Right in the Feels

Giving Keys has become wildly successful by directly targeting your feels, and they certainly aren't alone. President Brit Gilmore explains how to stand out in a sea full of social enterprise.

You've seen the keys dangling from the necks of your friends. Maybe somebody even gave you one. Why are they suddenly so popular? They're just keys, after all. They're not made of anything special. They aren't even gold-plated.

The key (sorry, we couldn't resist), as president Brit Gilmore will tell you, is that Giving Keys provides something that your traditional jewelry company eschews. Purpose. The acknowledgement that there's actual stuff going on outside the glam, and some of that stuff isn't so good. Every Giving Key has a double-edged social benefit, the full explanation of which you'll find below.

Still, Giving Keys is not the first business to realize that consumers are looking for more purpose in their products than ever before. Forbes has already labeled this the Golden Era of Social Entrepreneurship. And Breakout is certainly no stranger to the concept, as a major part of our brand is giving back. 

So how does a product, perhaps the most materialistic product of all time, stand out in a meaning-saturated market? The answer is pretty simple. 

You have to mean it.

Everywhere I go I see people with these keys! Somebody gave me one. I wear it sometimes, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with it.

This market has really been good to us, and brand recognition being pretty big here in California. I walk down the street and see people with Giving Keys constantly.  When I first started, there were three employees, and we were in about 40-60 stores. Now, we have 60-70 employees and we’re in over 1300 locations globally.

What is it about the keys that people are responding to?

Our core differentiator is that we are a pay-it-forward company. All of our products are supposed to be worn and given away. The whole intention of the brand is to create opportunities to help people receive hope, and to be givers of that as well. I think people want meaningful connections with others, I think they want to be understood, inspired. When you watch a video of some of these key giveaways, some are so powerful. And I think people are craving that. It’s our “secret sauce.”

Why are people craving that sort of purpose in their products now?

I think it’s innate. Generally speaking, I think people want to do something good for other people. If that wasn’t the case, our world would be scary—or even scarier. The majority of people are wired to do good things.

But would they do these good things if they knew they weren’t being watched doing them? Like if they couldn’t post on social about what a good person they are?

I would tend to say that it depends on the maturity of the person. If they’re finding their identity through external affirmation—I think it can get pretty tricky. We’re doing something publically, helping people, and we share that story online. But If you met Caitlin, you’d understand—it’s genuinely not about her. It’s about serving those around her. If you check your motives and keep the focus on others, you get a beautiful thing.

Brit and Giving Keys Founder Caitlin Crosby

Brit and Giving Keys Founder Caitlin Crosby

What am I supposed to do with my key?

You wear it and embrace the word on it until you meet someone who you think needs it more than you do. It could take a month, a year, maybe 24 hours. It’s that gut feeling, and maybe, maybe it’s a new person you just encountered.

Like what’s a specific example?

I was in Austin, Texas working at a conference. I was at dinner with some friends where I met this woman who had recently gone through a divorce. She was sharing her story with me, how hard it had been, uncovering certain truths, and even about how uncertain her future felt with that experience. I was wearing a key that said “Create” on it, and I gave it to her. I told her that I truly believed this new chapter of her life was going to be about creating the life she wanted. When I took it off, she was just bawling. The level of connection you can have is absolutely beautiful and powerful. She and I keep in contact and are friends today.

"Maybe enough big companies did enough bad things that they created a need for businesses that have souls again."

Do the profits go somewhere?

Our non-profit partner is called Chrysalis, an agency for low income and homeless individuals in L.A. They’ve spent the most time figuring out that population and making them work-ready. We pay a living wage, higher than the minimum wage, and a service fee on top of that for employees to use Chrysalis services. Those services include housing assistance, job readiness, support, a buffet of support around healthcare and childcare.  

How do you make profits with such an expensive social mission attached? 

It’s all built into our financial model. The reality that we’re paying more for our production associates than any other company is baked into our margins.

Good answer. People always try to squirm out of that question. I’ve never understood why it’s not okay to just say “our shit costs more.”

And we’re able to do that and still have an affordable product. Like, our classic pendant is $40. It’s not a crazy price. Again, there’s a whole social enterprise wave that’s hit the world these past couple of years. If something costs a few more dollars, I don’t think people have a problem buying that. I think there must be a reason they came in the first place: to purchase a product they feel good about. There’s a beautiful shift happening with how people choose to spend their money.

That craving for purpose again. But this brings us back to the question of why. Why is there suddenly a craving for purpose-driven goods on the consumer side? You said it’s inherent, but then why is it happening now?

