Close Up: When Products Change Lives

Above photo: HHPLIFT staff participate in a weekly yoga session meant to help them focus on their physical and mental well-being.

 

As a nonprofit social enterprise, HHPLIFT “marries markets to mission” by creating business for social enterprises that, through workforce development programs, expand job opportunities for people trapped in the cycle of poverty. Under the leadership of President Dena Hirschberg, HHPLIFT has not only grown in the promotional products market but also as a direct provider of jobs to people from underserved communities in Chicago through their 1eleven® program and LIFT™ product line.  

“It’s amazing to think how a seemingly inconsequential product can profoundly transform lives for people from under-resourced and overlooked communities. The impact of a corporation’s purchasing power also creates generational change,” says Dena Hirschberg, president of supplier HHPLIFT in Chicago. “Because when you change mom or dad’s situation, you change the future of their children.” When you buy social impact products from HHPLIFT, you are changing someone’s life, says Hirschberg. “These unique, eco‐friendly, retail brand and hand-crafted products provide a roof over someone’s head, food on the table, a sustainable livelihood, a fair wage and a pathway out of poverty.”

Founder Michael Arkes first opened Helping Hands Partners (now HHPLIFT) in 2007 after 42 years of working in his family’s business, Hinda Incentives, where he was the company leader for 26 of those years. While in the process of selling the business, Arkes first thought of HHPLIFT as his “retirement project,” and as a way to combine his passion for helping others with his expertise in the incentives industry. “Prior to that, he had volunteered at a social enterprise in Chicago called the Enterprising Kitchen, which was run by a mutual friend of ours,” says Hirschberg. “And what he realized was that most social purpose businesses did not understand how to sell to distributors or penetrate our niche channels of distribution such as the promotional products industry and the incentives market. So, Michael knew he could significantly help the Enterprising Kitchen increase their earned income through sales by introducing their products, initially, to the incentive industry. Adding that channel increased their annual sales from about $150,000 to $650,000 in a couple of years. He then decided to offer that to other social enterprises, initially as a rep, but our business model has changed a few times over the years.” HHPLIFT currently operates in four channels of distribution: direct-to-consumer, the incentives industry, to retailers and the promotional products market. 

Hirschberg is the co-founder of Made By Hands, Inc., a line of children’s arts and craft kits. She began working full-time at HHPLIFT in 2012 as a sales manager and steadily rose to leadership roles within the company until becoming president in 2018. “I started with a couple of hours a week, to four hours a week, and now it feels like 80 hours a week. But it became my passion very quickly when I could see the connection between social impact products and their impact on the artisans.” One of Hirschberg’s first sales was for several hundred iron washer bowls made from recycled iron washers, produced by a social enterprise partner in India. “To me, it didn’t seem like a huge order,” she says. “I mean, the bottom line was great, but when I learned, after speaking with our producing partner, of the impact of that order for his artisans, that immediately changed everything for me. I said to my business partner at [Made By Hands, Inc.], ‘You know what, I can’t get excited about this anymore so you take over, you run it. I’m going to be doing this full time.’”

According to Hirschberg, HHPLIFT is the “OG” of social impact products. “We are the industry pioneer and innovator in sourcing social impact products for business solutions. Back in 2012, our tagline was ‘Promoting Products with Purpose.’ No one had any idea what that meant. Now, we’ve really established that space and have challenged distributors to be thinking about purpose,” she says. “Last year, I was so excited that ‘purpose’ was the word at the PPAI Expo. It really does take a long time for a movement to stick, and we are glad to be at the forefront of that, and we are certainly glad that more and more distributors—and their corporate clients—are seeking social impact products, or like we said eight years ago, products with purpose.” As more consumers, clients and employees begin to expect companies to operate with purpose, Hirschberg says that HHPLIFT is providing a service and solution that clients are looking for. “While what we do is doing good, we are also experts on the business side. We understand how this industry works and what we need to do to make distributors look good to their clients. And what’s wonderful is that while we are providing beautiful, branded and unique products for our distributors, we are also teaching skills like branding and scaling to many of our producing partners.”

