Spotlight: Alumni Association Award: Lee Rhodes '81
Fitting Inside People’s Hearts
Cancer survivor Lee Rhodes ’81 has turned her own personal battle into a crusade for others
Through her company, Glassybaby, Lee Rhodes ’81 has sold millions of hand-blown tealight glass votive candle holders, donating more than $8 million to a variety of charities through a business model built for philanthropy. Rhodes is an award-winning entrepreneur, mother, and three-time cancer survivor, who lives with her family in Seattle, Wash.
In 1995, Rhodes was undergoing her third round of chemotherapy, when she witnessed countless patients who couldn’t pay for basic necessities, such as parking at the hospital where they received their treatments. “More and more in this climate, people can’t meet their basic needs,” Rhodes says. One day, while entertaining some friends, she dropped a tea light into a colored glass made by her husband, who had taken a glassblowing class, and was struck by the visual effect. She realized she had an idea, and demand followed.
Rhodes went around town, talking with glassblowers about how to make her dream a reality. She started selling the colorful candle holders – which she dubbed “Glassybabys” – out of her garage in 1998. She next opened a storefront, and then a few more. Rhodes now operates four stores in Seattle and four more in Northern California. Glassybaby, whose motto is “one of a kindness,” donates 10 percent of its gross revenue to charities, a central aspect of the business Rhodes says is only possible because they manufacture what they sell, employing full-time artists in Seattle and Berkeley, Calif. Today, Glassybaby is the most giving company in the world, based on the percentage of its revenue it donates. “We still measure ourselves by our giving,” says Rhodes. “It wasn’t an add-on. Giving is why we do what we do.”
Rhodes’s brother, Bill Cummings ’79, is the company’s CEO, and her son, Mericos, writes Glassybaby’s copy, making it a true family business. In 2015, Rhodes and Co. started the White Light Fund, with the sole purpose of deciding which charities to support. “We fit a place in people’s hearts,” Rhodes says. “[Glassybabys] are a simple little object that make people feel better.”