I think there’s definitely been some macro trends over the last century of business in America. We had a very agrarian kind of culture. more of these economic circles kept small and localized. Then we got into the industrial age and the opportunity for greed came into existence. I think people want to beat capitalism and be more conscious and less damaging. Maybe enough big companies did enough bad things that they created a need for businesses that have souls again.

I really like that your answers are rooted in history, and I certainly hope that you’re right that we’re seeing a backlash against certain kinds of ruthless capitalism. On the other hand, occasionally I meet people who seem like they’ve taken a thing, slapped some social message on it, and then sold it. It doesn’t feel real. Which makes it almost worse because it feels like pretend do-gooderness, but it’s actually profit-motivated. Have you encountered people like that?

Absolutely. One of the reasons I love Caitlin (The Giving Keys Founder) so much, is in her TED Talk she says, “Don’t start a social enterprise because it’s the cool new thing to do. Find the thing that you actually care about, the group of people who actually want to help, and then figure out how to help them.”

For anyone who has an issue with the authenticity of the Giving Keys, I would encourage them to come down to our headquarters and meet our staff. That’s the best storytelling we can do. Ultimately, if our staff isn’t getting the results they want, or aren’t having a good experience working for us, or getting where they want to go, then we aren’t doing our job.

So Caitlin’s mission is homeless people?

I can only speak to what I’ve heard her say, but yes, it’s about caring for homeless people. Caitlin is one of the most empathetic and giving people I know. Her capacity is just way beyond the normal level. The way that the first homeless couple became employed at Giving Keys was that Caitlin went to an Invisible Children screening in Hollywood. She was so moved that she felt responsible to do something the second she left the screening. She was supposed to go to an acting class, but she met this homeless couple outside the theater. She asked them to go to dinner with her and she learned their whole life story.

"He was totally holding up his end of the bargain, until payday when he went off the grid again."

She’s an actress?

Yeah. And a musician initially, but Giving Keys has kind of taken over her life. She grew up in L.A., which I think is important to the story. It’s a city with one of the largest homeless populations. Her dad was a talent agent for A-list celebrities, so she was in that world and became very disenchanted by it at a very young age. All the pressure to have the status and looks; what Hollywood tells you to be. Her rebellion was to go against all of that. I don’t think a lot of people get the opportunity of having that perspective—seeing both sides of things.

Brit and Larry, a Giving Keys employee.

Brit and Larry, a Giving Keys employee.

Ok tough question time. If we really care about low income and homeless people, how come we’re not friends with them? Sure we can give them money or lend a hand, but why do we keep ourselves so separate?

That’s a great question. I get to go to an office every day where my coworkers and I are very different. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts of my job. It’s something I wish other people got to have, those intersections, because I think it creates a lot of understanding. Homelessness is one of those really misunderstood issues, and there are so many different reasons why somebody experiences homelessness. It’s really easy to believe it’s one type of person. For example, one of my coworkers, her daughter had a freak accident that brought them into financial ruin because of the medical bills. She was living in a park when we met her, working to pay rent for her kids, but she herself was homeless.

Going in and working with the homeless every day, have you ever had a bad situation? 

Yes. Absolutely. We have, for example, people who are only 36 days sober. It’s resulted in some gritty situations when some have a fresh addiction they’re trying to kick, and they lapse or show up under the influence. We have a 50% turn around rate; sometimes people don’t make it.

One of our guys, he was addicted to crack and had been in a sober living program. We felt like he was ready for the job. He worked with us for around 8 months and just didn’t come into work one day. We couldn’t get a hold of him. One of our guys drove around Skid Row until he found him, high. Our employee took him into the car and said, “C’mon. I’m taking you to get some help.” We put him up in a hotel because we didn’t want to lose him as an employee and we believed he could kick it. We said, “If you can agree to do these things we’ll keep you on as an employee.” He was totally holding up his end of the bargain, until payday when he went off the grid again.

Is addiction always part of it?

No. For example, the woman I was telling you about with the injured daughter? She doesn’t have a substance issue. It was a financial problem. Because she was born into poverty with little education, it’s been hard for people like her. And California is in the middle of a huge crisis.

How has being this up close to homelessness changed your view of it?

I would say it’s broadened my understanding on the causes of homelessness, as well as changed the way I view being homeless as this boxed-in thing. It’s a hard problem to solve because there’s no one answer. One little thing can knock everything down, you know?

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