Colorado Springs Entrepreneur Hopes To Help Homeless People One Candle At A Time

By Jakob Rodgers
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).

Laura Cameron already knows how to transform old wine bottles into ornate candles.

Now, she wants to help homeless people mold new lives by making those same wax decorations.

Cameron, a former handbag saleswoman-turned-entrepreneur, is leading a fast-growing company that aims to employ homeless people using a social enterprise-based business model.

Her for-profit company, Made With A Mission LLC, recently partnered with the nonprofit Springs Rescue Mission to make money molding and selling candles for high-end hotels and ski resorts. In the process, she plans to employ people seeking help at the nonprofit’s campus on Las Vegas Street.

Her company has grown fast, making roughly 3,000 candles that have been sold in several gift shops, including at The Broadmoor and at Vail Resorts properties. “We’ve spent so much time creating our product and making sure it’s great,” Cameron said. “We wanted to be competitive.”

The idea came in 2013 when Cameron saw drinking glasses made from wine bottles. She wondered if she could do the same thing — but she had three requirements before creating her own business.

Whatever she made had to be cool. It had to be something people would buy. And it had to tell a story.

“It has to have a cool factor,” she said, laughing.

That’s when she settled on candles.

She approached the Springs Rescue Mission and found a quick partner — one that allowed her to own 51 percent of the company while the nonprofit controlled the rest.

A foundation that wished to remain anonymous donated $20,000 toward capital expenses, as did the Springs Rescue Mission. The nonprofit also promised to fund operations during Made With A Mission’s first year in business.

Nonprofits increasingly are exploring social enterprise arrangements, said Dave Somers, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence.

Consumers appear to favor companies that give back to their surrounding communities, making such partnerships a business-savvy decision, he said. Meanwhile, nonprofits have been looking for creative ways to fund their missions.

“It’s truly a blend of your traditional business models,” Somers said. “It won’t replace the traditional ways in which they (nonprofits) raise money, but it will help supplement the ways in which nonprofits are able to raise the revenue they need for operations.”

The Springs Rescue Mission already has experience with social enterprise programs. Its Mission Catering program employs the nonprofit’s clients to make food for weddings, business events and other functions. It’s on pace to be a top-20 donor for the nonprofit, raking in $40,000 two years ago and $160,000 in the last fiscal year ending June 30. This year, it’s on track to make $250,000 by June 30.

As of late November, Made With A Mission had yet to employ any homeless people as Cameron had made all the candles. But that was expected to change, she said.

The work of homeless people seeking services at the Springs Rescue Mission will be to transform each glass into something people will buy.

Wine Punts, a business located across the street from the Springs Rescue Mission, cuts the top off each glass bottle donated to Made With A Mission from restaurants or other businesses. It smooths the edges and tempers the glass with heat, improving durability.

Cameron then pours cosmetic-grade, slow-burning wax that burns up to 90 hours, she said.

The scents vary — her Christmas Spirit candle includes notes of Italian blood orange oil, balsam fir and cinnamon. The Colorado variety includes warm, woody notes of fir needle and peppermint, and the Barber Shop candle has bergamot and spicy Tahitian vanilla, according to its website. Each is available for $17.95.

But the real money may come in a few more sizable contracts that are not finalized, Cameron said, including one with a national retail department store (she declined to name the prospective buyer).

Even without that contract, the business is on track to turn a profit in the coming months, Cameron said.

It’s an accomplishment of which Cameron is proud. But it’s not the only reason she created Made With A Mission.

“I feel like it tells the story of what the mission does in a very real way — taking things that are discarded and forgotten about and re-purposing it,” Cameron said.

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