Lee Rhodes is a three-time cancer survivor, one of Seattle’s savviest entrepreneurs, and remarkably generous with a now-$21-million company that has donated a whopping $7.5 million to charity.
When three-time lung cancer survivor Lee Rhodes started glassybaby in 2001, prospective backers were less than enthusiastic about her pricey handmade votives, plus her business model that gave 10 percent of the revenue away. Today, she’s the driving force behind the now-$21-million company that has donated a whopping $7.5 million to charity.
We spoke with the multiple-time Entrepreneur magazine “Entrepreneur of the Year” about where she started, what she’s overcome, and her company’s explosive growth.
On Her Business Background
I didn’t have a business background prior to launching glassbaby. Except that I had been in chemo rooms, and I had seen people not being able to get the treatment I was getting, because they couldn’t pay for parking or they couldn’t buy a bus fare or they couldn’t get enough time off work to come to treatment. Even when they came, they didn’t bring good food to eat while they went through treatment – they had a bag from McDonald’s or something. Nothing about their life or their basic needs were from a place of healing. So what I lacked in business knowledge, I made up for with a real passion and desire to see if there was any way that this little product, which was beautiful and so impactful in my healing, could also make a difference, even if it was tiny. Even if it’s just $16 per day for people to park.
On Her Product
The light of a candle dancing around in that saturated colored votive was simply healing to me. Remember, this was the ’90s, before meditation was big, so it had a much-needed meditative effect that reminded me to take a breath, count my blessings, and live in the spirit of healing and not of struggle.
On the Disbelievers
My plan was always to give 10 percent of the revenue away to charities supporting cancer patients and research. And in the beginning, everyone said, “You can’t make something in America, give 10 percent of the revenue away and have it all be handmade, you just can’t afford to do that.” Prospective backers were few and far between. I think I’ve showed them now, though.
On Her Big Break
In 2003, we had hundreds of colors, we had made them more uniform, we had gorgeous packaging. The big break came, however, in 2005, when they got into the hands of Martha Stewart (someone had given her some as a birthday gift). She called me the next day saying she wanted some in the color she was going to paint her dining room. Next thing I knew, they were booking me on her show, which aired in September. Things blew up from there: In 2008, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos called, and after meeting with him, he bought 22 percent of the business for $2 million. It was the cushion I needed.
On the State of glassybaby Today
I never ever in a million years anticipated that glassybaby would grow. I really wasn’t sure my impact was going to be anything more than helping people pay to park when they had a chemo session. Now that we have donated more than $7.5 million, I understand we are bigger and growing.
On Working from Seattle
I’m not sure the company would have worked anywhere else but Seattle. There was enough room for my story as a young 38-year-old woman with cancer and three young kids to start a business. Seattle very much loves Bill Gates, we love Jeff Bezos, we love Boeing – we love anything that has a story. We’re a fearless city.
On Her Reasoning to Not Diversify More
There aren’t enough retail experiences that let you come in and just feel – feel the color, the flame. Every single glassybaby we make is different: Even if you were to line 24 of the same color up, each one would be a little different because we blow them by hand. People say, “Oh you don’t make that many things,” but we make 469 different colors and every single one is individual in production, so we actually make millions and millions of things. It’s huge: The magic of color and light together with a candle is remarkable.