Newell Brands wanted the CSR project that would be part of its 2019 Marketing & Enterprise Leadership Summit program, held in Hollywood, Florida, March 12–15, to check off a few boxes. Newell, parent company of such brands as Rubbermaid, Sharpie, and Yankee Candle, had two requirements that are standard among CSR activities: The initiative needed to include a teamwork component so that attendees could work together and learn about one another, and it had to give back to the local community. But the company also wanted whatever project was chosen to include face-to-face interaction between its employees and those on the receiving end of their efforts.
Kristine Sickels, former senior vice president of global marketing, appliances and cookware for Newell Brands, who helped plan the event, recognized that last part wasn’t such an easy ask. “How can you build connection and relationships with the people that you’re working to serve directly? I think sometimes that’s hard to find, especially when you’re only doing a daylong or a half-day event,” said Sickels, who has since left Newell Brands to found marketing agency Her Story LLC. “Because even if you do things like Habitat for Humanity, sometimes you’ll get to engage with the people who benefit from it and other times you won’t.” Sickels said that she wanted to make sure that employees had the opportunity to interact “on a more personal level” with the families or kids they would be helping.
So when Charleston, South Carolina–based event production company KLH Group, which Newell had worked with on CSR initiatives for four years, pitched the idea of teams of attendees mentoring underprivileged middle-school students with dreams of starting their own businesses, Sickels jumped at the opportunity.
The project involved a longer time commitment than just a few hours spent during the leadership conference. When Newell agreed to work with the children, they — members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County — were encouraged by a teacher to sign up for an Acton Children’s Business Fair, to be held in Broward County on March 16. Acton Children’s Business Fair is a non-profit that helps individuals and groups host entrepreneurial business events for children aged six to 14 around the world, where children can sell anything from T-shirts to slime.
The children participating in this event — who, according to Hope Caldwell, principal of KLH Group, often didn’t have the support at home to bring their business ideas to life — would learn how to think through their product ideas and learn important life skills along the way with the help of Newell marketing executives. KLH Group divided the 150 leadership summit attendees into teams of five or six and paired each team with a young entrepreneur. Over the course of the six weeks leading up to the summit and the children’s business fair, which took place the weekend after the conference, teams made up of marketing leaders from around the world, including China and Australia, mentored the children during 30-minute phone calls.
“It was so cool to watch,” Caldwell said, “because the first couple of times, the kids would go quiet [on the phone]. I remember one going so quiet, and she was usually so outgoing. After the call I said, ‘What the heck happened? You were so quiet!’ And she goes, ‘Miss Hope, that lady was from China?’ She was so amazed by it. I think one of the most moving parts of it was when these kids asked, ‘Why would somebody in China care about me?’”
Between calls, the KLH Group team helped the children prepare for their next phone calls by prompting them to write questions for their mentors, track the progress of their projects, and create a wish list of materials for their projects, for which Newell provided $200 per child. The KLH team also helped mentors come up with questions for the children, “so that the phone calls were really productive,” Caldwell said.
“As the calls went on,” said Sickels, who listened in on some of them, “you could really start to hear their confidence build.”
Face to Face
When Newell’s 150 attendees arrived for the three-day conference at Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, they met their young entrepreneurs in person for a three-hour “Shark Tank” experience, an educational competition based on the popular TV show in which start-up founders pitch their ideas to investors.
The mentors had spent their last phone call before the event discussing stage presence, and the importance of how people come across in sales, and in life. “The mentors went on stage with the kiddos and some of them were incredibly outgoing and incredibly well-spoken and knew their products really well,” Caldwell said. Ultimately, all 23 participants gave their two-minute pitches alongside their mentors. They stood before three “sharks” who did not participate in the mentorship program to remain unbiased — who Caldwell said were chosen by Newell because they were “soft, kind, and a warm presence” for the participants.
“I thought it was really cool to see, especially for kids their age and just knowing that some of them had some tough environments that they’ve lived in, that they encouraged each other,” Sickels said. “And you saw when one individual was done, they’d be right back sitting on the floor to cheer on the next person.”
Three winners were selected, but participating in the mentorship program made all the kids feel like winners, Caldwell said. In addition, each child received a backpack filled with Newell products, including a Coleman lantern, a slime-making kit, a reusable water bottle, and more. (See “Prizes with Purpose” below.)
The business fair was held days later. Once it was over, the mentors had one final follow-up call with their budding entrepreneurs to learn how well their products sold. Caldwell said that the mentors were so invested in the children’s success at that point that if any inventory was left over, a mentor would help create a Facebook group with the permission of the child’s parents to help sell the rest of the products. A few attendees local to the Hollywood area even went to the fair to purchase products for themselves.
“I remember when some [mentors] were first on the calls, they were like, ‘This is very different. I’ve never tried to mentor a kid coming up with a new project,’” Sickels said. “And I think they had rather low expectations of potentially what might come out of it. But after people invested their time in these calls and then saw how it all came to life in the presentations and in the ‘Shark Tank’ environment, it highlighted how a small investment can have such a tremendous impact.”
Casey Gale is an associate editor at Convene.
Prizes With Purpose
First-, second-, and third-place Shark Tank winners were awarded $150 Amazon gift cards, with the idea that they could put that money back into their business if they chose to continue beyond the children’s fair. This was a move that KLH Group’s Hope Caldwell said was crucial to Newell’s primary goal — teaching the children valuable life skills they could take with them into the future. “Those who practiced [their pitches] were able to get up there and really deliver really, really well,” Caldwell said, adding that she could see a difference between the kids who paid attention during the calls and the kids who didn’t. “I think that was really important for them to see — you reap what you sow. How much effort you put in,” she said, “you get back.”