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Interview: Entrepreneurs Alayna Kassan & Leslie Weissman, Presents for Purpose

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In this precarious economic climate, non-profit organizations are suffering. From dramatic declines in government grants and private donor funding to escalating community needs, non-profits are struggling to sustain themselves. Many have opted to consolidate resources with other smaller organizations, while some have thought of creative, strategic ways in which they can raise necessary capital. Merge this need with the desire of for-profit entrepreneurs, who believe it's integral to align themselves with and support charitable organizations, companies like Presents for Purpose are emerging as profitable, albeit socially aware models.

Alayna Kassan and Cynthia W. Dressel*, Founders of Presents For Purpose met in 1999, after each had successfully fought Hodgkins Disease, a form of Lymphoma Cancer. Both women became active volunteers in conventional fundraising and advocacy settings, anxious to give back to the community that helped them in their time of need. In time, they began developing unique ways for friends and family to continue to support the cause. In 2002, they designed their first retail collection, and the line of trendy crystal watches quickly sold out. $20,000 of profits was donated to the Lymphoma Research Foundation and Presents For Purpose was born.

Today, Presents For Purpose works with dozens of wonderful charities that help people live healthier, happier and safer lives, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and invaluable awareness for their work. Everyone has the opportunity to shop in style and make a difference!

Alayna Kassan, Founder of Presents for Purpose Presents For Purpose has a socially-conscious and wholly altruistic business model - you're an e-tailer, whose sale of chic apparel, jewelry, accessories, and gifts, directly impacts non profit organizations and supports emerging designers. Consumers are empowered to put their discretionary income to work, as 10% (or more) of the proceeds of their purchase support non-profit organizations, which are selected by the consumer from a list of participating charities. What was the impetus for creating a for-profit company whose core mission is to provide financial assistance and drive awareness for charitable organizations?

AK: Profoundly grateful for the life-saving treatment we received for Hodgkins Disease, Cynthia and I met volunteering for Cure For Lymphoma (now Lymphoma Research Foundation). We saw the challenges non-profits faced - with respect to both their existing group of supporters and the public at large - and wanted to do more. As a for-profit gift company we are able to invest in an exciting array of products, unique marketing and promotional campaigns that both support our wonderful charities and provide us with operating income to sustain and grow our business in the most efficient way possible. With this model we are also able to offer the best selection of classic, personalized and trendy gifts because we attract great business partners who can help causes that have meaning to them while growing their business at the same time.

Your backgrounds are richly diverse (legal consulting, tax law, advocacy leader, online marketing and business development) -- what made you come together to form such a unique venture?

AK: Presents For Purpose was conceived on a train back from a Congressional hearing on blood cancers where we were reminded of the power of awareness. Finding new and interesting ways to engage and continue to engage the public is vital. With that in mind, we designed and sold a line of fashion watches ($50) with the proceeds to benefit the foundation. Even people who did not realize what they were for bought the watches because they simply liked them! We donated our first $10,000 in a matter of months and a company was born.

Each of us was and continues to be driven by our passion to give back. Touched by adversity and driven by so many blessings we have used the breadth of our backgrounds to develop a company that can support many different charities and causes that we are passionate about. We are able to work effectively given our backgrounds - calling on our contacts, past experiences and ability to bounce ideas off each other - effectively building a business from the ground up starting with our own skill sets and looking to our industry contacts to fill in our soft spots.

From grassroots to internationally known organizations, how do you go about selecting participating charities?

Leslie Weissman, Presents for Purpose AK & LW: From health and safety to environment and education, we work with a richly diverse group of organizations that appeal to a wide audience. We don't take anything for granted - we feel it is equally important to support both smaller and widely recognized endeavors and love that the grassroots groups benefit from the exposure.

As we're in the midst of a precarious economy, many are finding, ironically enough, that now is the best time to start a business. As someone who is a successful entrepreneur, can you speak to the process of how you launched your company?

AK & LW: Our company was launched from our passion and crafted using our specific skill sets to manage the development and cost of starting a business. We were self-funded and we continue to manage our growth in a way that keeps us hands on and in control of the process.

What's your strategy for thriving in the midst of a precarious economy where discretionary spending is tightening and consumers are less likely to shop as freely as they used to?

AK & LW: As we all know charitable giving is down -- however folks are still purchasing reasonably priced birthday, anniversary, and other celebratory gifts. Now more than ever Presents For Purpose's smart and meaningful approach is paramount -- it enables everyone to give a gift and give back at the same time. We continue to get this message out and our audience is responding well.

How did you get the word out about Presents for Purpose? Was it a grass roots, word-of-mouth marketing? Traditional publicity outlets, or a strategy that's a hybrid of varying outreach campaigns?

AK & LW: Our strategy for positioning Presents For Purpose includes traditional, grassroots and out-of-the box ideas. Importantly, we work with our charities to stay in front of an interested audience with up-to-date messaging and useful information. We work with celebrity guest designers (for example, with Teri atHHHatcher for the American Red Cross) on causes they are passionate about to reach a large and often new audience. From gift guides, special promotions and awareness months, the media (print, tv etc) have embraced our mission from the very beginning. Our opt-in mailing list, e-newsletters and social media including our growing facebook fan page and our ever-current website storefront also help us broadcast our message.

Looking back at the evolution of your company and brand - is there anything you might have done differently in the seven years you've been in business? Any critical lessons learned?

AK & LW: Even in the most altruistic of circumstances you cannot please everyone - we have learned to let that go and remain focused on engaging our past and future customers in giving and gifting.

Any new projects underway for 2009 and beyond for Presents for Purpose?

AK & LW: We are really excited to be working with Paige Davis and Volunteers of America to support Operation Backpack which provides age-appropriate school supply-filled backpacks to children living in homeless shelters. In these difficult times these backpacks send a powerful message to our own children that especially in tough times, by helping others we show how much we truly have to share. Something as simple as the backpack our children carry to school each day makes a world of difference in another child's life.

Any advice you'd like to impart for burgeoning entrepreneurs?

AK & LW: Be passionate about your business and don't underestimate the value of your time.

*A Note on Current Management Status: PFP was founded by Alayna Kassan and Cynthia Dressel in 2002 - Although Cynthia continues to be an advisor to the organization and her passion in founding the company is ever present she is not involved in the day to day operations. Cynthia was blessed with two children and has moved out of state to raise them with her husband. Inspired by her best friend's two time struggle with breast cancer Leslie Weissman joined the management team, injecting her own experience and enthusiasm into our efforts. We have made great strides together adding so many new charities and expanding our product lines. We continue to chart PFP's future together with great passion.