How This Social Entrepreneur Helps Fight Homelessness, 1 Inspirational Key (and Story) at a Time
My interview with Caitlin Crosby, founder of The Giving Keys, on how to build a business that embraces a social cause… and does more than just give people a second chance.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Many entrepreneurs start a business for reasons beyond revenue and profit. Many have at least a partial interest in social entrepreneurship -- the desire to do good, to give back, and to benefit others.
But some entrepreneurs start a business with the sole intention to help others.
Case in point: Caitlin Crosby, the founder of The Giving Keys, the Los Angeles-based organization that has helped 22 people move into permanent housing, employed more than 70 people who have struggled with homelessness, and whose products are sold at approximately 2,000 global retail outlets, and achieved a 50% growth rate and nearly 8 figures in revenue in 2017.
Each Giving Key is engraved with a word of encouragement like "Dream," "Create," and "Inspire." Products are sold under the "Pay it Forward" premise in the hopes that the buyer will someday pass the key, and words of encouragement, to a person who needs it more.
And it all started with a simple jewelry idea... and Caitlin's chance meeting with a homeless couple.
How do you go from actress and singer/songwriter to social entrepreneur?
I was born and raised in L.A. My mom was on CHiPs. And she shot J.R. (Laughs.) My dad manages actors, he was an agent for a long time, he was the V.P. of casting at ABC... when that's your family, you grew up acting.
I became really passionate about how harmful the media can be to young girls and women, and together with Brie Larson started loveyourflawz.com. We went around the world and took thousands of pictures of people holding up signs saying things like, "My chemo-fried hair is beautiful" and "Cellulite is the new black." And my first album was called Flaws.
I was really into that optic at that time. Everything on my merchandise table said "Love Your Flawz."
So it's not like you suddenly woke up one morning and thought, "I should embrace a cause."
Definitely not. I was pretty serious. (Laughs.)
During a tour I was passing through NYC and I thought the hotel key was really unique and cool, so I put it on a necklace and wore it on tour. Then I was at a locksmith one day and the person ahead of me in line had a number engraved on his key. I asked the locksmith, "Can you engrave 'Love Your Flawz' on my key?"
Then I saw all these old used keys in a bin. I had him engrave words like "hope," "strength," "courage," "fearless," and "let go," on a bunch of keys. I started making necklaces and bracelets that I sold while on tour. I literally used cuticle clippers and tweezers to make them. I should have been practicing my music but I was making these necklaces. They were selling out every night so I had to try to keep up.
People would come to the shows and say, "I'm going through (this), what word should I get on my key?"
I became enthralled with people's stories: What they were going through in their lives, and what they needed.
So at a meet-and-greet people would want to talk about which word they should get on their necklaces?
I also talked about it onstage. I would say, "Get a word you need and want to embrace, but also keep your eyes open to other people who might need the word more than you do -- and pass it on to them."
And over time people started writing me their stories on MySpace -- life changing, intense stories. Like, "I gave my key to someone about to commit suicide." Or, "I gave my key to someone being bulled." Or, "I gave my 'Fight' key to my mother who had cancer, and she passed it on to another woman with cancer..." and the cancer ward contacted me and ordered a dozen 'Fight' keys for the whole floor.
I received all these stories decided to create a website to store them so more people than just my mom and I could read them. We made a website as inexpensively as we could through a friend of a friend and started collecting stories and selling the keys online.
But I knew there was a missing link. I wanted the money to go to a charity or cause.
Couldn't you just have picked one?
Lots of friends have non-profits and I was tempted to do the "10 percent proceeds" model, but that felt it was settling. I waited for that "Aha!" moment.
A year or two later I was walking on Hollywood Boulevard and saw a homeless couple holding a sign that said "Ugly, Broke and Hungry." They were living in a cardboard box in a dumpster. One of them was raised homeless under a bridge in San Diego.
At that moment I wasn't thinking about The Giving Keys at all. It wasn't thinking about strategy or keeping up with the Joneses by having a charitable business model. I just wanted to take this couple to dinner and get them out of the rain.
So I took them to kitchen24 on Cahuenga and we were having a ball. Then I complimented her necklace and she said, "I like making jewelry," and I thought, "You are the missing link. Do you guys want to be my business partners?"
The next day I bought a $300 engraving kit and hammers. I gave them the equipment. I paid them to engrave the keys, make the necklaces, ship them to customers...
You also started getting the jewelry placed in retail outlets.
