HOPE TANK: Cultivating Change Through Retail

I have only set foot inside Hope Tank Charitable Boutique in Denver one time. But from the moment I gazed up its floor to ceiling chalk board showcasing the names of local nonprofits who have benefitted from Hope Tanks retail sales I became an evangelist for the business. Founder Erika Righter dubbed her store “Hope Tank” because she wants it to be a think tank for people with innovative ways to inspire hope and change in the world. Now she is busy, really busy, cultivating just that. Not only does Erika connect unusual suspects (young, edgy people- in her words) to nonprofit missions with every sale, she also provides an IRL space for young people, artists and makers to gather on behalf of those missions and the retail products that support them. I spoke with Erika for well over an hour and heard more about her business via email communication. Our dialogue provided me with more inspiration than I could ever fit into this blog. So my hope is that reading a few words from Erika will inspire you to round out your holiday shopping at the charitable boutique and join me in the rank of Hope Tank super-fan.

C.C.: You opened Hope Tank in a matter of weeks with minimal planning and funding. Yet skeptics told you it was unwise to launch a social enterprise without at least $100,000 in start-up investment. What has been the value of bootstrapping your business. What barriers have you faced?

Erika: The good thing about bootstrapping is that I don’t owe anyone any money! We spend what we can afford to. The flip side to this is that we are limited in what we can do as far as purchasing inventory, making improvements to the store, signage, etc. If there had been access to more investors, I would have looked more into that.

C.C.: When you set out to open Hope Tank you aimed to one day employ “unhireable” people. Now that you are hiring your first staff how are you upholding that commitment?

Erika: My first official hire is a young man who emancipated out of the foster care system. He is an ambitious, sweet kid who has had a really challenging set of barriers put in his path, but he has overcome all of them.  Most people dismiss youth in general, but especially youth who come from different backgrounds. My experience as a social worker taught me that you can’t judge a person’s abilities and dreams based on their past. How would we all like to be judged by the things in our past? I will also be working with the Boots to Suits program to create internship opportunities here for veterans. My goal is that we can employ people and set the example for other businesses to encourage them to think outside the box when hiring. I am making sure that there is a good support system in place for my employees and that they are set up for success.

C.C.: You coach other for profit businesses to create an internal culture of giving (and/or a social good bottomline) that isn’t top down. What types of top down policies have you seen go wrong? Can you share a tip or two for creating a successful culture of giving?

Erika: Well most of us have worked in a company where there is some type of giving program where you can donate a portion on your paycheck to a charity that is chosen by the boss. These basically force employees to give to something that they have no stake in and they feel obligated to give in order to please the boss. Even worse is when the giving is incentivised by offering vacation getaways for those who give the most of their paycheck. A better way to start would be to give your employees the opportunity to suggest causes that they would be interested in or already are involved with. You might be surprised to find out how philanthropic your employees already are in their lives outside the office. From there, I would work with them around how to take those suggestions and create meaningful experiences for both you and your employees around giving back.

C.C.: You mentioned that it is important to you to separate the trend (of integrating social good into business) from what’s really valuable about the trend. Tell me more about that.

Erika: Yes, so we all see that there is a trend of companies attaching a cause to their products or events. There is nothing wrong with this, however, it is important to look into the WHY behind why they are successful. If you are simply joining the bandwagon to make money- you will fail. People will see through it. Instead, again, going back to creating a culture of giving, businesses need to look at how they can tap into their existing resources within their employees, and try to think outside the box!

Reading mere sound bites from Erika is inspiring but frustrating, isn’t it? Lucky for all of us she will be featured in a live, one-on-one interview and coffee mixer at Cultivation Center’s first 2014 Inside Business series event. We invite you to join us in January to learn more about how Erika’s progressive approach to retail can enhance your own business practices. We hope to see you there!