Toronto's Beach neighbourhood is a place where many creative and innovative people congregate. It is also a hotbed for enlightened entrepreneurs, people such as Alex Winch who is a leader in solar power technology; Michelle Gebhart who not only runs two stylish restaurants but who also donates her time to a Toronto youth drop-in program; or Mary Lee from Spiagga Restaurant who regularly supports the arts community in the Beach. Many of the entrepreneurs in the Beach are not only consummate business people, but they also have a social and environmental conscience.
Andrew Howard and Rachael Smith are part of this enlightened group. After years of corporate achievements they started their own business and became the publishers of SNAP Beaches/Danforth, a free community publication that focuses on special events and good news around the neighbourhood. In addition, after a personal bout with breast cancer, Rachael and Andrew wanted to give something back to the medical community that helped them survive and overcome this horrific disease. They were ready to make a difference.
When I first arrived at Toupee For Black Man Andrew and Rachael's house in a quiet residential street at the east end of the Beach, I was greeted by two very enthusiastic dogs, and Andrew invited me upstairs into their loft office, a beautiful space right under the roof with lots of daylight. People who work that many hours might as well pick the best room in the house and turn it into a work space. Rachael had not yet arrived home, but Andrew welcomed me and started to fill me in on his background. I really had to sharpen my pen to keep up with the rapid-fire information and extensive facts that Andrew was throwing at me. I knew right away I was dealing with a high-energy individual who is a constant source of bright ideas and is used to implementing them in an action-oriented way.
Andrew Howard describes himself as "white bread", having grown up in a family of British heritage in Etobicoke. He says he was fortunate growing up in suburbia, with two wonderful parents. He spent much of his youth outdoors, pursuing water sports, such as canoeing, swimming and sailing. Even today his connection to the water is strong: he enjoys living in the Beach because he is just minutes away from the location of his newest sport: kite-boarding. In addition, Andrew is a consummate athlete: he completed the Penticton Iron Man a few years ago which included a 4 km swim, a 180 km bike ride topped off by a 42 km marathon.
After high school Andrew went to Queens University to study commerce. Andrew's entrepreneurial spirit became evident early: he took over a College Pro Painters franchise and also got involved in student politics and sports. After graduation Andrew went into the field of consumer packaged goods marketing and worked with Warner Lambert, handling such brands as Listermint, Efferdent, Schick and Rollaids. His corporate experience continued in a five year stint with Pepsi, right at the time of the Cola Wars. During his tenure with Pepsi Andrew created a teen radio show and a teen magazine, demonstrating his keen understanding of the teenage demographic.
Andrew spent the following eight years at Labatt as their Senior Director of Marketing and was in charge of a $140 million marketing budget. When Labatt was bought out by a Brazilian company, many jobs got reorganized. Despite having several options at Labatt, Andrew chose to strike out on his own. His wife Rachael was a critical junction in her life, and together they were ready to venture in a new direction.
So Andrew and Rachael did a lot of brainstorming and came up with 100 different business ideas. Along the way they came across the SNAP Newspaper Group Inc, an organization that specializes in the franchising of community publications. SNAP's community newspapers cover 17 markets, most of which are located in Ontario with two of the franchises operating in British Columbia (Kelowna and Whistler). Andrew and Rachael purchased two franchises: the SNAP publication covering Toronto's Beach/Danforth neighbourhood, and the SNAP edition for Peterborough, a sizeable town about an hour and a half east of Toronto.
The publications are photographically rich, free to consumers, strive to capture the life and entertainment and the overall spirit in every community in which they are published. SNAP's business model emphasizes customer service & relationships, technology, marketing savvy and quality and aims to deliver a product that is relished by consumers within its respective communities.
Andrew admits he wishes he had come up with the idea for SNAP himself, but says that he loves the premise, the fact that the focus is on positive stories and community spirit. He knew he could sell the concept, and a year into this project he describes it as a success and as on target with his original goals. Andrew explained that he goes out into the community to cover special events and take photos, and he is also responsible for selling advertising to local merchants. The SNAP organization on the other hand handles the layout of the paper and the advertising design.
So far this would be an interesting entrepreneurial story in itself, but there is a whole other side to Andrew and Rachael's life which took a dramatic turn almost three years ago when Rachael was diagnosed with breast cancer. Andrew describes this experience with the words "The floor just fell out. There was complete shock and disaster. We had no idea what to do."
