Rock Your Cause: Please Dress Responsibly

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Toronto entrepreneur Mara Sofferin is working hard to bridge the gap between popular culture and cause culture with Rock Your Cause (RYC), a for-profit company that sells apparel with socially conscious messages printed on them.

“Please dress responsibly,” is RYC’s tagline.

Sofferin, 23, and business partner Jordy Beale, 22, design the clothing and proceeds from each item go to a cause. When people wear the apparel around town, they “rock their cause,” promoting the issues that matter to them to a broader audience.

“We want people to wear their cause on their sleeve, whatever their cause may be,” Sofferin tells Samaritanmag. “We have different collections for different causes, i.e. Rock Your Cause tank with a red ribbon in support of disaster relief in Haiti; Rock Your Cause tee with a green ribbon in support of gulf clean up; with a blue ribbon in support of SickKids, etcetera. We ‘color your cause.’

“We want to be in the middle of cultural conversation. For people to pay attention, handing out pamphlets isn’t going to do it. What does have our attention is pop culture. It’s flashy and it’s fun and it’s friendly. Philanthropy needs to take the same approach.”

Rock Your Causes takes the profits from the sale of its apparel and re-invests it into non-profit initiatives in the local and global community. “Fashion is the medium through which we are able to raise funds, the cause is the message,” Sofferin explains.

Rock Your Cause is a spin-off initiative of Save Our Women, a fashionable breast cancer fundraiser that Sofferin co-founded in 2005, when she was a high-school student living in Buffalo, New York.

Even though she didn’t know anyone with breast cancer, she went ahead with this charitable endeavour and made Save Our Women t-shirts that she sold at her school. Many of them sold out quickly.

One day, Sofferin got a message from a Toronto high school student on the Save Our Women Facebook page who wanted to sell the organization’s clothing at her school. The student’s name was Jordy Beale.

“The next thing I know, Jordy’s selling [the apparel] at six schools across Toronto and took total proprietorship over the endeavor,” Sofferin says. “I was, like, ‘Yeah! That’s my vision! Why am I only selling it at my school? Let’s get people on every campus doing this.’”

In 2009, Beale’s friend, Heidi, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In response, Beale wanted to create a unique design that could raise money for the children’s hospital that Heidi was staying at. She contacted Sofferin and they both decided to make t-shirts for this cause.

The clothing sold out in two days, prompting Sofferin and Beale to take this venture even further, planting the seeds of a new organization that would enable people to highlight the causes they cared about.

At the time, both were in university. Beale studied business and entrepreneurship at Ryerson, although Sofferin could not transfer into McGill’s business school.

“As I’m hustling [Rock Your Cause] clothing out of my door room, I wasn’t accepted and then I appealed that decision to the Dean. I said, ‘Look, I have a business. This is what I want to do. Please help me do that. I have some direction,’” Sofferin says, smirking. “They had an entrepreneur running her own business while in university and they wouldn’t let me into the business school.”

Instead, she studied environment, which she calls a “serendipitous” experience since it dealt with social responsibility. Exchange experiences in east African countries and the Barbados gave Sofferin the chance to view human struggle from a variety of different angles.

These perspectives changed how Sofferin would brainstorm new campaigns. For instance, instead of focusing primarily on curing cancer by giving proceeds toward research, a recent Rock Your Cause campaign gave money toward pediatric care and survivorship.

“It really complemented the way that I viewed myself in the business world and my business in the greater world,” says Sofferin. “A cause isn’t a light, fluffy thing. These aren’t just separate causes that are mutually exclusive to one another. Everything’s very connected.”

Beale and Sofferin design each shirt and piece of apparel, although the people who come to them have full autonomy in running their campaign.

“I’ve always been creatively inclined, but I definitely identify more with the rational, business mind part of myself,” Sofferin says. “The most happiness and the most success is when I can marry those two parts. I can have my creative mind and my business mind come together.”

Shortly after the girls launched the Rock Your Cause website in September 2008, the buzz spread quickly, especially among high school and university students.

After getting many emails from youths across North America who wanted to engage their schools with cause-based campaigns, Beale and Sofferin decided to launch campus campaigns. These initiatives allowed enthusiastic students to set up a “cause shop” at their school to sell apparel and send profits to their cause of choice.

“We developed that program because we wanted other people to have the experiences that we have had,” Sofferin says. “Look at what happened when we felt like we had ownership over a cause and felt like we could have autonomy in planning a campaign. We thought this was contagious.”

Over the last three years, around 30 Rock Your Cause campaigns have sprung up on Canadian high school and university campuses. Sofferin and Beale give student leaders the means to set up their cause shops and let them run events and fundraisers.

“That’s the greatest success — to get people on the ground rallying for a cause on the campus in the way that they know will work in their unique setting,” Sofferin says.

Sofferin credits much of Rock Your Cause’s success to the youth who champion the causes the organization promotes and who spread the word about new RYC items through social media.

“Young people are idealists, which is so important. They’re boundlessly creative. They’re kooky and imaginative and enthusiastic and there’s no telling them what they can or cannot do,” she tells Samaritanmag. “You need to get kids talking about important things and learning from each other about important things.”

The young entrepreneurs also sit down with the organizations that they are donating toward to ensure that they know where the proceeds are going. Sofferin says that if people are entrusting her with investing their money into causes they are passionate about, she has to make sure that the recipient companies are staying true to the customers’ wishes.

RYC apparel is available at Lileo, a clothing boutique in Toronto’s Distillery District. However, there is also an online store where customers can purchase a variety of shirts and hats.

Earlier this year, RYC sold $10,000 worth of winter toques, which Sofferin called “the most explosive campaign” the company has ever had. With that money, Sofferin and Beale decided to give a grant to support programs for young cancer patients. The beneficiary, Cottage Dreams, is an organization that gives weeklong cottage getaways for adolescent cancer survivors and their families.

“This winter, we want to start retailing [the toques] in ski hills in cottage country,” Sofferin says.

Sofferin, who works as a VP of marketing for an Internet business when not dealing with RYC, says she wants to stay in the for-profit world but keep with the socially minded conscious of a non-profit organization.

“The non-profit sector doesn’t attract the best and brightest talent because they’re too drawn to the for-profit world,” Sofferin says. “I think we need to reevaluate the non-profit structure, to start attracting really creative minds and really savvy businesspeople to understand how to bring in money and do something with the money. Let’s make these worlds meet.”

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Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.