutes to make by hand, each one is unique. The fact that we’ve been able to maintain that kind of character at the size we are now is stunning to me — it’s wonderful to be part of something that I know, deep in my heart, is authentic.  

 

GC: I’m curious, have you ever faced any challenges as a female entrepreneur?

LR: Funding has always been a big issue for me, I have this knee-jerk reaction of “Why wouldn’t you want to give money to this company that does so much good!?”. I don’t know if that’s just me being me or glassybaby being a woman-owned business, but sometimes it feels like we didn’t get the social training to push harder for more.

There’s also this thing I don’t like, where — as a votive candle company — glassybaby gets categorized as a “woman’s business.” There’s a lot of reverse sexism with men sort of rolling their eyes at this little company. For me, every time someone lights a candle in one of our pieces it makes the world a better place — and that’s not a gendered wish.

 

GC: Which must have made it exceptionally vindicating when Jeff Bezos reached out?

LR: Absolutely! We don’t do a lot of direct work with Amazon — although we are available on Prime in select markets — but it’s a little like I have a big brother in my pocket. He’s a pretty profound personality here in Seattle, and it was great timing when he reached out.

From my point of view, Jeff is a brand guy. He sees things from beginning to end and lives under this enormous umbrella of ideas and action. His office got in touch with me early in 2007; I had no idea what he wanted so I told him to just come on over. One of the most impressive things to me, to this day, is that instead of saying “forget it” he actually got in his car and drove over to visit me.

We started talking and he told me I had a unique brand, I was doing something no one else was doing, and he wanted to be a part of it — so I say okay, and in 2008 he bought 20% of the company. It immediately gave this “crazy little candle lady” some validation, which I didn’t need, but the business did.

 

glassybaby lee rhodes interview founder entrepreneur good companies

GC: Returning for a moment to the heart of it all — how did your experience with cancer alter your sense of wellness and healing?

LR: Before everything happened, I didn’t give it much thought. That’s what I carry with me every single day now — it’s a part of my life, I move forward with it in everything I do, from what I eat to the businesses I support. That consciousness is more relevant and profound when it comes from your own personal experience; I can never give it back.

When I dropped that tea-light in that first piece of glass, I had this very intense human response to the color and light. Candles are alive and real; yes, some people use glassybaby simply as decor, but it’s spiritual, too. It’s a wonderful thing, even just half a minute with a candle can bring you outside of yourself and change the way you see things. It’s what motivates me to continue.

 

GC: Can you tell us a little bit about the White Light Fund, and how you stay mission focused?

LR: We created the White Light Fund as a way to make our donations, but it’s undergone a lot of change in the last year. Previously, we gave 10% away to 475 different groups, writing a thousand checks every month for under $60 — when you do things that way everyone loves you, but the impact doesn’t really resonate. Now, we’re going to give away a flat million dollars to a few partners in five different cities, giving us better control over how the money gets used.

It also means I can go back to being involved — I miss being on the ground, I miss people knowing there’s a real face behind this. It was at the point where I might be half a mile away from some of the places we donated to and I’d never met any of them. I want to see if it makes the company stronger to have new focus and intention behind our donations. Giving the money away isn’t easy, it’s unprofitable, and so it seems silly not to be in the center of something that’s both so hard and important.

 

glassybaby lee rhodes interview founder entrepreneur good companies

GC: As the holiday season approaches, what does it mean to you to be quite literally selling light and kindness?

LR: We’re actually doing a pop-up in New York City this year, and donating $100,000 in partnership with Girl Rising, Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center, and 92nd Street Y. My dream is to show people that glassybaby is more than a condolence gift: it has the power to be the next flower. Each one of our pieces comes with a beautiful story, it’s unique, it helps the world. Cut flowers are lovely, but they waste a ton of water and inevitably die; one of our pieces will sit with you forever.

These gifts are sustainable and everlasting and can make your life just a little bit better every single day. Each one is wrapped up with the concept of giving from the inside out, and that’s something special. Plus, I really do think that they’re addictively gorgeous!

 

GC: You’ve turned glassybaby into such a success — any advice for others looking to turn their ideas into reality?

LR: For me, I didn’t want to let the opportunity to go away — the chance to replicate the impact I felt at seeing that light. Every single day you have moments where you say to yourself ”Oh, that was lovely,” or “That was so unpleasant, I could have done this to make it different.” There are so many ways our souls and spirits come into contact with all the brashness of life: listen to one and follow through on it.

 

glassybaby lee rhodes interview founder entrepreneur good companies

GC: As Seth Godin would say, just ship it — right?

LR: Exactly! I don’t care if it’s a product, a social service, or what (I don’t know what makes people tick), but great entrepreneurship is about intention. If every day you follow through on what you say you will, that’s the way to be an entrepreneur. We put so much pressure on ourselves, especially women, to be perfect from the get-go, but perfectionism is actually the antithesis of great work.

 

GC: Any final words for our readers?

LR: Be really conscious of your shopping. Make sure you’re supporting the things you want to support, beyond the basics. It’s so easy to say “just this once,” or “this time won’t matter,” but we need to always be thinking about how we’re spending our dollars. Trust me, I fall prey to convenience too! But I don’t want the economics of everything to take away our sense of communal responsibility, our drive to be the best we can be. The days I manage to rise above are the days I’m able to bring my better self to impact the world at large. I encourage all of us to make more of those days and to use our purchasing power to open the door to good.