Meet Bert Jacobs: Optimist CEO

Bert Jacobs owes his success to the enduring power of optimism.

As the co-founder and CEO – chief optimist – of clothing and accessories brand Life is Good, Jacobs has dedicated his adult life to creating positive-focused clothing, and he uses the recipes from the company to help children in need.

Jacobs and his brother John started their business in the late 1980s, selling T-shirts on the streets of Boston and at East Coast universities in the back of a used pickup truck dubbed “The Enterprise.” “. They swore to go where no guy in a T-shirt had gone before. And in 1994, with less than $ 100 in their pocket, they officially created the Life is Good company.

Over the next nearly three decades, Life is Good grew into a company with annual sales of $ 150 million. The Company’s T-shirts and other products are sold in thousands of outlets across the United States and Canada. Remarkably, the company accomplished this despite not spending any money on advertising. Instead, the company relies on consumer word-of-mouth to drive growth.

Today, Jacobs remains focused on guiding the overall vision and creating art and messages for the Life is Good brand.

The Needham, Mass. Native and his brother are also using Life is Good to give back to communities across the country. The company donates at least 10% of its annual net profits to the Life is Good Kids Foundation, which each year helps more than one million children alleviate the effects of poverty, violence and violence. sickness. TO

inspire others to focus on the good of their lives, wrote the two brothers Life is good: the book (National Geographic, 2015).

Jacobs is also a much-requested speaker, as well as co-host with John of the popular Life is Good Ping podcast. The couple spoke with famous people such as Katie Couric, “Blue Bloods” actress Bridget Moynahan and former Beatle Ringo Starr about the power of optimism.

Jacobs will be a keynote speaker at the 2021 SHRM Annual Conference and Exhibition, which will be held September 9-12 in Las Vegas. He recently spoke with HR Magazine about his life, his career and his optimistic outlook.

Name the company

When we started we had no money and we knew from a marketing standpoint that if no one knew the name of our company we would need money for advertising and marketing. Life is good is a phrase that existed, but we just put it down before everyone else. We wanted the name to be edifying because on your behalf you can say a lot. Oddly enough, a lot of people don’t think about it. There are different ways people can interpret Life is Good, but it sounds positive and it’s kind of a big statement.

Life is good is also something we believe in, and so it was something genuine that we could really support and work hard to build.

Source of personal optimism

My optimism came mainly from our mother. When John and I were kids, both of our parents struggled with depression, believe it or not. But their coping methods were different. Our father screamed and screamed. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he had six kids and no money and he just lost him.

My mother, on the other hand, had her own difficulties, but she overcame them by singing and dancing. She also had this ritual at the dinner table where she asked us, “Tell me something good that happened today”.

It had a huge impact because it taught us that there is always things to celebrate and while there are always bad things, it is smarter to put your limited resources in the good things.

Optimism as a business philosophy

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to optimism, so I like to use the basketball hitting analogy. If you see [professional basketball player] Seth Curry steps up and drains 30 in a row, people think he’s a great foul shooter. But he wasn’t born doing free throws. He practiced and practiced. Optimism is like that. The leaders of an organization must understand that optimism is important and they must allow people to practice it.

The best way, as an organization, to overcome obstacles is to focus primarily on opportunity. Optimism does not mean being blind to challenges; rather it is about focusing on solutions and working to solve problems. We see ourselves as practicing optimists.

The pandemic, a real test for optimists

There is no doubt that the pandemic has been a challenge for the company. At first, our discussions were about bankruptcy because most American retailers were closing their doors and canceling their orders. We had to try to find a way to cut our staff in half, which meant 200 people were losing their jobs.

In the end, we did something that was a bit risky: We launched a whole new model of product development – super-fast to market – that reduced our development from 12 to 18 months to just two days.

We also decided to design t-shirts on what is happening during the pandemic, but we did it through the Life is Good lens and we promoted healthy behavior, like “Keep calm, stay cool, stay at home “and that sort of thing.

After doing all of that, 2020 turned into the best year we’ve ever had from a business performance standpoint, and we’ve saved every job in the company.

Post-pandemic professional life

I think the majority of changes at work in the wake of the pandemic are here to stay. There were a lot of downsides and challenges for individuals and organizations, but there were positives and lessons learned.

As a country, we have been forced to rethink the workspace. Before the pandemic, if you asked people whether it was necessary to be in the office five days a week, most would have said yes. Now you get a completely different answer.

We conduct employee surveys in our organization, and I was really proud of our staff because they expressed a lot of personal stuff and not just what they thought we wanted to hear. I ended up reading all of their responses. Among the things they told us was that they had time to walk everyday while working from home during the pandemic or that they had time to mend a personal relationship because they didn’t more had to travel over an hour of commuting to work each way per day.

Our employees have also been incredibly productive in all departments throughout the pandemic, and they have told us, “Please don’t let things go back to how they used to be because this has been amazing for us. ”

Social and environmental issues

I believe in free enterprise capitalism. Anyone who starts a business can do whatever they want with it. But we have entered an era where consumers are much more aware of what organizations and businesses are doing. Consumers have now taken control and are demolishing businesses that they believe are not having a positive impact on the world. And they also create businesses that they believe in.

If business leaders are smart, they will try to improve their neighborhood. It’s not only good for growth, but employee retention will be better if people are proud of where they work.

Ping Podcast Life is good

All the guests were wonderful, but singer and activist Michael Franti stands out with his presence and energy so strong. He’s a fighter for the good things, but he fights with his art. When you are with him you feel like he truly believes in humanity and every day he finds something to celebrate and to stand up for. Art is the most powerful tool to unite and inspire people, and Michael does it every day.

A set of skills required for HR managers

Organizational health is the biggest determinant of retaining quality staff, which means focusing on how we treat each other from top to bottom and from the side. Over the years, we’ve found that internal surveys are a great tool for understanding how our employees feel, and by allowing anonymity in comments, we find that we get a lot more feedback from them. The more you practice it, the more comfortable people feel and the more they share.

This is really valuable because as leaders, including HR managers, we guess too often and speculate on what people think. The problem with this is that we are grossly inaccurate most of the time. My brother John and I, whenever we are speculating on what our staff might want, we often run out of time. So you have to ask and you have to listen.

David Ward is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

Art and photos courtesy of Life is Good


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