…we’re making a social impact through our integrated model where both the for-profit and non-profit sides benefit each other. We’re operating under the idea that you don’t have to make it to the top of the hill in order to give back. The giving should happen during the climb. And that seems to be where capitalism is heading — incorporating social and environmental issues into an organization. In the past, the capitalist “winners” were the ones who had a better product or a competitive price. Now, there’s a third leg to the stool, and consumers ask, “What do you stand for?” In the 21st century, consumers have begun to vote with their dollars for businesses and brands that support causes they care about. Specifically, Life is Good stands for spreading the power of optimism by making it accessible to everyone. We set an example through our Kids Foundation and its signature Playmaker Program, which helps childcare professionals build life-changing relationships with kids facing trauma. Our T-shirts and other products are constant reminders to folks from all walks of life to focus on the good things in their lives, because what we focus on grows. Overall, part of the social impact we’re making as a company comes from believing that, while capitalism often falls prey to the vices of mankind, it can also rise with its virtues.
As a part of our series about individuals and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure to interview Bert Jacobs, Chief Executive Optimist of Life is Good. Bert and his brother John launched their business with $78 in their pockets, selling T-shirts in the streets of Boston and at college dorms up and down the East Coast. Bert and John were inspired by stories of people, mainly children, facing great adversity. These stories illustrated that optimism is most powerful in the darkest of times and inspired the creation of a fully integrated business model dedicated to helping kids in need. Life is Good donates at least 10% of its annual net profits to the Life is Good Kids Foundation to positively impact over 1 million kids every year facing poverty, violence, and illness. Bert focuses his energy on guiding overall vision and creating the art and message for the brand across categories. To inspire others to choose optimism and grow the good in their lives, Bert and John wrote Life is Good: The Book/ How to Live with Purpose and Enjoy the Ride, published by National Geographic in September 2015. Bert has been awarded honorary doctorates from several universities for entrepreneurship, business innovation and philanthropy. He and Life is Good have been featured on CNNMoney, CNBC’s Business Nation, ABC News’ Nightline, NBC’s The Today Show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, and Men’s Health Magazine, among others.
Thank you so much for joining us Bert! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I started selling seeds on consignment from Burpee when I was eight, and after that, I sort of fell into creating other businesses. In 9th grade, for example, I started painting houses, which ended up paying for college.
Honestly, part of it was that I just didn’t like the alternative — the going from child to adult by getting a job, sitting behind a desk, getting a company car, etc. I wanted to work, I just didn’t want to have a job.
Both my brother John and I had been really interested in art, but we were intimidated by the world of fine art. So we made it our business to create art that was accessible to everybody. We were interested in figuring out how we could use it to communicate with a lot of people. As it turns out, the T-shirt is a great vehicle for communicating creatively.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the most interesting aspects for us has been our customers’ responses to the simple “Life is Good” message. They’ve shared personal stories about how optimism has helped them through hardships like losing loved ones, cancer treatment, or surviving serious accidents. The emotional response wasn’t our original intention and was pretty unexpected, but it’s really helped shape our company and its values. Each new story gives the brand depth and gives a voice to the real challenges we all face in life. Over the years, we’ve seen that people who have faced difficult challenges are oftentimes the ones who appreciate life the most.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made was wearing a suit.
When my brother and I were just getting started, we didn’t really fit in at tradeshows — we were young, maybe a little too casual. Retailers would frequently come up to us and ask to speak to the owners. So, at one show we decided to wear business suits and ties.
During that trade show in 1997, we ended up opening an account with a great West Coast surf and skate shop, and the buyer asked, “What’s with the suits?” We told him the backstory, and he gave us some of the best advice we’ve ever received: “Know who you are and act like it.” His advice became the definition of branding at Life is Good.
And in case you were wondering, neither of us have worn a suit or tie since.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I’d say we’re making a social impact through our integrated model where both the for-profit and non-profit sides benefit each other. We’re operating under the idea that you don’t have to make it to the top of the hill in order to give back. The giving should happen during the climb.
And that seems to be where capitalism is heading — incorporating social and environmental issues into an organization.
In the past, the capitalist “winners” were the ones who had a better product or a competitive price. Now, there’s a third leg to the stool, and consumers ask, “What do you stand for?” In the 21st century, consumers have begun to vote with their dollars for businesses and brands that support causes they care about.