Rachael was going to fill me in on her own personal reaction to this shocking revelation in a little while. Andrew explained that Rachael proceeded to obtain treatments for her illness, and along the way both Rachael and Andrew decided that they wanted to give something back to the cancer treatment community that had saved them. After some creative brainstorming they decided that a link could be created between holding yard sales and donating the proceeds to cancer research. They came up with the concept for Yard Sale for the Cure, the perfect combination of harnessing grassroots neighbourhood-based activities and turning them into a charitable movement that they hope will one day span across the continent.
In addition, they also found a creative mechanism for recycling unwanted items and turning them into treasured possessions for a new family, exhibiting their commitment to reducing, reusing and recycling. Decluttering and getting rid of unneeded possessions not only adds to the resale value of a home; the quality of life and psychological well-being of the owners also benefit.
Andrew and Rachael knew that they wanted to turn this into a big venture, modeled after the Run for the Cure, which has evolved from having 1500 participants in 1992 who raised $85,000, to having 170,000 participants who raised $21,000,000 in 2006. Both Andrew and Rachael want to turn their non-profit organization into a charitable movement that will span the entire North American continent.
Their first Yard Sale for the Cure in 2005 was fairly small and included 350 residences in the Beach their own local neighbourhood. Because both Andrew Howard and Rachael Smith had spent many years in the marketing / advertising industry, they harnessed some of their professional contacts to help them promote the event.
Three majors players came on board:
- Grip Limited, an advertising agency who handles all their communication for Yard Sale for the Cure, pro bono
- Hill & Knowlton, a prestigious Toronto public relations firm who secured 1.5 million in PR services in year one, and 3.2 million in year 2. They helped Rachael get interviews in regional media, print and radio.
- DThree Interactive, which handles the website of Yard Sale for the Cure, the engine that provides the information and news and handles the registration process, data management and on-line donations and transactions.
In year one Andrew and Rachael invested $1000 out of pocket to get the venture off the ground. Another $12,000 were donated by local businesses to help them get started. The results were astounding: 350 families participated in the Beach and raised $45,000. Last year the organization attracted sponsors, Remax Realty and Home Sense, who provided additional seed money. The yard sales expanded to 28 markets in Ontario and one in Edmonton. In 2006 there were 1200 Yard Sales for the Cure, and in total $102,000 were raised for this important cause.
Moving forward, Remax has come on board again for the third year in a row and expanded from the local Remax office in the Beach to the Remax Ontario - Atlantic division. Andrew is very enthusiastic about the possibility of moving into the United States, and is currently in negotiation with a variety of like-minded sponsors and strategic partners. Andrew explained that the synergy between Remax and the Yard Sale for the Cure is obvious, since Remax is all about improving people's real estate value. Yard sales are an important tool towards achieving a clutter-free life style and a higher property resale value.
What Andrew is most proud of is that every dollar raised from any yard sale goes directly to breast cancer research. He started to explain the process of registration for the yard sales: 500,000 door knockers advertising the Yard Sale for the Cure are produced and distributed by local volunteers. The sale itself is held on the last Saturday in May. Online and regular promotions drive interested would-be participants to the website where they can sign up for the event, and for a small fee they receive a yard sale sign, a t-shirt and some information about the charity.
Once the yard sale participants put their signs up, word starts to spread in the neighbourhood and other people come on board. Proceeds from the yard sale can then be donated by credit card online at the Yard Sale for the Cure website. Many local children start selling lemonade and cookies, and they also donate their revenue to the cause.
There is no doubt that Andrew and Rachael are big thinkers: they want Yard Sale for the Cure to become a North America wide charity and would like to raise over one million dollars in the next two to three years. At that time they will set a new objective again. Rachael has already been featured on the popular show "Designer Guys", and now their goal is to get a booking with Oprah. Andrew added that what is nice about this initiative is that it brings communities together, people start inviting one another for coffee and get to know one another. He refers to the yard sale event as "a very powerful day".
The reason why the Yard Sale for the Cure strikes a chord is because breast cancer is an illness that mobilizes people, Andrew explained. It makes them angry because it targets women in their prime. One out of nine women will at one point in their lives be diagnosed with breast cancer, and virtually all of us have a personal connection to this illness.
