Ido Leffler was shopping for school supplies with his two girls, and he was dismayed. When he was kid, getting school supplies was like going to a toy store — he relished picking out bright pens and colorful binders.
Everything he saw in the aisle now was beige, and looked like it had been designed for an accountant, not a kid.
“I was like, wait a minute — one of the fun things about learning was the tools you learn with and the stuff you get to have. For my daughters, that didn’t exist.”
Leffler, an entrepreneuer who co-founded the Yes To line of natural beauty products, started Yoobi, a school supplies company that debuts exclusively at Target this month, featuring goods ranging from fairly standard composition notebooks to whimsical heart-shaped push pins and fuzzy purple pencil cases. But the most interesting aspect of Yoobi is that for every time a customer buys a magenta notepad or a set of rainbow gel pens, Yoobi donates in kind to an underserved school in the U.S.
Virtually all public school teachers — 99.5 percent — spend money out of their own pockets to help supply students with essential supplies, according to a 2013 NSSEA study — to the tune of $500 a year per teacher. That comes out to $1.6 billion a year.
Leffler, whose mother taught school, said, "$500 is a lot for a teacher to spend. We thought, we can help solve this problem."
Schools in need
Yoobi sends out its goods in "classroom packs" that contain 900 items, about enough to last a classroom of 30 with a year's worth of pens, pencils, folder, glue sticks crayons, markers and other must-haves. Not all the stuff for sale at Target is in the classroom pack — school kids need scissors and erasers more than they need push-pins.
To distribute the goods, Yoobi partners with Kids in Need, a nonprofit group that's been giving supplies to schools in need since 1995. Dave Smith, executive director of Kids in Need, says that it's easy for school supplies to get overlooked in struggling families.
"If you are having trouble feeding and clothing your family, school supplies are low on the list behind things like food," says Smith. "But it's a really tough way for kids to go into the classroom, it's embarrassing to get to school and not have the basic things that others do."
Over the last few years, Smith has seen a "tremendous increase in need" from the teachers and administrators he works with, largely, he says, from the ripple effects of the recession. Five years ago, the number of children living in poverty in the U.S. was 13 million. Now that number has leaped to 16 million — or 22 percent of all children — according to theCensus Bureau.
Kids in Need distributes supplies through regional "Resource Centers," where teachers can "shop" for supplies free-of-charge. In order to qualify, teachers must work at schools in which 70 percent of their students are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. In many large cities in the U.S., like St. Paul and Minneapolis, schools in need have closer to 90 percent of students that now qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, he says.
"The need almost becomes insatiable, we have so many more kids now who need help," says Smith.
Buy one, give one
Brands like Toms Shoes, that promise to give a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair they sell, have established the "buy one, give one" model for the average consumer, and the beauty of it is in the simplicity of the concept, says Leffler.
"What makes it work is that my daughter gets it — she can explain it to her friends and she's 5 years old. She's become a Yoobi storyteller, and it's amazing the sense of accomplishment she feels."
Unlike other "buy one, give one" brands like Toms Shoes, or eyewear company Warby Parker, which are relatively upscale products, most Yoobi products retail for between $1 and $9 — no more than most of their competitors.
"Our philosophy is that these should be things that everyone can afford," says Leffler. "It's a guilt-free pricing model."
Jill Sando, a vice president and merchandise manager at Target who worked with Leffler to develop the Yoobi concept, says that social causes are increasingly important to Target shoppers. So much so that Target was willing to invest in the project "and spend less in other areas" to support the give-one model.
It's not something that every company can afford to do, but those with large budgets like Target can, and research shows that it's increasingly good for business.
According to a 2011 study by ad agency network TBWA/Worldwide and TakePart, 7 in 10 young adults consider themselves social activists, and four out of five said that they are more likely to purchase from a company that supports a cause they care about. Three in four think more highly of a company that supports a social cause.
The buy-one-give-one model, though appealing, isn't failsafe — in fact, Tom's has come under scrutiny from critics who ask whether the shoes really reach people in need, and if they harm local manufacturers.
Yoobi is navigating those problems by drawing on the experience of Kids In Need to make sure the gift product gets into the right hands. It also has the clout of Target behind it, and aspires to the lofty goal of reaching 30,000 classrooms and 750,000 kids by 2015.
Leffler and Smith attended a give-away at a third-grade classroom in Los Angeles, and the kids were ecstatic. Sometimes the kids are incredulous at first that the product is theirs to keep, says Smith. Others ask if they can give it to other siblings who need supplies, too.
"Sometimes the intangible message is most valuable," says Smith. "You're saying to a student, someone is giving something to you, someone is concerned about your success. Someone believes in you."