By Lauren Schiller

If you follow the venture capital industry, chances are you’ve heard the name Sonja Perkins.

Photograph by Stacey Estrella

Photograph by Stacey Estrella

The Harvard Business School-educated VC was a rising star at Menlo Ventures, making partner by age 29 and eventually becoming a managing director before leaving to form her own fund as well as the all-female angel investment group Broadway Angels.

This finance heavyweight radiates business savvy, but her philanthropic efforts have a luster all their own. In 2010, Perkins founded Project Glimmer as a way to help at-risk girls and women feel valued in their communities. What began as an effort among friends has grown to become a multi-city program that receives donations from some of the biggest names in the beauty industry.

I chatted with Perkins recently about Project Glimmer and why these gifts are so important to those who receive them. Below is an edited and condensed version of the interview. You can find the full interview on iTunes and inflectionpointradio.org.

Lauren Schiller: Tell us about Project Glimmer.

Sonja Perkins: Project Glimmer inspires at-risk teenage girls and women to believe in themselves by letting them know their community cares. That’s our mission. It started out when the San Francisco firefighters toy program told me they had nothing for teenage girls. I was kind of saddened by that. I was thinking, “Gosh, when I was 12, if somebody forgot Christmas, or a birthday, I would be really sad.” I thought, “That’s just the worst year to be forgotten.” My friends and I gathered up about 800 pieces of jewelry — items from our jewelry boxes that we just didn’t wear anymore and things like that. We gave this collection to the San Francisco firefighters toy program, and they were just delighted.

Nowadays, we organize “Boxing Joy” events where volunteers take the gifts and make sure that they’re beautifully polished, and clean and fashionable — you know, just gorgeous. We put them in these beautiful boxes and then we add a little note that says, “We believe in you,” and we give them to the organizations that serve at-risk teenage girls and women.

We found that the community is really into it, too. People really want to give back, and they want the people in their communities to know that they’re cared about. We’ve grown tremendously; to date we’ve given over 120,000 gifts in over 20 U.S. cities. We have hundreds of volunteers who collect gifts, package them up, and give them to nonprofit organizations.

We used to only do holiday gifts, but now we do birthdays, and Mother’s Day. For many of our recipients it’s the only gift they get, which is incredible. One Mother’s Day, we gave out 1,200 gifts to a program called Foster Care Counts in Los Angeles. Twelve-hundred foster children were able to give their 1,200 foster mothers a Mother’s Day gift. It was just beautiful.

Where is all the jewelry coming from now? You can’t possibly still be collecting it from your own selves.

When we started out we’d take it from anywhere, but now we have so many great partners that we work with. Those gifts from Mother’s Day came from Rocks Box. Because we also give makeup, we work with beauty brands such as theBalm and Sephora.

We have two rules about the gifts that we give. The first rule is that the intention of the gift is just as important as the actual gift. We don’t want someone to say, “Oh, here’s a bunch of stuff that we don’t use anymore. We hate it. You guys can take it.” We’re not interested in that, but we are interested when someone says, “Hey, I bought this jewelry that I really liked awhile ago, and I’m not wearing it anymore. I bet you someone would love it from Project Glimmer.” Or, like a company like Lydell saying, “You know, these were really great products that we sold last year, but this year we have the new styles. These are still in style, but because we’re such a cutting-edge designer, we’re going to give these to Project Glimmer and not sell them on our site.”

The second rule is no gift can disappoint. Which means it can’t be an old-fashioned pin or something like that — a teenage girl is not going to want that. She’s going to want something that maybe Taylor Swift would like. We have the very cool gifts go to the teenage girls, and then the nice gifts that more mature women would like, go to mature women. These may be women in homeless shelters, or those who are abused or recently released from jail.

We send the rest of the donated gifts to charitable organizations like Goodwill. Nothing gets wasted, but we want the women and girls in our community to know that we thought about them so much that we got them a really nice gift. Awhile back San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White introduced me to someone, and she said, “Yeah, this is Sonja Perkins. She’s the founder of Project Glimmer. They’re the one’s who give the good gifts.”

Oh, that’s a great compliment.

It was the best compliment I could have ever gotten. You know, when we first started I always inspected every single gift that we gave just to make sure it was good enough. Now, obviously I can’t do that, so I’m trying to work through that anxiety. We have such a great executive director, Chrissy Shea, who just does phenomenal things with Project Glimmer. She’s been great at reaching out to brands of beauty, and brands of jewelry. We’re of course always looking for more brands to donate, as well as people who could just donate cash — which obviously is necessary for us to operate.

Have you met any of the girls who have received the jewelry?

I have, and they all have their stories. One girl’s mother was deported when she was about 12. This girl — her name is Danielle, and she was a U.S. citizen — spent her childhood sleeping on couches of friends and relatives in East Palo Alto. She ended up going to a really good charter high school and ultimately getting into UC Berkeley, which was a great story. That girl we gave gifts to, and she was delighted by that.

Some of them, their stories are very sad. There’s a program called the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic that helps women who have cancer navigate the hospital system, and also they provide services like massage and acupuncture. A lot of these women are also homeless, or living in poverty or on the edge of poverty. One time I delivered 300 gifts to this clinic. We didn’t give them any makeup because sometimes if you go through chemo it will cause a reaction. We just had hats, and accessories, and jewelry. I got to tour this fabulous facility, and at the end I asked the director, “Wow, does this (the gift-giving) even matter? These people are really suffering.” She told me, “It matters so much because these people are forgotten, and while this wonderful program is serving some of their needs when it comes to health care, the core need of just having a little joy in your heart and a surprise under the lid of a beautiful box — you can’t even explain how important that is.”

How can readers get involved?

They can visit ProjectGlimmer.org, where they will see a list of the events that we do, including Boxing Joy days. They can also send money, which we always need, and become a supporter that way.  And we’re always looking for volunteers to help us with getting the gifts prepared and beautifully wrapped. Of course, if you are involved in the beauty and makeup industry we would love your help.

Lauren Schiller is the host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast featuring conversations with women changing the status quo. Inflection Point is produced at KALW in San Francisco, podcast on iTunes, and online at inflectionpointradio.org. The above article is an edited and condensed version of the broadcast interview. Click here to listen to the full audio.

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