Rachael had just arrived from a consulting assignment while Andrew had to leave to take their daughters Grace and Emma to karate. This gave me a chance to get to know Rachael Smith, whose personal encounter with cancer started it all. Rachael's presence is very calming, quiet, almost spiritual, and I was looking forward to hearing her story.
Rachael Smith is originally from Southern Ontario, and grew up with her three brothers. She went to the University of Toronto to study economics, and since her graduation she has been working in the advertising field. Today, in addition to helping run SNAP and the Yard Sale for the Cure, she continues to do consulting work. Like Andrew, Rachael has a myriad of interests: she enjoys sports, including skating and swimming. She also likes creating things and enjoys arts and knitting. In quiet moments (and there are not many) she just likes to curl up with a book. Their daughters Grace and Emma definitely keep them busy.
The key date in Rachael's life was April 26, 2004 when she discovered a lump during a breast self-exam. She could clearly feel a hardened mass of tissue, and in her brain she went "uh-oh". She anticipated that something serious was wrong. When she received the diagnosis of breast cancer she was devastated and very emotional. But very quickly a more rational side took over, and Rachael was determined not to dwell on the negative. She made a conscious decision to be as positive as possible; this was going to be the only way she saw of moving forward.
Together with her children she developed a strategy of finding a silver lining, something positive in everything, even the most negative events. As an example Rachael mentioned that when her hair started to fall out from the chemotherapy, she and her daughters decided that the silver lining of this new development was that she no longer had to buy shampoo.
Rachael is quick to add that her coping mechanisms are not to be understood to be superior to anyone else's coping strategies. She added that everyone is different, every woman and every family handles the diagnosis of cancer differently; and that there are a myriad of ways of dealing with this disease.
During the time after her diagnosis, Rachael had three revelations:
- The health care system kicked into high gear very quickly. After her diagnosis in late April Rachael had surgery on May 14, and chemotherapy within four weeks of the operation, the earliest possible date. Rachael's chemotherapy treatments lasted from June to October of 2005 while radiation went from October to December of 2005. Treatment happened very quickly for Rachael.
- She added that the staff at the Toronto East General Hospital were absolutely fantastic; she found them extremely caring and supportive. To this day Rachael still visits the nurses and doctors at the hospital, and their care and attention was a big motivation for starting the Yard Sale for the Cure initiative.
- The third insight that Rachael gained was the way she responded. She had often wondered how she would handle something as serious as breast cancer. When it happened to her Rachael started to feel "I can cope, I can do it". This positive mindset was what pulled her through, and her own strength became an interesting learning experience.
When she had her last cancer treatment she thought to herself "I guess that's it". She still has to complete regular checkups and mammograms to ensure that the illness is truly gone from her system.
I asked Rachael about the lasting impressions of this experience, and she responded that she appreciates things differently. Today she is much more grateful for the small things in life. If someone cuts her off in traffic today, all she says is "whatever", and she no longer gets upset about the little inconveniences in life.
Her family has become stronger and grown together as a result of this experience, but Rachael also realized that it is hard to know how children are going to respond to something as serious as cancer. One of her daughters just recently asked Rachael if she is going to get breast cancer too. The impact of this illness on her family inspired the vision statement for the charity "May the world's daughters never hear the words - You have breast cancer."
After her treatments ended Rachael spent more time exercising and paid more attention to healthy nutrition, both effective ways of combating a return of the disease. Mind you, her business endeavours with SNAP and the Yard Sale for the Cure keep her so busy that she sometimes does not have enough time to look after herself in an optimal way. She definitely plans to get back on track and take better care of herself.
Naturally I also inquired into Rachael and Andrew's attachment to the Beach. Andrew has been living here since 1987 and Rachael moved into this neighbourhood 15 years ago. Rachael calls the Beach "a fantastic neighbourhood", a really strong community full of activities and interesting people who do all sorts of wonderful things. Rachael added that the Beach is like a small town, and the neighbours on her own street are incredible. They have participated very actively in the Yard Sale for the Cure, even held car washes and put up lemonade stands to help with the cause. All the children were involved, a chance for them to learn a valuable life lesson of seeing charity in action.
Andrew Howard and Rachael Smith are a real power couple, with their successes in the corporate world and their recent forays into entrepreneurship. But more than that they are a tight-knit family that has chosen to give back to their community and wants to bring this spirit of charity to a yard sale near you.