Jeannie Barsam is the CEO and Founder of Gifting Brands. Gifting Brands is a curated shopping experience that allows you to shop your favorite luxury brands with the ability to give back. When you buy from Gifting Brands, 100% of your purchase proceeds are used to support a charity of your choice. Gifting Brands utilizes unsold or excess inventory from luxury and designer brands, so they have really created a sustainable solution to fashion waste.
Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process to start Gifting Brands?
I would say it was a lightbulb moment. In 2014 when I was the Senior Vice President of Inventory Management at Zales Jewelers, we successfully sold the company to Signet Corporation for $1.4 billion. At that time, we had about $1.0 million dollars of prior seasons' jewelry. I started researching ways we could donate the inventory to charity, but I could not find a way to make it work. There weren’t any charities that could handle a large amount of jewelry that could turn into revenue for their nonprofits.
After leaving Signet Jewelers, I launched my own jewelry line called Christy Jean Jewelry where I designed and made fashion jewelry and gave back 25% of sales to charity. But even then, I knew I wanted to do something even bigger to serve women, children, and families.
So, in 2018, after seeing news reports about large luxury companies burning their excess inventory, it was a lightbulb moment! I finally figured out a way to help solve the issue of excess inventory that the fashion and luxury industry struggles with! I came up with the idea to create an ecommerce marketplace where fashion brands can donate their excess inventory without destroying it, and it also benefits charities! It is a win-win for charities, brands and consumers! Brands donate inventory to Gifting Brands, we sell it on our website and consumers get to shop and choose a charity. Shoppers love it because they know their purchase makes an impact. For retail brands, we offer a new solution that helps manage their inventory and saves the environment by reducing waste in landfills, and charities get a sustainable revenue source to continue their great missions of serving others!
How did you get your first three customers?
We officially launched Gifting Brands in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic and did an email fundraising campaign with one of our charity partners, The Family Place, which was hit by the huge snowstorm last year in Dallas. One of their shelters that houses families impacted by domestic violence was destroyed and families had to go to hotels. We were able to help them raise funds to repair the damage, all from people who shopped at Gifting Brands.
How did you validate the idea?
The idea was pretty simple, people love to shop at discount and outlet stores, so I knew that selling designer and luxury brands at a discount would work. I hired amazing board members who are leaders in the retail industry to join me on this mission because they loved the idea too and thought it would work. I also have over 25 years of retail experience with multibillion-dollar organizations as an executive which includes retail stores, ecommerce, and outlet stores like Zales, Talbots, Charlotte Russe, and Gap.
We also took time to test the idea and launched our Shopify website in Fall of 2019 before we did an official launch in the Spring of 2020.
It gave us time to get product donations from amazing companies like Baccarat, Tori Richard, Charles & Colvard, R.Riveter, and Christy Jean, so we could launch our website. We planned to launch in the Fall of 2020 with even more brands but then the pandemic hit so we quickly moved up our launch date to March so we could raise money faster and help more people that were impacted by the pandemic and the snowstorm.
Have you raised any money? How much?
Raising money is different for Gifting Brands. We accept product donations which we then sell and turn into cash to fund the business and to pay for the donations to charities. Today we donate 50% of the sales to charity, but we are currently looking for social impact investors and philanthropic funds that will help cover the costs to run our ecommerce business so 100% of sales can go to the charities!
This year, we were able to raise money for charity water to build a well in Malawi Africa that will be finished next year. It will bring clean and safe water to over 200 people.
What regulatory approvals did you have to go through?
First, I had to go through the long process of getting IRS approval to become a 501c3 nonprofit. There were no other nonprofits to model after except charity thrift stores, and we wanted to make sure we were approved on the first try. We are the first nonprofit organization that we know of that sells new and unused apparel, accessories, and jewelry, so it took us longer to prove our business model to be able to gain IRS approval. We were thrilled when we were accepted after our first try!
Who is your target demographic?
Our target demographic is women ages 25 to 55. It is broad, but we appeal to women who want to make a difference with their wallet and that is not determined by age but by a mindset. As we grow and add more men’s product offerings, we will add them to our target as well.
How did you fund the idea initially?
The funding to launch Gifting Brands was done by my husband Howard and I. I retired from Signet in 2016, but last year, I was offered the role of Senior Vice President of Merchandise Operations for Michaels Stores. This decision was tough, I had to decide to put Gifting Brands on hold, but it helped me gain the funding we needed to launch Gifting Brands in an even bigger way. I am so grateful to Michaels in so many ways. Not only are they an amazing organization to work for, but they also donated a large amount of fabric to Gifting Brands at the beginning of the pandemic. We were able to use that fabric and donate it to make masks for front line workers when there was a mask shortage.
Where did you meet your co founder/founding team?
