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Businesses that give back: A new school of thought

While today's trends and inventions often deemed narcissistic (think the selfie stick), an interest in making the world a better place is also driving innovation.

Yoobi, a Los Angeles-based school supplies company, falls in this camp. The startup connects customers to a mission to provide supplies to classrooms in need. Every purchase results in a donation.

In the company's first year in business, co-founder and CEO Ido Leffler says Yoobi has sales of $20 million and has been able to provide more than 1 million children with free school supplies.

The concept isn't new, Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses to someone in need for each pair purchased. The shoe company Toms also has a buy one, give one business model.

According to Chris Marquis, a Cornell scholar who has studied this business trend, the formula is often criticized for only addressing symptoms of social issues and not the root cause.

"With Yoobi, for instance, there's a bigger social issue about underfunded schools," Marquis explained.

Still, companies like Yoobi can be highly effective at giving back and spreading awareness, Marquis said.

"School supplies are tremendously important, so I think that the symptoms that these businesses can address are important," he said.

The socially conscious trend will gain in popularity, he predicted. "There's a lot of research that shows that younger consumers really want to give back. They want to actually have some sort of social impact," he explained.

Usher delivers Yoobi supplies to Hillcrest Elementary School in LA.
Source: Yoobi
Usher delivers Yoobi supplies to Hillcrest Elementary School in LA.

Addressing the lack of materials in classrooms is an issue close to Leffler's heart. His mother was a teacher in Australia and his parents struggled financially when his father's commercial real estate business went bust in the 1990's.

"I know what it's like to go to school without having my parents able to afford the supplies. I know what it's like for my mother as a school teacher to pour money out of her own pocket to buy supplies," Leffler said.

Maria Cortez, a teacher at the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in Los Angeles, said she spends more than $1,000 a year of her own money on school supplies.


According to Camino Nuevo, almost 98 percent of its students are socio-economically disadvantaged. The school recently received a donation from Yoobi and Cortez says the impact has been priceless.

Cortez is not alone. According to the National Retail Federation, American teachers shell out about $500 of their own money each year on classroom materials.


Usher attends a Yoobi give event at Hillcrest Elementary School in LA.
Source: Yoobi
Usher attends a Yoobi give event at Hillcrest Elementary School in LA.

Yoobi hosts giveaway events where they bring supplies to classrooms across the country and catch the student's reactions on camera.

"The emotion that comes with a box of supplies … it was as though we were giving everybody in that classroom a brand new car," Leffler said.

Yoobi's philanthropic efforts have attracted the attention of Usher, who recently teamed up with the company to help design a limited edition school supplies collection. He also attended one of Yoobi's giveaways at an inner city school in LA.

"It doesn't really matter what widget you're selling, if you've got a cause that everybody is fully committed to, you're able to do things that really translate to magic."

Marquis agreed, saying one of the key ingredients to making this business model works is authenticity.

CNBC's Andy Rothman contributed to this report.