For World Changers: Interview With Jim Van Eerden, Co-Founder Of Sevenly

Meet Jim Van Eerden, Co-Founder Of Sevenly

After a successful career of serial entrepreneurship, Jim Van Eerden co-founded Sevenly in 2011 with the mission of leading a generation toward generosity. Inspired by the belief that people matter, he built a brand that leveraged cause art to connect consumers to the social and environmental issues that they cared about. But the company grew quickly and its impact was at stake. We sat down with Jim to hear his story, the career shift he made toward social businesses, and exactly how he is working to stabilize a company from which so many nonprofits stand to gain. This is the story of one entrepreneur’s journey through the rise and fall (and rise again!) of Sevenly.

To understand this story, we need to understand you. You’ve worked with C-level executives for some of the biggest brands in the world, been business partners with prominent celebrities, and provided counsel for the World Cup and the Olympics. But your more recent pursuits, from film-making to board chairmanships, have focused on creating positive social change. What has motivated this new season of your career?

It’s been quite a ride. Along the way, I’ve come to believe, with vigor, that we’re made for more than self-pursuits. There’s a great story unfolding, far bigger than us. People are recognizing that the way we understand that story should impact the way we make and buy things. That’s resulted in a sea change. I think the rise of purpose-driven businesses is, in some ways, as significant as the technology shifts in the mid 1990’s, when the Internet went public. It’s epic. And I simply wanted to be a part of it.

We’re made for more than self-pursuits. There’s a great story unfolding, far bigger than us.

My business interests began to change as that became clearer to me. I already knew that excellence in business meant going from “Good to Great” in terms of operating performance. What I began to see was that it also means going from “Great to Good,” in terms of the positive and enduring impact we make in the lives of people, and the health of our communities and planet. The best companies are the engines for a lot of good in the world. I wanted to help businesses, consumers and non-profits see that more clearly.

What role do you see entrepreneurship and market-based business playing in our collective effort to solve some of the world’s seemingly intractable injustices?

Our journeys are all different, of course. “Intrapreneuring” is just as important as “entrepreneuring,” and sometimes more so. But for me, there was a thesis to prove. That’s why launching new ventures seemed the best way to help demonstrate that no matter the sector, businesses could be intentional about creating surprisingly positive and measurable social impact, and that this intentionality could make those businesses stronger. 

It is an amazing moment in economic history. It’s for-profit businesses - and the consumers they depend on - that are shaping how sustainable philanthropy will work in this new century. There will always be some version of the “corporate tithe,” and that’s not a bad thing. But more and more, what will emerge in opposition to the world’s great injustices and to address the world’s greatest needs will be win-win-win alliances between brands and their consumers, and the causes that matter to them both. That’s revolutionary! I’m just grateful to be a small part of it.

More and more, what will emerge in opposition to the world’s great injustices and to address the world’s greatest needs will be win-win-win alliances between brands and their consumers, and the causes that matter to them both.
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You’ve worked closely in your career with very notable for-profit and non-profit organizations. Sevenly, which you co-founded, links together both of these organizational models for greater impact. Can you tell us more about Sevenly’s unique model for social impact?

Sevenly is the most remarkable test of a “social good business” that I’ve experienced. We set out to create two movements at once, both through organic social media. The first movement was about creating “cause art” that helped tell the story about the work of great non-profits. The second movement was about empowering people through advocacy apparel and accessories - to help them create conversations. We wanted to help people wear and share what matters to them.

Our mission is to raise awareness, funding and followers for the world’s greatest causes - and to help inspire a generation toward generosity.

The Sevenly model of $7 donations from apparel and 7% from collections and accessories has raised nearly $5 million for more than 200 non-profits since its founding in 2011. You’ve created tens of millions of followers and billions of impressions for organizations big and small. Tell us more about Sevenly as a testament to small actions being able to have a large collective impact. 

Our goals were audacious. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. But an amazing group of impact investors and an eclectic and passionate team gave it heart and soul, alongside incredible non-profit partners, through grand successes - and failures of like proportion.

By 2014, Mashable named Sevenly “the most social small business in America.” People magazine named us One of the Top 10 Stories in the First 10 Years of Facebook. Teen Vogue called us the #2 fashion brand on the planet, helping the planet. The accolades kept coming. We were rolling.

But Sevenly went through quite a valley. Did you get off mission?

Yes. Yes, we did. We grew too fast. So we outsourced management to an outside private equity group. And Sevenly lost its True North - even with the best of intentions. It’s hard to thrive as a social good company without a clear and central social mission.

About a year ago, some of us involved in Sevenly’s founding took leadership again. It was almost too late. But we found our way, with much grace lent us, back on the path. We know Sevenly is emblematic to hundreds of thousands of people, and we are committed to returning the brand to its promise, one person, one partner at a time. How rewarding it’s been! Every day we get to be outfitters for world-changers.

It’s hard to thrive as a social good company without a clear and central social mission.

Many of your ventures, Sevenly among them, have a thread of storytelling woven into their mission for social change. What role do you see for media in creating the collective compassion and action for social progress?

Story is essential. In fact, we say at Sevenly that we don’t want to sell products. We want to invite people to share an experience. And that’s about their story, and someone else’s story. Creating those kinds of conversations, which lead to changed thinking and changed actions and changed lives - that’s why we exist. It all goes back to the story we are writing.