Making It Work: Social Worker to Gift Shop Owner
Erika Righter is “Slinging Hope” in her community
When not running the uber-successful gift shop, she is mom to 18-month-old Miles and three-and-a-half-year-old Maeve, all while managing to keep everyone looking fabulous in the process.
Q: What brought you to Denver?
A: I was born in Boston and majored in social work at the University of Vermont. When I was 23, like a lot of girls, I did a road trip with a guy. I got here and liked what I saw. I didn’t like him so much, but I did like Denver. So I packed up my stuff and moved here.
Q: What is Hope Tank?
A: Hope Tank is a gift store that gives back. Our mission is to educate, inspire, and [motivate] people to have an impact in their community and beyond. Every purchase supports a charity. We have 25 local charities, plus products from all over with causes built into them.
Q: Who chooses the beneficiary organizations?
A: If it’s a handmade product, the artist chooses. If it’s manufactured, the larger companies will donate products toward local charities. We give them a choice. Ultimately, we’re marketing their product with the giveback. It’s been fascinating. I don’t come from a retail background. The response I initially got from the reps was, “They’ll never go for it. Nobody does that.” When what actually happened is that same company loved it: “We love that our hat can be on the head of a young child with disabilities.” It’s a beautiful branding moment. Just because things have always been one way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way.
Q: How do you decide which manufactured products to carry?
A: There’s no formula. I buy things that I would like to give or receive as a gift. First and foremost is identifying companies that are already giving. Then, from the perspective of a social worker, I do my due diligence about what their giving looks like. I don’t want to become part of the trend where the cause is used to market the product, as opposed to using the product to market the cause.
Q: Will you ever have an online shop?
A: Aside from whether we are opening another store, the most-asked question is “When are [you] going online?” I never expected how many tourists we’d have. The area where we are located has become a hot spot, and we’re the first stop. And they come back. If we were online, [business] would go berserk.
People have the impression I have a team. In reality, I’m a one-woman show, and all the things we want to do aren’t as easy as people think. Everything is a priority. Thankfully, having someone come in to do operations and help me with streamlining has been epic. My business has already increased since she’s been involved. People who go the investment route have lots of advisers. I don’t. I just jumped into this thing, put on my big [girl] panties, and did it. Now I’m at a place where I’m able to step back and look at the trajectory of how far we’ve come; what the priorities are, going forward; and identifying what this thing is that I’ve created that can impact so many lives.
Q: What inspired you to open Hope Tank?
A: I was a caseworker [helping] youth in foster care who were aging out of the system—in most cases, into homelessness. I couldn’t believe we weren’t empowering people to know they can impact these problems. What I saw was a consistent feeling of helplessness by people who wanted to help and didn’t know how to do it. Aside from foster parenting, there are myriad ways we can assist these people.
How can we find a simple, straightforward way to get the conversation going? It’s a difficult topic that must be discussed. Just because it’s not always covered in the press doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. I wanted to find a way to do this, plus align with people who think outside the box about giving back. There was an impression that if you don’t have money, you can’t have an impact. That’s just false.
Q: How did you get it up and running?
A: Never, ever, in my wildest dreams was this something I wanted to do. I was a social worker. But I knew that I had some cool ideas.
On a whim, I applied for a scholarship to South by Southwest Interactive, which is about using technology to change our world—and I won! I went and met these incredibly brave, brilliant, geeky people who believe we can do things differently. It was a priceless experience to have them tell me, “It needs to happen. Get moving.”
I came back to Denver, and within three months I got married, got pregnant, my agency closed, I lost my job, then my husband got laid off. I thought, It can’t get scarier. Either I go into another casework job or I have the bravery to try something different. So I signed a lease on a little spot, found 10 artists who were willing to take a portion of what they sold and donate it back, and that’s how it started.
Q: When and how did you become a Solo Mom?
A: My ex and I have been separated for six months. I’m in the business of believing that kindness is integral to our society. If you’re not in an authentic place, you can’t run a business that way. Unfortunately for my husband and [me], we were not on the path of kindness.
