Votives light way for patient, entrepreneur

Lee Rhodes, who will be in town Thursday, built her business out of her experience fighting cancer, and through her business gives to others.


WALLA WALLA -- Lee Rhodes has been defying the odds for years: Kicked cancer, took an idea business experts said would never get off the ground and built it into a more than $5 million a year venture, then became the first woman to be named Entrepreneur of the Year by Entrepreneur Magazine.

So it may come as no surprise that she would venture from her traditional course of big-city travel, sharing her story in metropolitan communities across America, for a special appearance in Walla Walla.

During a public presentation Thursday at Foundry Vineyards, Rhodes, the founder of glassybaby, a handblown glass art business known for its unique votive holders, will tell the tale of her journey.

The event will serve as a fundraiser for The Moms' Network, an organization that encapsulates what Rhodes' looks for in the organizations to which her company contributes: a sense of community for those who use it.

When fighting cancer yet again in 1998, Rhodes was the mother of three small children.

The Seattle area resident was on her third round of chemotherapy and in a dark place when a tiny light seemed the biggest source of comfort.

Amid her health battle she had given her husband glassblowing classes as a gift. Somewhere around the second class, he brought home a votive, made simply from opening up a bubble. She dropped a tea light inside and was immediately taken by its beauty.

"It came at a time in my life when I had no idea what I was looking for," Rhodes said during a telephone interview. "I was in a darker place. Seeing that color and light had an immediate effect on me. You can't help as human beings to be affected by color and light and flame and movement."

She asked her husband to make more. But the class had moved on to other things. So she began hiring artists to make them for her.

At first, she offered them to friends when they would ask what they could do to help her. She would simply say, "Light a candle for me." She gave them away to other cancer patients. Anyone who wanted one.

The chemo room proved not only a place where she could share the votive holders. It also became a source of inspiration for how she could give back.

It was there that she learned another hardship about cancer. Many people -- even those with insurance -- couldn't get the treatment they needed because of poverty. Whether it was paying for fuel to get to the cancer center or the fee to park.

"Everything about my life had never, ever, ever come in contact with the fact that some people don't get chemo because they don't have the $5 to get there," Rhodes said. "I never even gave it a second thought until it hit me, and I realized that people die because they don't get their basic needs met."

Since 2003 her business has given more than $1 million to organizations dedicated to health, healing and quality of life.

"Health insurance doesn't do anything for your needs," Rhodes said. "It doesn't feed you, get you a bus pass, buy a magazine to take your mind off it -- basic needs."

Savvy business experts warned Rhodes about launching the votive holders into a full-time business. Their concerns were not off-base, Rhodes said.

"To sell a votive for $44 and give back 10 percent of revenue is not a successful business plan," Rhodes said. "You don't have to have much business acumen to understand it's not supposed to work."

But she couldn't shake the way people responding to the flickering flames as the color glowed through the curvy designs of the glassybaby votive holders. "That was really what got me over the hump," she said.

The business launched. Martha Stewart featured glassybaby on her show. Skeptics became believers. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought 20 percent of the company. The business has grown 40 to 50 percent each year since 2009.

Today the votive holders now come in more than 400 shades, made by more than 70 artists in a Seattle studio that produces them seven days a week. Each one takes the work of four artists.

Rhodes found out about The Moms' Network after its founder, Beth Swanson, sent an email to the company. She herself had been so inspired by the story and the votive holders that she took the time to write.

"This is such an incredible opportunity for all of us in the Walla Walla community to hear the story of a mom, cancer survivor and successful business woman," Swanson said. "Glassybaby started with a light of hope and healing to help (Rhodes) during her cancer treatments, and now each glassybaby sold plays a part of light, beauty and healing in other people's (stories)."


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