Caitlin Crosby and Brit Moore, Founder & CEO, President, The Giving Keys
Interview by Laura Piety
A Rverie Conversation with Caitlin Crosby, Founder of The Giving Keys and Brit Moore, their Managing Director. The Giving Keys is an accessories and jewelry line that employs those transitioning out of homelessness.
For the uninitiated to this key bearing, pay it forward movement, The Giving Keys is a company that pairs fashion and philanthropy in the most innovative of ways. Altruism isn’t merely injected as an afterthought into their brand strategy, or used as a polite accent, but is embedded into the core of who they are, from their founding story to current staff team.
It started with a particularly inspiring narrative. Caitlin Crosby, a singer/songwriter born and raised in Los Angeles, started wearing her hotel room key around her neck when she was touring. This inspired her to re-purpose old keys by stamping inspirational words on them, and she began selling them as fashion-forward, meaningful accessories at her merchandise stand. As they began to sell out, Caitlin encouraged people to pay the keys forward and pass them them onto others in need of its message. The further charitable element was inspired when she met two homeless people, Rob and Cera, on Hollywood Boulevard. Caitlin invited them to dinner to hear their story and discovered that Cera made jewelry. The very next day the two had joined The Giving Keys team and were stamping keys. Soon Rob and Cera were able to move off the streets into a hotel, and then into an apartment.
Since then, The Giving Keys has exploded, and is now a popular brand on the fashion accessories horizon. They are stocked in some of the most sartorially equitable stores, from Fred Segal to Opening Ceremony, and have 20 employees, many of whom are transitioning out of homelessness. If you take a look at their website you’ll also be able to read dozens of stories of people who have been impacted by the ‘pay it forward’ movement.
I interviewed Caitlin and Brit separately as I wanted to understand their unique perspectives and experiences on the growth of The Giving Keys. Caitlin is very much the face of the company and as Founder has done an amazing job of building and embodying the brand philosophy from the ground up. Having grown up in Hollywood amidst the entertainment industry, one could be forgiven for expecting her to be wrapped up in her own career, one that also includes acting and music, rather than worrying about others. But you’d be completely wrong. One thing I’ve learnt about Caitlin from knowing her over the past few years is that she is uniquely gifted to fit in anywhere you put her, from Hollywood parties to homeless shelters. Powerfully, she’s exactly the same girl in both scenarios. Ultimately, she loves people and has a personable nature that is distinctly shot through with empathy and genuine care. Something we all could learn.
As Managing Director, Brit Moore has distinctly helped take The Giving Keys to the next level. She’s been able to scale both the business and charitable enterprises by adding a deeper level of organization to the company which has been foundational to their rapid growth. She’s got a super affable nature that allows her to shine with people, and also has her fashion qualifications too, with great experience in the industry as a stylist and buyer before taking the MD reigns at The Giving Keys. All this to say, the duo makes a great team.
INTERVIEW WITH CAITLIN CROSBY
How have you found navigating fashion and cause?
I think every brand should be connected to a good cause because it’s possible and very easy to make a difference this way, so why not? I had a fashion idea and knew I wanted to create a 'pay it forward' movement with it. I could have stopped there. But as I learnt more about the fashion industry as we grew, I knew I wanted the money to go to some sort of charity or cause. Simply put, I didn't want to be another pointless trend that comes and goes.
Why did you decide to employ the homeless to help make the keys?
It wasn't a plan or idea I had. It was because I fell in love with a couple who were living on the street and asked to take them to dinner to get to know their stories and encourage them... It wasn’t until then I had the idea to hire them to engrave the keys instead of the locksmith I originally paid to make them.
Do you think the eco system of Los Angeles made it easier to launch The Giving Keys? Is there anything particularly unique about the city that allowed the business to flourish here?
Yes for sure. At first it was my relationships here in LA that allowed us to get into Fred Segal and other stores. Then, during Fashion’s Night Out in West Hollywood while I was looking after our display at Fred Segal, I met a showroom president who wanted to rep us. This helped us get into dozens of other stores. I also grew up in and around the entertainment industry, so I kept giving our keys to everyone I knew. They got into tons of paparazzi shots on celebrities and we used that to get coverage in the media and grow even more.
What gets you up in the morning? What are your indispensable item and practices?
I'm a very curious person. I crave truth so I’m always asking people questions and advice. I'm obsessed with food and cheese. And of course… anything sparkly.
INTERVIEW WITH BRIT MOORE
How did you originally get involved with The Giving Keys?
It’s a pretty cool story. As things always seem to go with The Giving Keys, there was element of serendipity, which has a lot to do with the way Caitlin operates, and the spirit she brings into things. She and I had a lot of mutual friends and we’d see each other at social events. She found out I worked in the fashion world and as we became friends she asked me business-related questions, showroom or wholesale things for example, and I would give her advice. I believed in the concept and loved what she was doing. Also, on a personal note, I always knew I was going to end up working in an area that fused fashion and philanthropy. That’s where I wanted to land. During one of our lunches in July of 2012 Caitlin and I talked about where things were at with the business. I told her if she ever needed me to come down and volunteer my time to let me know, I wanted to play a part.
