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Lighting the Fire

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Written by
Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by
Megan Paulsen

Seventeen years ago Lee Rhodes was battling for her life when she had the idea for the now-iconic glassybaby, a simple glass votive she created to help people heal from cancer—starting with herself. Since then, her handmade product and unique business model have afforded her the ability to give more than $7 million away. The Bellevue Club member sat down with Reflections to talk about what she’s learned along the way and what’s in store for the future of one of the Northwest’s most notable brands.

 

Reflections magazine: glassybaby has now given away almost $7 million. How does that feel?

Lee Rhodes: The reason we do anything at glassybaby is to give money away. Certainly, the business model of giving away 10 percent of revenue is not smart, and I would say it’s a really difficult business model. But it always keeps us working for better ideas. You have to think out-of-the-box here.

 

RM: When you first started, did you imagine it would grow to be this big?

LR: Well, people run around comparing themselves to Twitter, Uber or even Microsoft. And that’s the goal, to be huge. I would love that. It’d be great. But we grow 26 to 30 percent a year and we give 10 percent away. So not only did I never think we’d be this big, but sometimes I think I need to give us more credit for what we are doing. Stop thinking, Oh my gosh, we’re not at the $100 million revenue mark. I need to give us a break and think about how what we’re doing is totally unique. 

 

RM: Has giving always been important for you?

LR: Giving makes anyone feel good. Certainly, when I was going through cancer people gave a lot to me. So if I survived it, I decided that giving back was going to be one of the things I did. First, I wanted to give back to my family and friends and everyone who kept me here and concentrated on me for a while. Second, I saw a place that needed help, the chemo rooms, and the people who really needed help. There were things I never thought of, like paying for parking at $16 an hour. For some, if you’re there for two or three hours, it can inhibit you from going. There was a lot of stuff I had never thought about, so it’s nice to give to organizations that help patients really heal on their terms. I think about what’s really important to them. What makes them feel better, not what makes me feel better. 

 

RM: If someone is going through something tough like a cancer diagnosis, how would you encourage them to turn their negative into a positive?

LR: I don’t know. I just dropped a little tea light into a hand-blown thing on the counter, and it was amazing, truly amazing. So I just figured when I got well that would be something I could contribute to helping people with basic needs.

 

RM: What were the very first steps you took to make that vision come true?

LR: When I dropped the tea light into the votive, I thought, This is cool. So I had more made and asked friends to light them for me. So many people asked, “What can I do for you?” It’s a natural reaction for people when they love you, so I kept saying, “Here light this, light this.” Pretty soon people were buying them from me to give to their wife who had breast cancer. It really grew out of that. So I never had time to stop and think, What if or how. That was more powerful and stronger than any fear I had. At that point, it overpowered everything. People were interested, so we just kept marching through.

 

RM: Have the arts always touched you in a profound way?

LR: No, not more than anybody else. I love beautiful things. I love simple things. I love color. So in that way yes. But also the arts no more than nature. Nature also inspires me.

 

RM: Can you talk about the creative process behind making a glassybaby?

LR: I name every glassybaby. Sometimes people give me ideas and I use them, but not too much. I don’t want other people to start naming them because I try to use names that mean something to me. My favorites are options like Ankle Deep because if you look at the color, that’s exactly what it is. When you stand ankle deep in anything, it’s that color. Sometimes I’m not as connected to ones like Thank You or Happy Birthday because they’re more mainstream. I love Kindness, and I love the Seattle Sunset because that’s really the color of a Seattle sunset. So there’s some truth and authenticity in the names and stories. 

 

RM: Did you ever blow any yourself?

LR: I’ve made some of them and have some samples at the stores, but I’m a terrible glassblower. It’s really hard. It’s not for the faint of heart.

 

RM: What do you like about the process of glassblowing itself?

LR: The thing I like about it most is you can’t take it back. It’s not like a painting where you can just add or redo something. You make something and you put it away. I like that because it works really well with our message, which is to really help people with basic needs, and you can’t take them back, you know? There’s no gray area. People have to eat, they have to get to chemo and they have to have someone taking care of their kids. I like all that because there is a basic sense to glassblowing where you can’t reintroduce anything the next day.

 

RM: How do you choose who you partner with?

LR: People come to us. I don’t think we’ve ever really said no because we’ll have a color for them or sponsor an event or just give money. The unrestricted money we have is called the White Light Fund, and we give through that fund. It’s quite a lot of money every year, so we love when people try to get money from us. If you’re great, we’ll give you money. It’s hard to give that kind of money away. We’ll be over $2 million this year. That’s a lot. It’s a job in and of itself, just to give it away responsibly. But it’s so important to make sure $4.40 from every purchase is going to have an impact on someone’s healing.

