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Apr 1, 2019

The Gift of Growth

Why I opened a flower farm to bring developmentally disabled adults into the workforce.

There is real value in incorporating social responsibility into your business model.  I can speak from experience on this.

It started several years ago with a phone call I received from a friend named Walter Stockton. Walter is the founder and CEO of IGHL, a nonprofit providing care and support for people with developmental disabilities. I’m particularly sensitive to the challenges this population faces as my younger brother Kevin is developmentally disabled. Walter explained that IGHL was having a difficult time finding jobs for the population it serves, folks who were aging out of traditional education programs once they turned 21, something that, today, affects up to 200,000 students with disabilities annually.

Kevin was among those aging out and facing an uncertain future. Unable to find jobs and with fewer opportunities to socialize with others, these folks would lose opportunities for social engagement and connection. Eighty percent of adults in the U.S. with a developmental disability are unemployed. We felt an obligation to do our part to try to change that.

My brother Chris and I thought a great deal about how important it was for Kevin to integrate into the community, and it was that concern, coupled with our knowledge of flowers and plants, that moved our family to support a year-round greenhouse operation at IGHL to create jobs, an effort that has evolved into what is now Smile Farms.

Today, Smile Farms’ main campus in Moriches, N.Y., employs 30 developmentally disabled adults, including my brother Kevin, who grow flowers and plants to be sold locally, providing them with a steady paycheck and a sense of fulfillment. To date, there are seven Smile Farms campuses employing over 100 adults with developmental disabilities.

It’s hard to convey in words what a wonderful feeling it is when you can do work that has that sort of impact on people’s lives.

Read more about entrepreneurship here.

I was once approached by a lady who wanted to thank me for our work with Smile Farms. I explained that this is a collaborative effort with lots of mechanics responsible for keeping the engine running smoothly. Her daughter, Emily, had aged out of the school-based programs and was not doing well. She had grown depressed, was gaining weight and became withdrawn, which had an incredibly negative effect on their entire family. Once she started working at the farm, her life began to turn around. It’s hard to convey in words what a wonderful feeling it is when you can do work that has that sort of impact on people’s lives.

For many, philanthropy can play an important role in business. It allows you to give back in a meaningful way while also bringing together members of your team for a common cause. One of the challenges corporate leaders may encounter is that it can be hard to foster a sense of community, particularly in larger organizations. Our family has always been involved in the business, but whether the same applies to you or not, one suggestion would be to try running your own business with concern for all of your stakeholders. Our team members frequently volunteer their time to many Smile Farms events, and in doing so, they get to know each other a lot better working outside the confines of the typical office environment.

Philanthropy can also offer certain cultural benefits that can be an asset to your company when it comes to hiring and retaining top talent. Some of our best and brightest team members have said they find they most enjoy the time they spend volunteering, not only for Smile Farms, but other community efforts, whether it be raising money for breast cancer awareness or assisting with hurricane relief efforts.  We’ve had young people interview for positions after their friends volunteered at Smile Farms, who ask us about the different ways we give back. There is a genuine desire on their part to help others.

These types of efforts send a clear message to prospective employees about company culture, engage existing members of your team and build good will and brand loyalty with customers. Philanthropy can also help sharpen your problem-solving skills, depending on what you are trying to achieve. In the case of Smile Farms, our goal is to reduce the number of developmentally disabled adults who are unemployed or underemployed. Brainstorming strategies and implementing solutions to accomplish this are tools that any entrepreneur can benefit from.

 Jim McCann is the founder and Chairman of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, a leading provider of gifts for all celebratory occasions. In August 2018, McCann’s company, Clarim Holdings, acquired Worth. He now serves as its chairman.

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