Read how one woman's quest to find all-natural toys for her children, coupled with her compassionate and eco-conscious nature, turned into the first and only company in the world that makes plush toys, gifts, apparel, and souvenirs that are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified, and Global Fair Trade certified.
Renju, her husband Vijay, and 6-year-old twins Arianna and Rohan live in the Bay Area along with their 7-year-old beagle mix, Bentley. When I first met her, there was something about her that I could not put my finger on and I wanted to know more. Twenty minutes into our conversation, she shared her story about how she and her husband created Bears for Humanity. If you have been on United Airlines, you’ve likely seen their teddy bears in first class.
AT: Renju, can you believe we spoke long before this interview was ever conceptualized, and here we are!
RP: Absolutely Amie. This is amazing. I am so excited to share with your readers how our dream became a reality.
AT: Let’s get to it... I’m very interested in your childhood and how it influenced you.
RP: I grew up in a small rural town in India. I witnessed social imbalance and challenges faced by women and animal abuse. I never hesitated speaking up. This gave me good practice in standing my ground, and fighting for what I believed to be right.
Renju, Vijay, and 6-year-old twins Arianna and Rohan
AT: Is there any story in particular you remember, that changed you?
RP: Something that is always on my mind is how my brother and I tried saving abandoned little kittens. Many of them didn’t survive, but we kept trying. Animal abuse seemed like a part of the day-to-day life back then. Animals in general were not cared for unless they were working farm animals.
Honestly, even children back then didn’t receive the same attention that they receive today. Not much thought was put into what goes behind in making those toys that they play with or the food they ate. Now, things have considerably changed – as a society, we know better. Overall, I believe in karma, and the idea that we are not here to elbow another person to get ahead in line, instead it is to help others who need it most.
AT: I do think compassion for living things is elevating in general, and like you said, we know more now. How did Bears for Humanity come about?
RP: My husband and I always wanted to do more for the community. We were thinking of different ways we could make a positive impact. The idea of a toy company came to our minds about 6 years ago. We were expecting our twins and were looking for plush toys that would be safe for infants. In this process, we learned that what was available in the market were made from synthetic materials and polyester, and they were filled with harmful chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals and anti-flame retardants. Sure, they looked nice and were cheap, but they were also deadly and harmful. So, we decided to start making our own.
Over time, we created a non-profit. Fast forward to today, Bears for Humanity is the only company in the world that makes plush toys, gifts, and apparel souvenirs that are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified and Global Fair Trade certified.
AT: What do these certifications mean?
RP: GOTS means every product that we make is free of chemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals. Global Fair Trade Certified means that from farm to fulfillment, we adhere to and follow fair trade labor regulations such as paying fair living wages to the farmers who supplies us the organic cotton or the factory employees who get the beautiful bears done.
AT: Amazing. You have blazed the trail for the way toys are made in America. I hope other companies will follow your lead. Can you give me an idea of some initiatives you’re working on?
RP: Yes, companies are taking notice and starting to make changes. We have been in discussions with large consumer textiles and toys companies who want to partner with bears for Humanity and make a positive impact in the lives of children.
Over the last 5 years, Bears for Humanity has donated $1.2M in retail value of teddy bears to children in the US through our “buy one give one” program.
Our latest venture is with United Airlines. Bears for Humanity makes a “Ben Flyin” bear that has been given to children in hospitals in 31 countries by United Airlines employees.
Meet Ben Flyin, the United Airlines bear made by Bears for Humanity
This year, we also started a fundraising platform for individuals and charities on Donor360 which is a turnkey enterprise ecommerce platform that enables both individuals and organizations to design and publish their own ecommerce webpage for the purpose of charitable fundraising. All goods that are available to list on the ecommerce webpage are organic and fair trade certified products. Up to 30% of the price of all purchases and 97% of all cash-only donations goes directly to the user’s charity of choice. https://www.donorthreesixty.com
AT: I cannot believe you are doing this full time while working in Corporate America. How has running your own non-profit changed you?
My goal has never been to retire and settle in the Bahamas with two yachts in my front-bay. Starting this company has not changed me. Instead, it is giving me the opportunity to do the things I always wanted to.
RP: Since we started the business, I have had people coming and asking me why I want to spend my time and money on a non-profit. My goal has never been to retire and settle in the Bahamas with two yachts in my front-bay. Starting this company has not changed me. Instead, it is giving me the opportunity to do the things I always wanted to.
AT: Do you have something calling you to what is next?
