New & Next: Retail with a Cause

The simple act of buying stuff can change people's lives, says Hope Tank founder Erika Righter, a social worker turned social entrepreneur.
When you are a caseworker in the foster care system working with teens, your focus is getting your kids stable housing, a job (any job) and having them finish high school or get their GED. I always struggled with this. I worried that if we didn't meet their cultural and creative needs, we were perpetuating the horrible stereotypes of "system kids." I would have kids on my caseload who had grown up in Denver and never been to a Rockies game, let alone even set foot on a trail.

Caseworkers often get a bad rap, and I'm here to say that most of the people I worked with wanted so much more for the kids on their caseloads. I knew that were other ways to support social workers and the organizations that are doing amazing work with young people -- I just had to find a unique way to do it.

I was tired of the traditional methods of educating the public about charitable causes. I wanted to create a place where people could come together to have impact on our community and built a store that could introduce customers to interesting products while educating and inspiring them to give back.

That was 2012, and Hope Tank was born. I choose products that I would either buy for myself or would give as a gift. There is never anything in the store that screams "CHARITY!" We sell awesome things that people want, and the bonus is the giving back.

People come into the store because they see a cool hat in the window and leave rocking that hat that they now know was designed by a local veteran who is leading workshops for other vets with PTSD. They can then tell everyone who compliments them on their sweet hat about Art of War Project.

I am happy about the movement that is growing, where people see the value of combining business with philanthropy. I believe that hope is the fuel for real and lasting change, and we are filling people with hope and sending them off into the community to effect change.

When I started Hope Tank, the goal was to make it fun and easy for people to have an entry point into giving back. We highlight organizations like Urban Peak, Shiloh House and Youth on Record who are working with our most vulnerable youth to give them the opportunity to explore art, music, community, and other resources. We have been able to connect individuals and businesses to these organizations, and had measurable impact. We call our supporters Hope Slingers and they are a powerful force. Our #hopeslinger movement has resonated with people of all ages and origins, because you don't have to buy something to be a #hopeslinger -- you just have to sling hope!

We will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 people come through our doors this year. Each one of them will be greeted by our staff with a message about our mission, and will see our stickers on every product highlighting an organization that, in most cases, they have never heard of.

We are in the midst of a fantastic campaign that is a great example of how the community can get involved in something fun, get something cool for themselves and support youth. We connected with a company called Backpacks with a Purpose that makes kickass backpacks and they built giving back into their products. For every backpack purchased at Hope Tank, two new backpacks will be donated to youth with barriers in Denver.

Why does a backpack matter? Many youth who experience homelessness or are in foster care often receive only second hand items, and they often carry all of their possessions in garbage bags. A brand-new anything acknowledges their humanity. It is also a practical item that they often rely on when navigating challenging housing situations. We encourage people to come down to Hope Tank and support this campaign. There is also the opportunity to be a sponsor for what goes inside the backpacks!
Erika Righter is a social worker turned social entrepreneur. With over 10 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector, Erika saw a tremendous gap between the causes she served, and the people in the community. In 2012, she opened Hope Tank, a for-profit social enterprise in Denver.
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