 

RM: Are you satisfied with the size of glassybaby or do you want to keep growing?

LR: We just are growing, whether I want to or not. We keep going up. We just came up with a new glassybaby this weekend, Petal, and we sold 800 of them. We’re going to go through 5,000 of those. And that wasn’t even in our budget for this year, so stuff like that comes up. We’re just growing, and the more we grow the more we give. About three years ago I really struggled with keeping it at $10 million in revenue and giving away $1 million or make a decision to grow it. And we’re growing it.

 

RM: People give a glassybaby at really special moments in their lives—birthdays, births, anniversaries—so you’ve been a part of millions of very intimate moments. What does that feel like?

LR: Well, the good news is it’s not me. It’s actually this incredible vehicle that spreads color and light in a really simple way. You don’t have to light them, but if you do, it will make your world better. It’s as simple as that. These particular votives are handmade, and you can feel it when you light them. I’m just proud to be able to be a part of a team that supports this incredible hero product that we have. It’s real and authentic, and it works. I can guarantee if you walk into someone’s house and they have 30 of them, they remember who gave each one to them and for what reason. That’s not Lee Rhodes. That’s the product, and there’s nothing like it. 

 

RM: Any advice for business owners or anyone else who is interested in giving back on a large scale but who might be intimidated?

LR: They’ll be intimidated out of business because millennials are demanding it. Social media is really, really, really strong and powerful, and it can make or break your company. If you’re not doing good, they’re going to talk about it. It’s not even that they won’t buy your products, they will talk about it. Giving back and being a part of sustainable companies is just the way of the world. Maybe not for my generation, you know, late 50s, but certainly for my children. They want to know the authenticity is really happening. Companies have gotten away with a lot for a long time and you just can’t anymore. When we say we’re giving 10 percent away, if we weren’t doing that we’d be outed. It’s a different world.

 

RM: Any major moments stick out for you along the way?

LR: You know, I think the fact that we’re growing by doing good. We have a terrible business plan—giving 10 percent away, making things by hand, only selling one thing—everything about our business model is wrong, and yet we are growing. The Emerson Collective and Jeff Bezos are our biggest investors; they’re only at 20 percent, both of them, so we’re really growing by doing good. It’s hard to pick out one part of that that makes me the most excited, but what makes me the most proud is knowing that what we’re doing is authentic. It has not been easy. Working at glassybaby is not easy.

 

RM: What’s the hardest part? 

LR: It’s just the whole concept. Making things by hand is hard. Manufacturing things in [North] America is expensive. Giving 10 percent of revenue has never been done before. Everything about glassybaby is made in America, most of it in Washington. All of our boxes, all of our packaging—we don’t cut corners anywhere. All of our candles, every product—all of it is made in America. That’s hard. There’s a lot that’s been challenging, but we don’t talk about that because we don’t have room to talk about it. The giving usually gets all the oxygen.

 

Going back to the other question, I think the best part is hearing, “I used this when I couldn’t find the words,” or “I couldn’t figure out how to say it, and I used my compassion glass.” For so many reasons that just means something to me as a person, not as a leader. It’s cool to know people are still reaching out to one another in that way. They aren’t just writing a text. It feels wonderful to be a part of a community that derives something out of that language that we all love.

 

RM: How do you manage such an iconic brand?

LR: From the beginning, that’s how Jeff Bezos got involved and the Emerson Collective. People who know brands love glassybaby because we watch it like a hawk. We’ve never had a sale. We won’t do anything that’s going to undercut our product ever, even if it’s faster or in a more lucrative way. That’s what you need to connect with. What are the most important things you’re going to stand for? 

RM: Where did you get those personality traits?

LR: I’m not a businessperson. I’m a housewife who had an experience that was incredibly impactful on me—seeing people not be able to get their chemotherapy because they couldn’t park. I didn’t have $60 million to give away. Truly, just having that image in my mind has kept me steadfast. It was 17 years ago, and I can go back like that and be in the chair and see those people not getting what they need—and me getting what I need.

 

RM: What does your family think about what you’ve done with Glassybaby?

LR: It takes over the whole family. They took the hit. I work my butt off, but I’ve tried to be as good of a mom as I can be, and I think everyone’s given in their own way. My youngest son just graduated from college, so it’s amazing to look back and think how his entire life has had glassybaby in it. It’s a part of their DNA for sure, all of ours, but definitely theirs. My oldest, he was 12 when he wrote the story that goes in the cards. So he’s been participating on an intellectual level forever.

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