RP: Yes, I have dreamt of building shelters for stray animals (a dream which is very close to being a reality), and providing relief for children and the under privileged. Through Bears for Humanity, every day I’m getting one step closer to that goal.
Bently, who is spoiled and generally not interested in Renju's life principles!
AT: You are a “good” multiplier. You keep making good things, and then multiplying them into more good.
RP: I hope so. It definitely keeps me grounded with continuous reminders of how unpredictable life can be. We were able to give bears out to residents impacted by the fire in Paradise, California, in partnership with American Red Cross at a giving event.
AT: Oh, Renju. That was devastating. I have since met survivors from Paradise. They are forever changed.
RP: Yes, the fire wiped out everything for thousands of families. I will never forget that day. Here is a video we captured where you can see reactions of those who have lost everything, being able to choose a bear: https://vimeo.com/309034839
We have also seen heroes in the most unexpected times. One delivery truck driver drove non-stop from Oakland to Tennessee on Christmas Eve, so he could deliver the bears to children who lost everything in the Smoky Mountain fire.
AT: Every employee that works for your company must feel so wonderful to be associated with the work you’re doing.
What is on the horizon for you. Do you feel like you have reached the pinnacle of what you set out to do?
RP: Never! Our world keeps expanding to things I would have never imagined.
In 2018, we met a husband and wife duo, the founders of Niki’s Natural Wipes, an organic baby wipes company from Australia. Suthan, the Founder and CEO, shared his story with us. His parents fled the Sri Lankan war zone and entered Australia as refugees when he was 4 years old. He had just started Niki’s to make a positive impact in the lives of parents and children in 2017. I am proud to say that now, Bears for Humanity has partnered with Niki’s to bring organic baby wipes to the American market.
As part of expanding Niki’s to the US, we are launching a three-way partnership with EveryMotherCounts.org, Nik’s Natural Wipes, and Bears for Humanity. With every purchase, we will donate up to 30% of all sales to EveryMotherCounts.org, a charity in the US whose mission is to help mothers and children.
AT: I see two threads running through everything you do, and that is lessening our chemical footprint/harm to the environment, and taking proceeds to give back.
What advice would you have for others who want to do something to give back to their communities, but don’t know where to start?
RP: I was that person several years ago. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know how or where to start.
Look around and think about what resonates with you the most. There are challenges all around us – hunger, sickness, abuse towards animals, children, and the elderly, there’s a plastic crisis, there are endangered wild animals, the list goes on. Start with one thing you think you can relate to.
In your own life, it could be shopping for cruelty-free and sustainable household or make-up brands, or saying “no” to more plastic water bottles, polyester, or leather. Every bit counts. It all starts with making a promise to yourself to do what you can.
In your community, there are so many opportunities to contribute, and so many more ways to give aside from financial contributions or volunteering. For parents, it could be visiting your kids’ school and educating kids about an issue. It could be joining a search party for a missing child in your neighborhood, or reuniting a lost pet with its family, or organizing a community effort to pick up plastic in your neighborhood.
There are also problems to solve on a larger scale. For example, Bears for Humanity uses recycled polyfill for the filling of plush toys, which is essentially using recycled plastic water bottles.
AT: Last question. What do you do with fear? You are embarking on new ventures and really paving new way. When fear arises, how do you navigate it? I’m sure having your husband as your partner-in-crime is helpful?
RP: Absolutely. My husband and I share the same compassion and principles when it comes to helping others in need. We also have a great team with us who is leading this company in so many ways. I’m forever grateful to everyone who has been part of this journey. There have been stressful times and difficulties that we have had to overcome, but at the same time, we have had several milestones to celebrate over the years.
Knowing that our hard work brings some amount of comfort to children, animals, and folks in need is enough to get passed the hurdles and keep going forward.
AT: Beautiful. Well, I wanted to let everyone know you also make all kinds of plush toys beyond bears. I love the aquatic animals, the dino, the giraffe, and the puppy... I really want one of each. I can’t wait to purchase Animal Pals for my next baby gift! Do you always donate one to a child in need for every purchase?
RP: Yes, we do! With every purchase, we donate a bear to a child in need.
AT: Renju, you and your family inspire me. Thank you for being brave, and for taking your passion and having the courage to turn it into something great that is positively impacting the lives of individuals and our environment. I’ll keep my eyes open for your animal shelter project.
RP: Thank you, Amie, and thanks for giving us this platform to share our story. It was my pleasure.
To keep up with Bears for Humanity or purchase your own, visit: https://www.bearsforhumanity.com/
Do you know someone on a self-actualizing journey who would like to share their story? Send them my way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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