It was a natural disaster the likes of which few had ever witnessed. On January 12, 2010, the impoverished island nation of Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale. Approximately 222,750 people were killed, 300,000 injured and 1.6 million left homeless and displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.
A year later, not much had changed. Rubble still littered the capital of Port-au-Prince, near the epicenter of the quake. Over a million people still lived in makeshift housing, and aid money was largely going unspent. It was into this devastating situation that Joseph Sommer decided to travel after finishing college. Now the president of Whitestone Works (asi/359741), a Manhattan-based distributorship, Sommer took time after graduating from the entrepreneurship program at Johnson & Wales University in 2011 to give back, before launching his career. As a long-time participant and volunteer at the YMCA growing up in Washington, D.C., he believed spending time at the YMCA d’Haiti for three weeks would be an ideal fit. So the day after graduation, he flew down to the ravaged country, where he spent time playing with children, teaching English and touring the devastation.
“I knew I couldn’t dwell on college, and that I was going to have to focus solely on my professional life,” says Sommer, a newly-minted member of Counselor’s Hot 25. “So between college and my career, I decided to be selfless for three weeks and it really reset my brain. I wanted to take time to be in someone else’s shoes, doing the right thing. It offered some solace, even though it was still so disorganized and chaotic there.”
Joseph Sommer visits with children at the YMCA d’Haiti, to which Sommer donated $5,000 in January.
All the while, Sommer was still interested in pursuing a career in the promotional industry, a result of having interned for a Las Vegas-based distributor while in college. Upon his return home, he contacted a friend of his father who was involved in high-end gifting and private labeling for heads of state and heavy-hitters in the finance industry. While Sommer cut his teeth on promotional items and campaigns for discerning clients, he was still determined to start his own business. Not long after, in 2013, he founded Whitestone Works.
“Each customer receives a detailed presentation that’s about 150 or 200 pages, showing them all the possibilities for their promotional campaign,” says Sommer. “It sounds like a lot, but if they don’t win, I don’t win. I have to prove that, even though I’m young, I know what I’m doing. Many clients will wonder, can we trust him with a $50,000 order? Or even $500? I have to show that I’m serious about my business and clients.”
Sommer is also serious about giving back to the community. When he founded his company, he pledged that a percentage of each year’s profits would go to a different nonprofit. In 2014, he also established his company’s Loyalty Program, which offers clients who reach certain order thresholds the choice of certain product selections or a donation to an organization. “It differentiates us,” says Sommer. “It’s all at the customer’s direction.”
After his first full year in business, Sommer fulfilled his promise to give a percentage of his company’s profits to those in need. He traveled back down to the YMCA d’Haiti this past January to present the staff with $5,000, which will be used to help build more YMCA facilities in rural areas.
“Corporate social responsibility is part of any successful business model,” says Sommer. “I was adopted as a kid, and I often think, if I hadn’t been, where would I have ended up? Fostered? In an abusive situation? There are all kinds of what-ifs. That’s why I give back. I’ve had a fortunate life with a loving family. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, so it’s important to step back and do something for someone else.”