A month and a half later Caitlin put the word out that they needed a new production manager. I was working as a buyer for a fashion website at the time but there were some internal issues happening within the company structure. I wrote Caitlin back and said I wanted to do it. She protested because technically, I was too experienced for the job, but I just knew in my gut it was the right thing. I started a week later. Everything really kicked off about a month after that. The business grew, we built the new website and some big accounts came in.
The Giving Keys has grown so much since you came on board, what’s been your experience of scaling the business?
So much of The Giving Keys came out of entrepreneurial inspiration and wanting to help people, and from a marketing and brand philosophy standpoint, everything was there. Caitlin had done a brilliant job of packaging The Giving Keys’ story and getting people to understand the mission. Once you get the heart of it, it’s really difficult not to buy in. She built something and was the visionary who got people excited about it, but we needed to put a strategy into place for the long term. When I started I gave it more shape and infrastructure so we could scale bigger with further operational systems. For example, we needed to improve the website shopping experience and bring it up to match the hip, relevant girl Caitlin is. So I re-designed it to suit our customer base.
We also needed to figure how to set up our homeless guys to really succeed in the workplace long term. We started partnering with Chrysalis because they really understood that community. We had the guys actually come into the office to work and engrave them. We wanted to create a healing environment that hopefully, by osmosis and culture, would help things to really change for them... we wanted our staff members who were transitioning out of homelessness to have co-workers, a schedule and a wage that was comparable to what they would earn in the workplace with their experience and skill set.
We wanted to set them up to succeed in the long run, as well as be more relationally connected.
How does having a cause embedded in your DNA affect your business decisions?
The training takes a little bit longer, so technically we sacrifice a little bit of productivity to keep serving the cause, but it adds something equally, if not more, valuable to our story and work environment. From a numbers point of view, yes, other setups could do the job faster, but because of the cause we don’t make those decisions. There’s something different when you working for a purpose outside of making money.
What does a typical day at The Giving Keys look like?
During the holidays we have about 20 staff and at other times we have 12-15 employees. We start the day off with a family vibe and an all-team meeting. We do announcements before going over what needs to be accomplished through the day and making sure that the web, production and wholesale teams are all on the same page. We have two rooms, a production room and an administrative/creative space. After the meet everyone hops to their job. We try to keep it really fun and light. We play music and allow space for conversations, while still getting work done. It’s a really relaxed community-oriented office. Well, that’s what we aspire to be.
What is one of your favorite products? Tell us a bit about the new precious metals collection.
My favorite piece is the never-ending bracelet. I think it’s cool to have the key turned sideways and be able to wear it around your wrist. It’s been out for about a year and is our second bestseller after the classic pendant which is our original product.
The Precious Metals Collection is a really exciting step forward. We had some feedback from potential and current retailers, who already loved the products and concept, but needed to sell something at a higher price range than we were currently at. So we started developing and testing it out. We worked with a designer from Ventura called Claire Briglio. She has a great line called Kings And Priests and a background in metal work and jewelry design. She helped us go through the process including metal choice and casters to work with. We basically took our favorite key bodies, had them engraved by our staff, cast them and had them plated in white, yellow and rose golds. We started with the words Strength, Dream and Believe, which we’ll be adding to later this year. You can mix and match these three color ways with chains that also come in rose, gold and silver.
The keys represent more than just product. What is one of your most inspiring pay it forward stories?
One of the earliest stories is a favorite. A daughter gave her mother the 'Strength' hey while she was going through cancer treatment. After some time her mother went into remission and paid the strength key forward to another patient in the cancer ward. It eventually passed hands to several other patients. All the patients went into remission.
Obviously we know there aren’t any magical healing powers in the key, but there is something powerful about how it represents Strength to people: to remind then how strong they already are, and the strength they can continue to discover. We just love that they keys can be part of someone’s process and that it’s something tangible to hint at something intangible.
Where would love to see The Giving Keys in 5 years time?
Although it may manifest in different forms, we really want to become a tangible resource for the homeless community in Los Angeles, especially with regard to job creation. We would love The Giving Keys to become a place that resources people, both through partnerships with organizations that serve the homeless community as well as providing information to help people get out of the position they’re in… from relationships with transitional homes, food shelters and other companies employing the homeless. We want to continue to build our relationship with Chrysalis and create more jobs.
What advice would you give to someone trying to start a social enterprise?
Start. If you are toying with the idea of doing something- just do it. We’ve discovered that although we might move forward in a wobbly fashion sometimes, going with the momentum and saying yes to opportunities enables you to move forward. I was talking to the Invisible Children CEO about our scalability recently, explaining that it’s kind of like we’re just growing into ourselves, having cast out the net and the fish are coming in to fill it. His response was that Invisible Children was like plane being built while it’s already in the air. I can resonate with that!
I think the thing that sets entrepreneurs apart from other people in business is that they say yes to the unknown. They worry about details and structure later.
So my advice is just to start, and not to be afraid. But also, do a good job of building a team around you. Find people who can fill the gaps where you’re weak. Don’t try to play all the roles otherwise you’ll get burnt out.
For more information visit www.thegivingkeys.com
Images courtesy of The Giving Keys