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September 01, 2011

Industry with Heart

Stella & Dot: A Foundation of Strength

by Karyn Reagan

Students are pictured from a new school buildOn helped to fund.

Stella & Dot Foundation logo

Company Profile

  • Founded: 2003
  • Headquarters: San Francisco
  • Founder and CEO: Jessica Herrin
  • Products: Jewelry

The Stella & Dot team offers women a helping hand to recognize and reach their potential, resulting in healthier families and communities.

When Jessica Herrin, Founder and CEO of jewelry company Stella & Dot, started her business, she was motivated by the desire to give every woman the means to style her own life. That desire became the company’s core mission. And that core mission is extending to women and children in the darkest corners of the country and around the world through the Stella & Dot Foundation.

A Focused Plan

While many young girls were dreaming of becoming nurses or teachers, Herrin was looking forward to someday starting her own business. And she wasted no time doing so. Her first stab at business ownership was founding the WeddingChannel.com, a successful enterprise that she later sold to The Knot and is now a publicly traded company and the world’s leading wedding website. Not bad for a girl fresh out of college. Having met and married her husband, Herrin’s next goal was to travel the world with him before settling down to start a family—and her next business.

“The seeds of Stella & Dot were already starting to grow before I sold the Wedding Channel,” Herrin says. Although Herrin enjoys becoming absorbed in her work, she knows that not every woman is like her. That fact motivated Herrin to create a company that allows women to work as much or as little as they desire. “There are many levels of success in our business,” she says. “Some women are successful when they reach their goal of $300 a month in extra income, while others define success at $300,000 per year.”

In its infancy, the company offered kits for women to make their own jewelry at home parties. After a few years of that format, Herrin felt it was time to change the product offering to that of boutique-style jewelry at reasonable prices. “We design every piece of jewelry we sell and are the first company to offer this genre of jewelry at an affordable price point,” Herrin says. “When we rebranded, we changed both the product and the name of the company, formerly Luxe Jewels.” And it worked. Stella & Dot has grown every day since this rebranding in 2007, in spite of a declining national economy.

Choosing Partners with Purpose

In January 2010, exactly as she planned, Herrin was ready to start the process of creating the Stella & Dot Foundation. She hired Agatha Precourt, Director of Corporate Strategy, to assist in the development. “We hired Agatha to do some digging and help us discover where we would do the most good within our focus,” Herrin says.

Although there are numerous causes to support, Herrin and her associates felt it was important that the foundation be an extension of the mission already promoted within the company—to create positive change in women’s lives through the support of organizations that encourage women through education or economic empowerment.

Narrowing the list was not without challenges. It was important to Herrin and her executives at Stella & Dot that the recipient organizations be well-operated, mission-minded and benefit women and children around the world. The three organizations that rose to the top during the search were ACCION USA, buildOn, and Girls Inc. Precourt and her team did extensive research of the business practices of each group and interviewed their leadership. “We asked many questions, including exactly what the organizations would do with the money we raised on their behalf,” Precourt says. “We are passionate about making a difference in the lives of individuals and want to know that they are truly being helped.”

ACCION USA is a private nonprofit organization that provides people with the financial tools they need to work their way out of poverty with dignity, according to their website. Those tools include micro loans, additional financial services and business training. “Although ACCION is an international organization, the funds we give them are used specifically to benefit women in the United States,” Precourt says. Their domestic group is the largest nonprofit microfinance network in the United States. They have 14 field offices, as well as an Internet lending team, that provide loans from $200 to $150,000 to small businesses.

The second organization supported by the Stella & Dot Foundation is buildOn. Often, urban communities across the country suffer from alarming high school dropout rates, in some cases as high as 95 percent, according to Herrin. Founded in 1992, buildOn works with inner-city students by providing in-class and intensive afterschool youth service programs.

The students work diligently through various forms of community service to improve their neighborhoods. They are also given opportunities to build schools and bring literacy to children and adults in developing countries around the world. Precourt says the efforts of buildOn have drastically reduced dropout rates in the areas in which they work, as the young people learn to take pride in their communities and to help others less fortunate around the world. And Stella & Dot executives are proud to have committed funds to help impact the lives of young women through buildOn’s endeavors.

Girls Inc. has influenced young girls since 1864, in some local areas, and since 1945 as a national organization. Their primary goal is to empower girls to reach their full potential and to understand, value and assert their rights. Girls Inc. celebrates girlhood and as their mission statement reveals, inspires all girls to be strong, smart and bold. Throughout the decades of the organization’s existence, society has provided various reasons for women to either suffer under the circumstances facing them or rise above them with boldness, according to its website. Girls Inc. understands that confident girls grow to be confident women, able to style their own lives.