I had been a barista at Fred Segal. I kind of knew Karen Meena, the buyer there, because I made her lattes. (Laughs.) One day I walked in wearing 10 keys draped all over me, hoping she would notice. She did, and I told her the story, how I was trying to help a homeless couple get off the streets by selling necklaces at shows, birthday parties, wherever... and she said, "What's your wholesale price? We'll sell them here."
I said, "I have no idea what my wholesale price is -- whatever you think sounds good to me." She helped me understand the wholesale world, and once we were in Fred Segal, other stores saw us as a legitimate jewelry company.
But you still had to pitch them.
I had the confidence at that time to walk into stores and pitch the buyers and the owners on our story and our mission: The more products you sell, the more money our employees can save to get an apartment.
And soon I realized it was sustainable. It was a real way to help people get off the streets. We could have just given them money and food, which is a beautiful thing but doesn't solve long-term problems.
Our goal is to give them skills and stable jobs. A lot of people can't get jobs because most companies do background checks.
Running a non-profit -- and working with people who are struggling -- means you had to learn an entirely different skill set, though.
It was trial and error. For almost 5 years I was trying do it all myself, and I'm not trained as a social worker or a case manager. There were definitely challenges I didn't know how to deal with. I would try my best... and it was beyond me.
Having professionals partner with us to give our employees the support and educational service they need has been vital.
Ultimately, the more keys, products, and apparel we sell, the more jobs we can provide. But the whole mission starts with getting your word, embracing your word, someday passing it on to someone who needs it more than you do... and then telling the story of why you gave it away.
When a business grows -- even one with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship -- the role of the founder naturally changes. How have you dealt with that?
My favorite part about business is the beginning: The grass roots, guerrilla marketing, steep learning curve where you can explore, discover, be creative -- and not fit into a box. I love when the product hasn't been created yet. That's what I thrive on.
We understand the jewelry business now. We have our products in over 1,000 Nordstrom stores around the world. We have an incredible partnership with Starbucks. I still can't believe that happened -- they're one of the biggest companies of my generation, and I'm so grateful.
But now that we've accomplished so much in jewelry, I'm eager to have that feeling I had at the beginning. This year we'll have a new product launching every few months. Wooden meditation beads, candles, journals... we're developing apparel... tomorrow we're going to plan out all of 2019. We're finally getting on a fashion calendar so we can go to trade shows.
I don't know exactly how it will all work, but I'm going to be creative and grass roots and guerilla-style and make it work.
That really is the fun part: To dream without limits.
What's the hardest part?
I came from a background of pure creativity: Working on scripts, working on songs... and now a lot of my time is emails and meetings and organization. And helping people understand that we are doing something that's pretty groundbreaking and hard. That's why a lot of people don't do it.
So if something isn't going as well as it should... that's okay. That's part of the process.
One thing that often doesn't go well as a company like yours grows is that the core mission can get diluted or even lost.
I've heard from people I look up to that there can be a shelf life of how long founders can be the CEO, especially if their skills are more on the creative side.
So it's easy to question what that should look like for someone like me: When is the right time to delegate, when is the right time to keep your authority... knowing that this is your baby and you are going make sure the cause and the heart stays at the center and the core of everything we do.
Thankfully we have hired people on our team like Brit Gilmore, our President, who not only has outstanding business and fashion skills but also feels strongly about the issue of homelessness. That's the perfect combination.
We make sure every single person we hire, whether in sales, or social media, or wherever, has a passion for the issue of homeless.
That's the lens every decision needs to be made through.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs that are interested in embracing a social cause?
If you want to integrate a social cause element, make sure you care about the cause and you're passionate about an injustice you see in your community or world. Have that be the number one motivating factor.
That's why a lot of consumers really embrace our product: They like the story and they know it really is about the cause. It's not just a trend or a way to market something by making it "charitably trendy cool."
So, challenge yourself. Find an injustice or a cause you can be passionate about, and start small by thinking of ways you can help solve that injustice -- then you can build your business and your events around it.
If you've already started a thriving business, build into your budget donating to a charity or non-profit you and your employees believe in. Make sure it's something you believe, not just something you do.
We're helping people that are trying to transition out of homelessness. But I don't want us to be the only company that does that. We'd love for thousands of companies to do that.
We love our employees, but we want them to someday leave and follow their dreams. We want to be a bridge employer, teaching people not just to make jewelry but to learn computer skills, leadership skips... and then move on to somewhere they can continue to learn and thrive.
Be more open to giving someone struggling to find employment that third, fourth, or even fifth chance. There are so many wonderful, hardworking people that just need a business to take a chance on them... and to put their trust in them.