My team is made up of amazing leaders who volunteered to be “working” board members. I have surrounded myself with great leaders with diverse backgrounds who are smarter than me!
As a founder, you can’t be expected to know everything especially when you are doing something like Gifting Brands that has never been done before. Many of my board and advisory board members are people I have worked with in the past or they were referred to me because they are so good at what they do.
Any tips for finding first employees?
As a startup, your founding team members can make or break you. Surround yourself with smart people who are good at multitasking and want to learn and grow with the organization.
Did you run any companies prior?
Yes, I started my own jewelry company called Christy Jean in 2016, but most of my relevant experience comes from my long career in the retail industry where I led large teams and was responsible for the financial plans and merchandise strategies for billion-dollar retail companies. I started out my career as a buyer and worked my way up through the corporate ladder back when there were few women executives.
What motivated you to start your own business?
I wanted to find a way to do something big to change the world for the better in a way I could serve others. I also knew I would not be successful unless I had some knowledge in what I was doing, and I had to solve a problem like excess inventory. My biggest motivation is my faith and knowing that we are called to serve others and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Loving thy neighbor does not stop with friends next door. Loving our neighbor also means taking care of the sick, the homeless, the poor, and those that cannot help themselves.
Even if we only help one child get ahead, to me it will be worth it. My mentor, Theo Killion who was the CEO of Zales and is now the chairman of the Board for A Better Chance which gives scholarships to minority students said this, “When you help one child get ahead, you change a whole generation. When a child gets a good education, it helps their entire family and generations that follow.” This is my motivation and what keeps me going.
What were your family and friends’ first thoughts on your company?
My husband and children have been so supportive in this journey. Many of my friends and family have joined as volunteers at charity events. One of the benefits for our charities is we donate inventory for their charity auctions and events. My friends love to help out at big charity galas to raise money.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
When things go wrong, I try to remember our purpose which is to serve women and children in need. Gifting Brands is meant to be a blessing for people who don’t have all the resources that we have and to help lift them up out of their bad situation. If I can help even one woman or child get out of domestic violence, homelessness, or poverty, it is all worth it.
The end goal is to raise millions of dollars each year for amazing charities that are making a big difference so we can stop domestic violence, trafficking, and poverty and help more families get a great education.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?
Just start. Do not wait for everything to be perfect. Celebrate the big and small wins and keep track of them all so on those days when nothing seems to go right, you can look back on how far you’ve come.
What has driven the most sales?
Email has driven the most sales because we target customers who have a relationship with the charities we support. Our goal is to give consumers another way that they can make a difference just by shopping or buying a gift for someone.
What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?
Gifting Brands is a new concept and people do not understand that we give 100% of our profits to charity. Once they find that out, they become raving fans.
How do you protect yourself from competition?
I hope there is more competition because the more companies that choose to give back a portion of their profits, the better the world will be. I encourage companies to find creative ways to give back to their communities with the resources they have, whether that is through inventory, cash, or even donating their expertise to help nonprofits. Statistics also show that people want to work for companies that give back to causes they care about. I think part of the “Great Resignation” that is going on also includes people relooking at their values to find companies that they align with.
Do you have any trademarks/IP/patents?
We received our 501C3 IRS approval to be a nonprofit which allows us to take donations of inventory from large companies and then we sell the product on the Gifting Brands website and give all the profits to the charity that the shopper chooses. The great part is the companies that donate the inventory get a tax benefit by donating.
We are also in the process of trademarking the term, “Inventory Philanthropy.” Inventory Philanthropy is a better way of describing what Gifting Brands is doing to serve people in need. Donating inventory is a much better way to manage a company’s excess inventory; it also helps reduce our landfills and generates revenue for charities that are making a difference in the world. Gifting Brands allows companies to become even more sustainable and socially conscious with the environment while benefiting charities.
What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without? Why are they essential?
Shopify is number 1. Shopify is our ecommerce platform where we sell our product. Second, Give and Grow Donations by Pledge which manages every transaction and gives back 50% of all sales to the charity that our customers choose. The other 50% goes to pay for running the business. The third is Instagram which helps let people know who we are and how they can make a difference when they shop.
What are your favourite books and podcasts?
I have many favorite books and podcasts. Some valuable books I’ve read are Building a Story Brand by Donald P. Miller, The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines, and Key Person of Influence by Daniel Priestly. Some of my favorite podcasts are We are For Good, The Gary Vee Audio Experience, and Secrets to Scaling your Ecommerce Brand.
Where do you see the company in 5 years? Would you ever sell?
In five years, our goal is to have donated over $5.0 million dollars to charities that help women, children, and families and help change their lives. When you help a child get ahead, you change an entire generation. Gifting Brands is a nonprofit 501C3 organization so we cannot sell the company.
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