The Philanthropic Cycle

The strategy for raising money for the foundation is to design specific pieces of jewelry, the proceeds of which are sent to the foundation. That money is then directed to the trusted organizations. The Stella & Dot representatives in the field, known as stylists, are schooled in the details of the benefactors and are encouraged to be involved in their local chapters if they so desire. “We are one with the stylists in the field,” Herrin says. “We work closely with them and value their input.” The stylists have embraced the causes chosen by the executive team, excited to be giving back while doing something they love and earning an income.

The Stella & Dot Foundation bracelet was inspired by joy.
The Stella & Dot Foundation bracelet was inspired by joy.

The first jewelry created to fund the foundation is the brainchild of Chief Creative Officer Blythe Harris. “The inspiration for the bracelet I created is joy,” Harris says. “It is a colorful collection of semiprecious stones in sizes for both adults and children.” In addition, there is a charm that represents the flower in the foundation logo and is handmade in Thailand. Due to Harris’ fascination for jewelry, she has traveled extensively observing artisans in various cultures using materials from their native surroundings. And although she loves designing jewelry for others to enjoy, her passion is working for a cause greater than herself. “I come to work every day with a smile on my face knowing that I am working for a company with a heart for helping others,” Harris says. “It is like a calling and a mission for me.” And it warms her heart to see the passion of the stylists as they sell her creations in order to make the world a better place for other women.

Although the bracelet and charm are the first pieces created for the foundation, the offerings will be refreshed on a yearly basis.

The Results

In the first year of its existence, the Stella & Dot Foundation raised double the money it planned. “Our goal for the first year was to raise $180,000 and we finished with over $350,000,” Herrin says. With such amazing results, they have raised their second-year earnings goal to half a million dollars, with plans to add a fourth organization to support.

But the most rewarding results are not monetary—they are the stories of the lives of women and children touched by the generosity of the Stella & Dot stylists and customers.

Fauzia, a hard-working mother in Bronx, N.Y., has operated a food cart outside of Yankee Stadium for six years, offering multicultural and organic meals. Several years ago her cart needed to be upgraded and a friend referred her to ACCION for help with the expenses of the upgrade. She was given a loan of $16,000 and was able to purchase a new food cart, and her business grew. Her cart became so successful that she was featured in The New York Daily News, and was nominated by New Yorkers for a Vendy Award (an award program for the best street vendors). In 2011, she approached ACCION for a second loan to expand her business. They loaned her $6,000, with which she bought a new cart and hired two employees to run it.

Stella & Dot has financially supported the building of two schools in Nicaragua through buildOn, one of which they were traveling to help build in August. Living under the direst of conditions, people in the remote villages do what they can to educate their children, according to Precourt. And their hearts are filled with gratitude for the efforts of buildOn, she says. A little closer to home, buildOn has changed the lives of many young people, including a high school girl named Kasiemobi (Kasie). Kasie is a first-generation U.S. citizen and the daughter of a Nigerian single mother living in Oakland, Calif. She is tasked with the responsibility of taking care of her young brother and the household while her mother works two jobs to support them. Until recently, her mother was an illegal immigrant, adding the threat of separation to their already difficult lives.

Kasie credits buildOn with helping her hang on to a tiny thread of hope. And that hope has come in the form of an ongoing service project through buildOn. Each weekday from 3 to 6 p.m., she becomes responsible for 15 children in a kindergarten class. She has witnessed the effect that consistent care and concern can have on their behavior and outlook. One young boy with challenging behavioral issues is a completely different child due to Kasie’s efforts, according to buildOn. He now thanks her for being his best friend. And through her involvement with buildOn, Kasie can look forward to the future.

Girls Inc. tells the story of young Jodeci. She joined the organization at the age of 10 after enduring a childhood full of fear while living with a father who was a drug dealing gang member. Though Jodeci and her family eventually left her father, she encountered a different set of problems at her new school as one of the only Latinas in her fifth grade class. Discovering Girls Inc. introduced Jodeci to a community that looked beyond her family’s past and ethnicity. The friends she made and the supportive staff at Girls Inc. inspired her to strive for good grades and not repeat her father’s mistakes. With their help, she began seeing her painful childhood as something she overcame to become mature and strong. When Jodeci’s father died as a result of a drug overdose, the support she received from her friends and the staff at Girls Inc. enabled her to remain strong despite her anger and confusion, according to the organization. They reminded her that the outcome of her life was not determined by the choices her father had made. This fall, Jodeci will be the first person in her family to attend college. According to Girls Inc., Jodeci was able to focus on setting goals for her future instead of remaining in the pain of her past.

“It’s amazing what women can do when given a chance,” Herrin says. The very name of the company she founded is inspired by two strong women: Herrin’s grandmother, Stella, and Blythe Harris’ grandmother, Dot. “The women of that generation sailed across oceans, learned new languages, got the vote, went to work when the country went to war, raised their families—and they did it all with style and grace,” Herrin says. The fortitude of their grandmothers became the foundation on which Herrin, Harris and the entire team now stands as they empower women around the world to find their own inner strength.