My husband was a huge part of growing this business. I had two babies, so he’d work tons in the store after his own job. I’m grateful to him for allowing me to pursue this crazy dream, but he needed to do his own thing, and we weren’t able to do that together. It’s a relief for both of us. When one is unhappy, you’re both unhappy, so the kids are unhappy. I’d rather them know us as being friends than us trying to make it a marriage just to call it a marriage.
Q: Did being a Solo Mom impact your career?
A: I get strength from the many Solo-Mom entrepreneurs I know. The hardest part is compartmentalizing your mommy time. I don’t have a business where I can have my kids with me.
I didn’t tell people I was pregnant with my second child until the day I was due because I was worried people wouldn’t take me seriously in business. I remember being filmed for something and asking them to shoot me [from the] waist up so I could hide my condition. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that we have to hide these things. But people would ask, “How are you balancing this with a baby?” And here I was about to have another one—facing a marriage that wasn’t perfect. It made it impossible to do it all, and I didn’t want anyone to know.
This is the first interview where I’ve acknowledged I’m a Solo Mom. When [I was asked] to do the interview, I thought—what ESME does is epic. If this isn’t a kick in the ass . . . I very much believe things are presented when they are supposed to. If I feel brave about taking all these leaps with business, why wouldn’t I be brave about owning that I’m doing it all as a Solo Mom?
Q: What are some of your challenges?
A: I never expected to be missing time with my kids at this point in my life. It’s made me deeply aware of the time I spend with them, what I say, if I’m on my phone, or really making the time with them count. And while I am so insanely tired, I have friends who have lost children, had miscarriages, been through so much more. So despite all of the challenges, I have a mantra of being grateful.
Q: Do you think being raised by a Solo Mom shaped who you are today?
A: My dad passed away, so it was a different experience, but I have a mom who is fierce, brilliant, and pushes me to be my best. I’m incredibly lucky that she lives with me. There’s no way I could pull this off without her. She took care of both my kids the first year and a half. Now the kids are in day care, and the baby is home two days a week. It’s a gift. I have a Solo Mom who supports me in my journey as a Solo Mom. The sacrifices she makes for me allow me to create opportunities for my kids.
Q: Are there specific resources in your community that help you?
A: There’s a wildly hilarious and supportive group here called “The Pump and Dump.” It’s two moms with a filthy mommy-comedy show. My neighbor forced me to go to when my daughter was born. They were just launching. They call out all the seemingly perfect moms, but after a couple of drinks, everyone reveals their struggles. It levels the playing field. I laughed my ass off. Now they’ve exploded and have a show that tours the country. Having the ability to connect with women where you can admit you are a mess is for me the best environment.
Q: Was there a defining moment that drove home you were a Solo Mom?
A: My daughter will say little things. She once said about herself, “I’m a woman.” I told her not to be in such a hurry to grow up. Then she said, “It’s because you’re sad I’m not a baby anymore.” I know I’m imprinting.
Also, being around my married mom friends can be painful. It was hard enough being an entrepreneur and hanging out with friends who weren’t. I felt separated. Now they don’t know what to do, what to say. I met a solo dad at an event last night, and it was such a relief.
Q: What are you most proud of as a Solo Mom?
A: I’m proud I’m pursuing my dream with a business that helps a lot of people and brings them joy.
Q: Favorite single-parenting tip?
A: I’m a super-thrifty mom and have special spots where I shop so my kids always look really cute. I pride myself on this. It makes me feel like I have my act together. But I’d go to all this trouble to get them dressed and send them to my ex’s with packed suitcases, then find myself getting upset when I’d see pictures of them and they’re a mess. I came up with a plan where I put every outfit together, put them in Ziploc bags with the days of the week, even put in little notes. If I can’t be there to dress them, I want to feel like I was there. It’s silly—we’ll see if I can keep it up!
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 18, and William, age 14.
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