More Than An Online Retailer: Why David Wolfe Is Building A Company With Soul
David Wolfe is a dreamer who is bringing to life his dream of a profitable, socially responsible company. A 50+ year-old serial entrepreneur who has built successful companies before, David was only interested in building a company with “a soul” when he launched Leesa, the online mattress retailer, a year-ago. I met with David and his daughter Sophie Wolfe, Leesa’s Head of Social Impact, on the eve of launching Leesa’s first Dream Gallery in SoHo, New York. When I asked why now was the time for him to build “social impact” into his company, David said:
“There’s a huge difference between starting a business when you are 23 and starting one when you are 53. I’ve done both. In your 20’s, it’s all about wealth creation. It’s all about “me.” Now, I don’t feel the need to wait until the “perfect moment” in the future when the company is established and successful. Rather, I feel social impact initiatives have less meaning and are less likely to become part of your company DNA if you wait to some unknown date to implement them.”
How did you convince your partners / investors to get behind the initiative?
David: My co-founder and founding management team share my dream to build a company that measures its success as much by we impact the world as we do by our revenue and profit. I think its fair to say that my co-founder’s natural instinct was to wait until we could “afford” to do the things we are doing now. I responded by saying, “That’s just the point. If you wait, then you aren’t building a company with a purpose.” I didn’t realize how powerful this could be until we made our second major donation right here in NYC. When we donated mattresses to the Bowery Mission and a big team came up from Virginia Beach, joining us with a truck full of mattresses, it was a life-changing moment for us all.
What’s Leesa’s Social Impact program and what has been the impact to date?
Sophie: The Leesa One-Ten program donates one mattress for every ten sold. Since we launched in January 2015, Leesa has donated over 5000 mattresses. Our first large donation as a company was in April 2015 to the Union Mission in Norfolk. They recently opened a brand new men’s facility and their executive director told us that the new mattresses have brought smiles to the faces of the men who did not believe these new mattresses really were their beds. She said that after the first night, the buzz was that they’d never slept so well and that the men were walking a little taller and with more dignity. We recognize the small role that we play in these solving these social issues, but giving individuals a little more dignity as they transition to a better life is really what the Leesa One-Ten program is all about.
David: We try to support shelters and homes that serve people seeking refuge from homelessness, domestic risk or sex trafficking. We are particularly careful to support organizations that have transition programs. We like our gifting partners to be aligned with our mission to provide a better place to sleep on a pathway to a better life. We’ve heard lots of stories about how our mattresses give people a little dignity back.. But as much as we’ve had an impact on others, the bigger impact may be on us.
What are the other aspects of Leesa’s social initiative?
Sophie: The Leesa One-Community program provides Leesa employees with time off to engage with our community. Employees also have the opportunity to visit our giving partners during donation events – this gives our team at Leesa a sense of purpose that is so important to us as we strive to build a company that we, and our families, can be proud of. In my opinion, the One-Community program is one of the most important aspects of the Social Impact program. Providing our team with the opportunity to come face-to-face with the issues related to homeless through the eyes of the individuals who have lived through them ensures that we never lose sight of our purpose.
What’s the ultimate goal for you in regards to the social impact program?
David: To help as many people as we can and to show others that you can build this kind of program into your business. It doesn’t just help others. It doesn’t just make you feel good. It’s good for business, too.
Sophie: My hope is that Leesa serves as an example to other startups and emerging tech companies that social responsibility can easily be built into their business plan from day one (and it’s just the right thing to do as citizens of the world).
Have there been outcomes that have been unexpected or have surprised you?
Sophie: To be honest, I am not surprised that our Social Impact program has caught on and continues to thrive, because it truly is our heart and soul. However, on a personal level, I have learned more than I could ever imagine. I have learned a great deal about the issue of homelessness in the United States and have been exposed to the tragic realties stemming from the sex trafficking of teenage girls to untreated mental illness to domestic abuse. While these issues are shocking and sad, the incredible work that our giving partners do to alleviate some of this trauma for individuals and provide the opportunity for them to transition into a better life is so important. Starting in August, I will begin graduate school to pursue my Masters degree in clinical social work. I plan to serve as an intern at an agency that provides clinical care for the homeless. This role at Leesa has allowed me to understand related societal issues at a macro level and that experience will help me provide effective care to individuals at the micro level.
What’s your advice to other companies looking to implement a social impact initiative?
Sophie: First, choose a clear mission that relates to your company and to which you can make the largest impact. Second, understand your impact and don’t try to recreate infrastructure that already exists for social issues. Third, make your program real and meaningful – because it is the right thing to do as a company in today’s interconnected world. Finally, engage your employees and allow them to feel ownership over the program. Employment engagement is how you built social initiatives into the company culture.
David: You can’t just build a social impact program when you’re a startup, you have to build a company and deliver a great product – and you can’t do either of those things without an even better team of people. The underlying essence of any great company is satisfied customers and an amazing experience with the product or service. As a founder or CEO, if you get that right, you can achieve anything.