On October 8, 18,000 teenagers will gather in the Xcel Energy Center to scream and cry and cheer for . . . the 82-year-old former chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Mikhail Gorbachev? Just kidding. They’ll totally be there to see the Jonas Brothers. Gorby and the Jonas Brothers and all those teens will be there for We Day, the wildly popular charity event held by the Free the Children Campaign, whose mission is to “empower youth for global change.” I spoke to Dean Phillips, the 43-year-old former head of Phillips Distilling Company and current head of Talenti Gelato, who’s serving as co-chair of We Day (along with his 19-year-old sister, Hutton), about what We Day is, why he thinks it’s such a worthy cause, and what his grandma would think of all this.
Do you think all this work on youth leading global change will be a distraction from getting people their booze and their ice cream?
This is on the record?
Yeah. I think you do important work here, with the booze and the ice cream.
We’ve always seen business as a means to an end, and this is a classic example of what that means. It’s not just about making spirits or gelato; it’s about a purpose. The purpose is to return the benefits to the community. That’s how we define profit in this family.
You’ve run big businesses and start-ups. Out of all the places to invest your time, why We Day?
I’ve always looked at philanthropy from a business perspective. When you share resources, that’s an investment and you want a return. When it’s philanthropy, you want a social return—people doing better, or becoming more self-sufficient, or having their lives improved. As a family and a foundation [The Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota], we’ve always looked at getting further and further upstream. Rather than trying to give someone who’s homeless and hungry a meal, how do you prevent that circumstance from happening in the first place?
When Free the Children and the We Day concept was introduced to me, that was as far upstream as humanly possible, because you’re engaging kids. There will be 18,000 kids in St. Paul on October 8—all of whom have committed to do something to help others. Imagine 10, 20, 30 years from now, when these people are productive people in society, they will consider philanthropy and helping others to be core to their existence.
This organization was invented by a 12-year-old?
Yes, Craig Kielburger and his brother Marc. Craig was 12 years old, read in a Toronto newspaper about this little boy in Pakistan who had been killed because he was speaking out against childhood slavery, and it struck him. He went to school and he started basically the same small service club that we’ve started in 500 schools in Minnesota.
What are We Day and Free the Children doing to free children from child labor?
They’re active in many countries—Kenya and India, in particular. But the objective of this whole initiative and what we’re bringing to Minnesota is more about letting the kids choose. It’s not about child labor in Pakistan or starving children in Kenya necessarily (although they’ll be the recipients of some of this aid). The kids in the service club get to choose. That’s what makes this so remarkable.
It does sound cool, but the only thing that I’m concerned about is the focus is so much on the charitable actor rather than on the recipient. There’s something weird about that.
Totally. You know who the biggest beneficiary of local philanthropic galas was? Neiman Marcus. That’s always been a contention. But I’m glad you asked that question, because in effect it’s the same model. We have these gorgeous galas. International celebrities come to town, people dress to the nines—thousands of dollars per outfit—and they’re celebrated with caviar and champagne because they’re sharing a lot of money. Kids—12- and 13-year-old kids—have the power to effect more change through social media and connections and community than older people can, but there’s been nothing heretofore to celebrate them. Every weekend there’s another gala to celebrate people like me; there’s never been something to celebrate people like them. And that’s what this is all about. In the long term I think that will create a new culture of philanthropy. We Day is about aspirations. Mikhail Gorbachev is coming, the Jonas Brothers, the Minnesota Vikings are involved.
How is it that the Jonas Brothers are in any way positive for kids?
Having been at the launch event back in February, the response they elicit in kids around the world, and in this gym in north Minneapolis, was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. And frankly, having been to two We Days now, I’ve never felt emotions that I’ve felt in those arenas with those kids. I’ve been to crazy cool events before. Nothing compares.
Your grandmother was Dear Abby. What would she would think about using celebrities to make us think about the disadvantaged?
I think she, more than most people, recognized the power of celebrity, as someone who went from a housewife to a household name. And her great legacy (which frankly I didn’t personally recognize until she passed away and I read the wonderful obituaries) was much more about being at the forefront of significant social issues before people were willing to talk about them. Gay rights. And people with disabilities. She would often tell me, “I have so many letters from lonely kids around the country who lived in small towns, who were very sheltered when it came to social issues and had great struggles that they couldn’t share with anybody, and the only outlet was to write a letter to Dear Abby.”
If you look at philanthropy as a business, though, We Day in particular uses about 50 percent of the money it raises for administrative costs. Is that a good number?
I don’t know the total percentage of budget that goes to admin costs for Free the Children, so I don’t want to misspeak. But what I can say: The money we raise for We Day, most of it goes to administrative costs. Because ultimately the monies that the tens of thousands of kids are raising, that’s going to the charities. So that’s distinct.
There are some extraordinary organizations doing amazing work that have very high admin ratios and those that have very low that do much less impactful work. So for me it’s like measuring goodwill in a brand. What is Coca-Cola worth? It’s more than just the economics of it. It’s the goodwill involved. You can’t measure goodwill sometimes.
It does speak to people’s unease with how much good they’re doing for the world and how much they’re doing for themselves.
That’s totally fair. Believe me, with our foundation, we apply metrics to a lot of our giving. The thing you can’t measure is what you can experience. What I experienced I couldn’t put a value on. And whether it’s you or anybody who’s going to read this article, if you can experience that moment of walking into that arena once in your lifetime, you will change. I can’t put a dollar figure on that. I can’t put an administrative cost on that.
It sounds like you dropped acid or something. It sounds like a psychedelic experience.
It was a philanthropic trip! (Laughs.) It was beautiful and colorful and exciting and otherworldly and amazing.
You were adopted and you went on to run the family business.
My motive is a daily recognition of how darn lucky I am. Not just for having been adopted by this amazing family. My first father was also amazing.
Did you know him?
No. He was killed in the Vietnam War.
When were you adopted?
When I was 6 months old. I had the best nature and the best nurture between my two dads.
How did the adoption work?
When my birth father was killed in Vietnam, my mother then remarried my dad, Eddie Phillips, who then adopted me. So really, I had the best of nature and the best of nurture, and that’s part of what motivates me every day. I’ve lost two amazing fathers, one to Vietnam and one to cancer a couple years ago. I’d like to think they’re both looking down and have high expectations of me.
How old were you when you took over the family business?
I started running Phillips Distilling in 2001 and then moved over to Talenti about a year ago.
Why did you leave the original family business for Talenti?
I have this great affection for creating or nurturing something very small and raising it. And I felt, frankly, that my work at Phillips had been done, creating brands and nurturing them, and Talenti represented that opportunity to do it again in a totally different category in a business that brings so much joy to people. It’s ice cream! It’s gelato!
Ice cream and booze! I’m saying both of those things have helped the world more than harmed it.
That’s a whole ’nother article.