HHPLIFT also has a local impact. When you buy the LIFT line of bath, spa, and personal care products, produced by our 1eleven Program associates in our LIFT workshop, you are providing a path for toward economic equity for people from underserved communities in Chicago who have been historically sidelined from economic opportunity. Our 1eleven Program provides our program associates with a dignified job, skills training, educational opportunities, mentorship, leadership development, cross‐training in multiple facets of our business, and a pathway to a viable career. “Our goal isn’t just to hire someone and give them a low skillset job,” says Hirschberg. “It’s to put them on a career path, and that’s our point of difference.” 

“When we first started producing our own products, 1eleven wasn’t a program; it was just a brand name. The goal, at the time, was limited to hiring people from marginalized communities in Chicago through the Cara workforce training program. But we had a lot of challenges including an off-site production facility and a brand that wasn’t successful. About a year later, I shut down production, and when our lease was up, moved to a new facility that housed all our operations, hired my Made By Hands business partner (Ava Berry) who worked on the re‐brand and perfected the production process, created a program, and relaunched the LIFT line in 2019 at the PPAI Expo. Pre-COVID, we loved having distributors visit because they can walk right into our workshop and get busy making soap or candles alongside our workers, learning from them.” 

Passion and opportunity are what led HHPLIFT to the promotional products industry. Passion and opportunity are also what led HHPLIFT to creating their own line of products and developing a program that is making an impact in Chicago. “You saw eco‐friendly products but didn’t see a social impact category in the promotional products space back in 2010 or 2011 and we saw an immense opportunity to create impact on a large scale in this industry,” says Hirschberg. “We knew that we could grow business for our partners and teach them about branding and adhering to the strict standards required to succeed in this industry. We started slowly, working with a few of our partners, and then we had the opportunity to produce our own product line which has been hugely successful in conjunction with the launch of our own program to hire people from underprivileged and overlooked communities right here in our own backyard.” 

PPB spoke with Hirschberg to learn more about the power of purpose. 

PPB How can a product make a social impact? 

Hirschberg There are lots of products made in countries with no regard for safety of the environment for its workers, the minimum age of its workers, the quality of the air or the amount of money that workers might get. Every single producing partner we work with is certified with the FTF, WFTO, a certified world trade federation or certified a child‐free labor workplace or vetted by us with the same stringent standards. And we partner with social enterprises, too. A social enterprise is an organization that marries mission to markets and it is necessarily interested in the well-being and care of more than the bottom line. Things like providing incredible social programming, guaranteeing a livable wage, education, health care, financial literacy, interest-free micro loans, disaster relief and a 13-month salary are all coming from our global social enterprise partners. Here, at HHPLIFT, you get a dignified job with robust benefits that are applied to everyone regardless of title. So, the brand-new program associate gets the same benefits I get as president. With us, they get cross-trained in every aspect of the business. People who get hired thinking they are just going to be pouring wax, are excited to get to investigate scents, problem solve, and research competitors. They are empowered when they are treated as equals in various aspects of work. One of our best campaigns came from a program associate, Alejandra, who has been promoted twice since then and is now our program manager. It’s an incredibly holistic and supportive environment where we can come together. 

PPB How can other companies incorporate a program like the 1eleven® Program within their corporate structure?

Hirschberg We are a nonprofit social enterprise, we are an employer and we are also a business. So, we serve as an example of what businesses can look like. We don’t have stockholders, we have donors and employees we have to be responsible for, so the bottom line does matter in the same way that it has to with for‐profit businesses. But, you don’t leave your heart in the garage when you park your car. You need to bring your emotions and your heart into work with you. Our mission is about reducing the cycle of poverty and providing access to economic equity through livable wage jobs for people from under-resourced communities. Other businesses may have a different mission. We all saw the justified outrage last year due to inequity and inequality. So that’s what a company’s commitment needs to be. You may need to shift your priorities, you may need to rethink what the perfect candidate is and say, ‘I don’t need to hire someone with a college degree because I can train that person.’ Are you willing to open up opportunities to people without traditional qualifications? Are you willing to set up a program for those people? And if you do that, you need to offer support—incredible support—because our theory of change is that a job alone is not enough to make lasting transformation for an at-risk or marginalized workforce. The life barriers that existed—domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty—don’t go away just because you now have a job. The trauma doesn’t go away, and trauma is huge in marginalized and at-risk communities. So we provide ‘wraparound services’ through our agency partners to address the challenges that may arise. You have to be okay with being uncomfortable (change can be uncomfortable) and commit to bringing people to the table who you’ve never brought to the table before.”   

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Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.

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