Social Responsibility 101

Five minutes into his presentation on corporate social responsibility, Roy Heffernan ‘78, the chief operating optimist at Life is good, Inc., had a standing-room-only crowd of Middlebury students on their feet playing with beach balls and swaying to music from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Roy Heffernan '78 has found his niche at Life is good.

The fun and games on October 12 at the Crossroads Café illustrated Heffernan’s point that simplicity, humility, and humor are guiding principles at the 17-year-old, $100-million-per-year maker of t-shirts, hats, sleepwear, and other fun accessories.

“We start meetings at Life is good with a game of beach-ball taps or Frisbee just to remind us to be joyful,” he said from the stage in the café. And the Middlebury students in attendance, many of whom are interested in their own entrepreneurship, whole-heartedly agreed. They remarked at how quickly the game made them laugh, reduced their stress levels, and helped them forget—if only for a minute or two—how much work they had to do.

Heffernan along with Anthony “Ant” Toombs from the Life is good Kids Foundation were the guests of Midd Venture Community (MVC), a new student organization created to connect students with alumni and faculty interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. Aligned with the Project on Creativity and Innovation, MVC is planning to host networking opportunities, project showcases, and more guest speakers.

Life is good (yes, the “g” is lower case) is an American success story. It was founded by two brothers from Needham, Massachusetts, who sold t-shirts out of their van. After struggling to make sales, the brothers devised the “Life is good” identity and sold out their first shipment of newly branded shirts in 45 minutes. Soon Life is good products were all the rage. And just like the slogans on their t-shirts (“Stay cool”), the company culture is fraught with positive aphorisms and executives who really believe them. (“Optimism can take you anywhere.”) As profits grew, the Life is good partners began looking for ways to give back to the community. (“Takers may eat well, but givers sleep well.”)

In 2001 they designed a stylized American flag t-shirt that enabled the partners to donate $207,000 to survivors of 9/11. Next they held a pumpkin festival in Portland, Maine, that raised about $50,000 for children with life-threatening illnesses. (“Not all who wander are lost.”) In 2004 they earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most illuminated pumpkins in one place – Boston Common. (“Good vibes are contagious.”) That festival raised about half a million dollars. Not to be outdone, they rented out Fenway Park for a day of kids’ games, like tossing Frisbees off the Green Monster. (“Run like a dog.”) Soon the company was holding annual Life is good festivals at which 100 percent of the profits go to support the children’s foundation they created in 2006.

Heffernan and Toombs said the Life is good Kids Foundation is committed to helping children overcome life-threatening challenges such as violence, illness, and poverty. Life is good’s corporate social responsibility is tied to the foundation that provides down-to-earth training programs for child-care providers, or what its website calls “frontline child care professionals dedicated to the healthy development of children in need.” Employing quotes from Bob Marley (“Who feels it, knows it”) and the Talmud (“The highest form of wisdom is kindness”), the foundation’s Playmakers Initiative provides “training, resources and support to the adults dedicated to caring for these children so that all involved lead healthier, more joyful lives.”

Heffernan (right) chats with Tik Root '12.

For the students who came to the presentation to learn about corporate social responsibility, there was this takeaway: Come up with a great idea for a product or service, be successful marketing it, and then direct a percentage of your profits into a foundation doing good deeds.

And for Heffernan, who worked as a coach, teacher, and business executive before arriving at Life is good in 2006, seeing how the foundation helps others is often the best part of the job.

“By the end of the first day of playmaker training,” he said, “almost every child-care provider is crying because the training reminds them why they got into the business of taking care of children in the first place. So it’s a very, very powerful thing. Sometimes the play might seem a little soft, but it’s never soft when you’re helping a kid with trauma or cancer.”

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