In Person: Laurie Erickson is a 'wrap' star to cancer patients
The Finest Accessories, a small business in North Bend making hair accessories, has given a lift to thousands of cancer patients with its Good Wishes program, a commitment to produce and send out a free "It's a Wrap" head covering to anyone who has lost hair to chemotherapy.
Seattle Times business reporter
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Laurie Erickson does a brisk business designing and selling unique hair accessories to stores like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. But there's another reason why her 30 employees enjoy coming to work. Erickson has made it part of the company's mission and daily routine to help people fighting cancer.
It began five years ago with a question from a customer: "What did I have for someone who had lost the very thing that I had built much of my business around: hair."
Erickson, the founder and chief executive of The Finest Accessories, in North Bend, was stumped. Her customer, Hillary Gross, was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer.
"I apologized and told her we didn't carry anything like that," she said.
But then, why not create something? Erickson thought.
Erickson's company designs headbands, barrettes and other hair ornaments, most of which are handmade in France or the U.S. She had worked with fabrics before, and came up with a soft, draping "wrap" that could help cover a bare head and also look fashionable.
With that catalyst, she launched the Good Wishes program, a commitment to produce and send out a free "It's a Wrap" head covering to anyone who has lost hair to chemotherapy. Recipients are referred by hospitals, caregivers, friends and relatives, and some find the website on their own.
The program has sent out 6,474 of the wraps so far — across the U.S. and to 10 other countries — each with a card signed by the entire staff. After starting with silk, they introduced models in cotton, velvet, a performance fabric for athletes, and two styles designed for men.
The company operates in downtown North Bend from a cottage converted into a bright and bustling office, where a black poodle named Mambo clamors for attention. Inside, covering virtually every available wall space, are pink and orange cards with the names of each person who received a scarf. Erickson calls this the "Wall of Hope."
Near Erickson's desk is a magnet sign that says, "Be nice or leave."
"That is really my mantra," she said. "I just believe life is too short for mean people."
Erickson, who was born and raised in Seattle, started her first company when she was a junior at the University of Washington studying political science. When she persuaded a buyer at Nordstrom to carry her hair bands, the tiny business took off.
Erickson and her husband, who runs his own medical-device company, adopted two children, who are now both teenagers.
She started her current company about 15 years ago and says that adding a charitable cause to the work gives her immense personal satisfaction, and it also keeps her close to her employees.
"We are a tighter team for it," she said. "We have a purpose beyond the widget. We love what we do, but every one of us knows we are doing something outside of ourselves that's happening beyond the workplace."
"It's my favorite part of the day," said Jackie Karavias, who has been with the company for four years. Each day employees circulate a box with cards to sign before shipping them out with the wraps, which are sewn in Sequim and Woodinville.
They receive about 75 requests each week, and many emails arrive in the middle of the night.
"We realized people can't sleep — they're up learning more about their cancer," Erickson said. "We'd like to think we're a place that gives them a break and something to feel good about to go back to sleep."
The company also donates 20 percent from the sales of certain products to the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation.
It's a small business, so the amount donated isn't huge, but "it's a constant source of revenue for them," Erickson said. "Consistency is really important for nonprofits, and we provide that."
In the beginning, she heard a lot of skepticism from friends and family members, who wondered, "How are you going to make this work? How are you going to afford it?"
Erickson said eventually she plans to operate Good Wishes as a nonprofit that can sustain itself. In 2010, she sent about 3,500 wraps, which cost about $100,000 in materials, labor and shipping, she said. The rewards make it more than worthwhile, she added.
A Sammamish resident who received a Good Wishes wrap knocked on the company's door one day with her husband, bringing a box of brownies.
"She came and told our staff how much it meant to her," Erickson said. "Then they looked at the Wall of Hope, and tears started pouring down their faces. I'm not sure there was a dry eye here."
Erickson hadn't heard much lately from Hillary Gross, the original customer who inspired the program. But one Sunday this month, an email message appeared.
It was a note from Gross, now 42, who had recovered from cancer and started painting again. She let Erickson and her staff know that one of her paintings was on its way as a thank-you gift.
Gross, an artist who lives in Florida, said she wanted to tell Erickson how much she had helped lift her spirits.
"How many times do you hear from a company CEO?" Gross asked. "She blew me away by saying she created this new product and I was the inspiration."
For business people considering how to do well and also do some good, Erickson offers encouragement.
"Whether it's through widgets or service, where they can give hours or expertise, there's plenty out there of what I call overflow," she said.
Especially if such contributions can be part of an ordinary workday.
"I would encourage people to dip a toe in this water," she said. "I believe every single business has something to offer."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org