Laurinda Lee-Retter is the founder of Kind Karma Company, which employs at-risk and homeless youth to handcraft sustainable and ethical jewelry.
In 2017, after working in administration for eight years, Lee-Retter decided to take the plunge and leave the corporate world to start her own business. Entrepreneurship had been a lifelong dream, but none of her previous business ideas sparked any passion. When brainstorming what she could do, she thought about running a business that gave back.
Her mind instantly went to all the young people out there who find doors closing on them – particularly high-risk, marginalized youth who experience poverty, homelessness, social isolation, violence, racism, discrimination or mental health challenges. How could she help them?
“Imagine if you suffer from so much trauma and then you’re made to feel like there’s no avenue for you to improve your lot in life, it’s just really devastating,” Lee-Retter told toast. “So I was like, maybe we can come up with an employment model that actually caters to helping them with their mental health, giving them that boost of confidence and then helping them succeed. And so that’s kind of how it all came about.”
Kind Karma Company Supports Marginalized Youth
Kind Karma Company is a social enterprise. Lee-Retter says the youth employees receive fair hourly wages, and the business also gives proceeds back from sales to support their individual goals, such as education or housing.
The company works with partner organizations to hire employees. One such example is Covenant House Toronto, which serves youth who are homeless, trafficked or at risk.
According to Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey, 20% of the homeless population in Canada is made up of young people between the ages of 13-24. Each year, there are at least 35,000-40,000 youth experiencing homelessness.
Homeless Hub states that family conflict underlies youth homelessness, and many are fleeing abuse or leaving the care of child welfare services. A research summary published by Homeless Hub states that “young people who are homeless face considerable barriers to obtaining and maintaining employment” due to a lack of a home address, adult support to transition into adulthood, and access to food, recreation and transportation.
Training and Employing Youth as Jewelry Artisans
Growing up, Lee-Retter loved making jewelry, playing music and pursuing other creative endeavors: “Being creative was always a huge aspect of who I was, and getting a job in the corporate world, I lost a bit of that. So I just went back to kind of something that I had loved doing as a youth.”
She figured making jewelry would be a low barrier into employment for youth. All of Kind Karma Company’s new employees are trained on how craft jewelry and are highlighted as jewelry artisans on the company website.
‘A Life-Changing Experience’
Today, Kind Karma Company employs four young people to create custom handcrafted jewelry, which is sold online to customers across Canada and the United States. The company has employed 12 artisans over the years and seeing them thrive in their roles is what keeps Lee-Retter going as an entrepreneur.
“Seeing youth who have never been able to hold down a job, stay with me for one year, and then two years, and then three years, and grow so passionate about the company, and wanting to see it grow, wanting to learn new things and progress, has been so big for me and it keeps me going when times get tough,” she says.
A quote shared by a youth artisan named Rachael, age 25, on the Kind Karma Company website reads: “Working at Kind Karma has been a life changing experience. I have never been able to hold down a job before but now I can say I have found steady employment in a wonderful environment.”
Making It Work During the Pandemic
In 2020, Kind Karma Company ran their operations out of a co-working space until the pandemic hit. When the space was closed due to lockdowns, Lee-Retter was forced to improvise. She invited her team to craft the jewelry in a park – they brought their pliers and other supplies and worked on a picnic bench a couple days a week.
Once the threat of winter temperatures loomed, and businesses started reopening, Lee-Retter decided to rent an office space of their own.
“I’ve always wanted to create a haven for our youth where they can come in, feel safe, have fun, be who they are and just interact with each other,” she says.
Kind Karma Company’s Plans for the Future
Kind Karma Company recently moved into a larger office space in Toronto, and they hope to transform one of the rooms into a showroom. In the next few years, Lee-Retter wants to see the company grow, promote her employees into leadership positions and give more opportunities to youth nationwide.
“I would love to see Kind Karma expand across the country and in all major cities,” she says. “That’s where youth really fall through the cracks and sometimes they just get lost. They’re one in millions and the cost of living is so high.”
Start Small to Make a Difference
For people who want to make a difference in their own communities, Lee-Retter says even something small can make a difference. She referenced an inspirational quote from Mother Theresa: “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”
Lee-Retter describes how people tend to fixate on the big picture, thinking, “I’m just one person, I can’t do all these things or fix all these things” but she says it takes individual action to change the world. There are studies that suggest, for example, that individual climate action boosts systemic change.
“You never know how much of an impact your one small action could have, not only on the community, but the world,” she says. “Even if I just hired one youth and helped them, you never know what that one youth is going to grow up to do or end up achieving and the lives that youth is going to impact, and it spreads. It’s always that ripple effect where, just to make even a small difference, you never know how huge it’s going to be. But we just have to keep doing it because collectively we can create a tidal wave.”
Lead image credit: Laurinda Lee-Retter is the founder of Kind Karma Company, which employs at-risk youth to handcraft ethical jewelry. Photo courtesy of Laurinda Lee-Retter.