Specifically, Life is Good stands for spreading the power of optimism by making it accessible to everyone. We set an example through our Kids Foundation and its signature Playmaker Program, which helps childcare professionals build life-changing relationships with kids facing trauma. Our T-shirts and other products are constant reminders to folks from all walks of life to focus on the good things in their lives, because what we focus on grows.
Overall, part of the social impact we’re making as a company comes from believing that, while capitalism often falls prey to the vices of mankind, it can also rise with its virtues.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
Years ago, we received a letter from 10-year-old twin brothers who faced extra challenges: One had a leg amputated; the other is legally blind. They had several of our shirts representing all the things they liked doing best. In the letter, they shared that, despite their obstacles, they were grateful for having each other and doing what made them happy together. It remains not only one of the most memorable letters we have ever received, but also one of the most powerful pieces of communication we have come across anywhere — so powerful that we still keep in contact with the twins to this day.
It’s not just that we impacted them, but they also impacted us on an individual and brand level. The encounter made gratitude one of the central values to Life is Good. Our brand recognizes that life isn’t easy for anyone, but it encourages people to think and reflect on the good, and ask themselves why gratitude and simplicity are important to focus on.
It’s easy to forget that simple things can be joyful, but maybe the most important lesson is the reminder that gratitude is not just a matter of thanking our lucky stars when our dreams come true; it’s also about thankfulness right in the midst of our inevitable daily struggles.
As we’ve learned time and again, the people who face the greatest challenges are often the ones who have an elevated sense of gratitude. They’ve developed a heightened appreciation for everything around them, taking nothing for granted. It’s a perspective that can serve us all. The twins took nothing for granted, and their letter didn’t ask for anything. Instead, they chose to celebrate what they had.
Those who write to us often find an authentic, personal connection to Life is Good’s messages. We learned early on that this brand is not about us; it’s about a broad community of optimists from all walks of life.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Most importantly, everyone should consider their limited resources and pour them into growing what’s right about our communities. Rather than talking about, debating, or highlighting the obstacles around us, let’s focus our limited resources on the opportunities that can help us overcome those obstacles.
- The words we choose matter, so we should choose them carefully. For example, it’s helpful to restructure the negative into a positive (e.g., instead of being against fossil fuels, we could be in favor of alternative energies).
- Let’s celebrate our progress at least as much as we admonish ourselves for our shortcomings. Celebrating progress unifies people and creates positive momentum.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Strong leadership, in my opinion, is driven through clarity and consistency in communication, actions that align with that communication, and the ability to unify and inspire teams to achieve far more together than they could as individuals.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The reason we started the Life is Good brand — and the reason we are still in business today — is to inspire a movement of rational optimism. Our goal is to have more people realize that their disposition is powerful, and that they have the ability to make a positive difference. By promoting optimism, we’re not ignoring obstacles in the world, we just believe the best way to overcome those obstacles is by focusing on the opportunities.
Our #SomethingGood campaign launched in early 2019 to celebrate our 25th anniversary. The campaign encouraged people to focus on all the good in their lives by sharing something positive on social media. For each share, we donated $1 to our Life is Goods Kids Foundation. In the end, we hit our goal of 1 million shares and donated $1 million dollars to help kids in need. Following the campaign, it’s our hope that people continue to practice focusing on the positives, as it can truly make a difference. We’ve seen it happen a million times over.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- After your bootstrapping phase, your level of success and the joy of your working days will be determined by the quality of the people you hire.
- A candidate’s proven skillset and experience are critically important; however, the way the dialogue “feels” to you in an interview is equally important. Hire people you want to spend your precious time with.
- Don’t just hire people who are the best at something. Hire people who are the best at the exact something you need done.
- Your customers want to co-create the story of your brand and business. Let them.
- The only true currency in this world is time. Each of us has a finite amount of it. Each year, that amount diminishes, and the value of that time increases.
- There’s no such thing as work–life balance. Work is a subcategory of life. So, don’t put your life on hold to come to work. Bring your life to work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“To the illuminated mind, the whole world burns and sparkles with light.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Like anyone else, I can get frustrated with temporary setbacks or the speed of progress. This quote reminds me to breathe and enjoy the gift of life, even in the middle of the fight.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
It’s easy to be an inch deep and mile wide these days. I’m less interested in meeting someone famous, and more intent on spending time with the people I know and love — even if that means having more meaningful conversations with fewer people.
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