A trailblazing CEO rewards employees with the service trip of a lifetime.

BY ERIC MURPHY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRYANNA BAKER

 

In a team-building exercise like none other, Mastermind Toys founder Jon Levy brought his top-performing employees closer together by flying them 12,000 kilometres away from home.

The group’s ME to WE Trip brought them to southern Kenya, near Irkaat, a community of roughly 1,800 that Mastermind Staff had long supported from afar. After touching down on a dirt airstrip in the middle of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, it was time to see the fruits of their fundraising efforts. When the moment finally came, nearly everyone in Irkaat paraded out to meet them.

“It was overwhelming,” says Chad Endo, a store manager from Sylvan Lake, Alberta. The townspeople’s brightly coloured clothes formed a sea of reds, yellows and blues that the Mastermind group quickly found themselves in the centre of.

“I was surrounded by people wanting to shake hands,” Endo recalls. “And it wasn’t just the children. It was the mamas and the fathers that wanted to introduce themselves.

Moments like this were the reason Levy organized the trip with WE. He wanted to show Mastermind employees the impact their work was having, while also giving them the chance to meet new friends and mentors within the organization far outside of their familiar toy store setting. Managers found themselves sitting next to their founder every night over dinner and joining their VP of Marketing shoulder to shoulder on long afternoons of classroom building.

“We bonded,” says Levy. “And that’s exactly what I was looking for. Multiple levels of our organization coming together as one.”

Mastermind, which has expanded to nearly 60 stores in Canada while other major toy retails are struggling, became involved with WE four years ago. Their partnership led to Mastermind’s holiday Tie on Some Goodness Campaign, where customers had the option to add a $2 donation to WE Charity onto their purchases. During the 2016 campaign, Tie on Some Goodness—only one of a group of Mastermind charitable initiatives—raised roughly $200,000. Much of those funds went to Irkaat.

Before WE partnered with Irkaat in 2014, the community had to send children on a five-kilometre journey to get to a school, where they studied in temporary wood and clay structures. Clean water was even less accessible.

Mastermind-raised donations have since helped build three classrooms in Irkaat, enabling the student population to double from nearly 350 to more than 700. A borehole has also been added, providing safe, clean water for drinking and sanitation.

In a week of safaris, site tours, classroom building, and beading lessons, it was seeing these raw numbers tracking student enrollment that hit many Mastermind employees the hardest.

“After the first night, one of our managers said ‘this day has changed me forever,’” Levy recalls. “That was extremely powerful.”

Levy hopes that the employees’ stories will give the Mastermind team back home a better understanding of their organization’s giving philosophy, creating shared values for them to connect over. The image of hundreds of joyous people in Irkaat and of the bricks and mortar that went into their schools will be one more reason for employees to take pride in their work. WE’s domestic programming also helps to improve educational offerings in their own communities.

In this way, Mastermind can make a global impact, while benefiting from having inspired loyal team members, who feel like part of a close-knit family—not just employees in a store.

The Artisans Impact

To find another way Mastermind has been able to strengthen their business, while also inspiring change, you need look no further than the Rafiki bracelets Levy wears just above his wristwatch.

“Two years ago we didn’t sell an item called a Rafiki, and today Rafikis are built into our sales plan at the range of probably over 30,000 units,” Levy said.

Beaded by more than 1,500 Maasai mamas across Kenya as part of ME to WE Artisans, Rafikis come in a myriad of colourful designs, each representing one of WE’s five pillars: education, water, health, food, and opportunity. For each $10 Rafiki Mastermind sells, $5 goes to the ME to WE social enterprise, which donates half of its annual profits to WE Charity. By offering Rafikis at the front of their store, Mastermind is able to support incredible change domestically and internationally, while also profiting from each bracelet sold.

“[WE] can do so much goodness with the $5 we pay for a Rafiki, and our team can sell Rafikis so excitedly because there’s a 50 point gross margin,” Levy said. “That is a big time win-win.”

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