I (heart) Kay Hirai

Attended a fabulous workshop today hosted by marketing dynamo and friend of Red Slice Whitney Keyes and Kay Hirai, owner of a Mercer Island salon called Studio 904. The salon has such a unique mission and brand and it is all based on community involvement.

The workshop was about Kay’s experiences with Social Entrepreneurism, the idea that companies can partner with non-profits in order to give back to the community and make money. Kay has built a salon focused on employee education, community involvement and philanthropic spirit – and oh yeah, they just happen to do great hair. Salon 904 wants to make the world a better place; and they accomplish this by doing hair. Kay was inspired to give back even more with the death a few years ago of her beloved Terrier, Yumi. She even has an adorable blog called Hair, Dogs and Cards which brings together her 3 passions (she uses cards as a way to help her philanthropic efforts as well).

What does all this have to do with her business of hair? Well, she stands out in a sea of salons as standing for something greater. Her activism has not only given back to a community that has supported her salon for over 30 years (“The community keeps me in business, shouldn’t I be doing something to thank them for that?”), but she creates loyalty and attracts more customers by making her business mean something more than your average “cut and blow.” This is a business to which people want to give their money. And then when she wants to have a simple fundraising event at her salon like she did last year for Ginger’s Pet Rescue, the community comes out in full force and helps her raise over $10,000 – and she get tons of great PR to boot. That is the power of what one person can do.

I thought long and hard about her mission and the way she said she accomplishes this mission by doing hair. Other businesses could change the world and make it better as well through their own unique gifts and niches. I hope to make the world better for abused or neglected animals through Red Slice. When you start to look at your business in this way – as a means to a great end – the possibilities start to seem endless.

Early in my career, I was a marketing manager for Discovery Networks. My job was to offer marketing budget and support to cable operators so they could help the community, improve their tarnished image and attract loyal customers. I learned from this experience that it doesn’t matter why a company might do something good – it only matters that they DO something. In the end, when we helped fund a truckload of food being donated to a local food bank on behalf of a cable operator and gained them loads of good press and goodwill, the point was that we helped give food to the food bank. To me, this was a much better use of marketing funds than more ads or direct mailers. I didn’t care how or why the philanthropy happened, so long as I got to make it happen at all. And it made me look at that company in a new light.

Some might not agree with that. But I see no reason why activism and for-profit businesses can’t have a win-win. Win for the business sponsoring or coordinating it and a win for the benefiting organization and community at large. I have a few clients devoted to making philanthropy a lynchpin of their brand-building efforts. And in this era of social change and activism, people are much more likely to buy from you than your competitor if they know you stand for something worthwhile and that you “walk the talk” in giving back.

So, how can you use your business as a platform to make the world a better place? Or just impact the life of one person or animal in need within your community? Today’s class got me thinking that you don’t have to be an expert or a large well-funded foundation. You just have to care. And when you do, and work from your heart, the customers and profits will often follow.

Note: Photo credit to Kay Hirai

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