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Glassybaby: How an ‘Accidental Entrepreneur’ Grew Business, Helped Cancer Victims

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Lee Rhodes was just 32 when she was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer, a nightmare for anyone but a particularly grim diagnosis for a mother of three small children. After a long, hard battle and many rounds of grueling chemotherapy, Rhodes not only beat cancer but came up with a dream of helping other cancer patients.

The dream began from Rhodes' sick bed, moved to the garage of her Seattle home and has since evolved into a successful business called glassybaby.

A truly unique and inspiring enterprise, glassybaby not only employs scores of artisans in Seattle -- over 50 glassblowers at last count -- but also gives a big portion of its revenue to cancer-related charities, over $850,000 and counting.

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glassybaby is "a business that also is a charity," Rhodes says.

Like many small business owners, Rhodes describes herself as an "accidental entrepreneur". In her case, it was an accident of sorts...aided perhaps by a bit of divine fate.

While suffering from cancer and the effects of chemo, Rhodes' then-husband gave her a small bowl he'd made in a glass-blowing class. Rhodes dropped a candle in the bowl and says she was immediately transfixed by the glow. "It made this incredible light," she recalls.

Rhodes got such comfort from the candlelight emanating from the small glass bowl she asked her husband to make more. Then she asked friends, many of whom were asking "how can I help?" to give her more. Before long, her room was filled with the small, glowing orbs and she was filled with hope.

It would be a touching story if it ended there, but that was just the beginning. Soon Rhodes was on the mend and friends starting asking her for the votives, which her kids had started referring to as "glassy babies."

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Rhodes learned to blow glass and began making the bowls herself. After first giving them away, she started selling them out of her garage in 1998.

"When you find that incredible thing in your life that you want to share...that's how it began," Rhodes says. "That became glassybaby."

As with many other successful entrepreneurs, Rhodes was undaunted by skeptics who told her a single-product retailer -- especially one selling something handmade in America -- would never make it.

"I poured in a lot of my own money at the beginning," she says. "I don't think anyone thought of it as a business. Banks laughed at me."

Then another "accident" gave Rhodes' fledgling firm a huge boost.

After being given some glassybaby products as a gift, homemaking magnate Martha Stewart asked Rhodes to be a guest on her TV show -- and not just any show but the first one after Stewart's return from jail.

"All of a sudden we were in business," Rhodes recalls.

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In 2003, glassybaby opened its first retail store in the Madrona section of Seattle. Today, the company has three locations in the Seattle area and another in New York. The firm counts Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos among its investors and has legions of fans who believe in the healing powers of glassybaby.

glassybaby's sales topped $6 million in 2011 and Rhodes expects robust growth in 2012. More sales "means we give more money away," she says with a smile.

Rhodes has received plenty of accolades along the way -- including an "It's Always Something Award" from Gilda's Club in New York and Entrepreneur Magazine's Entrepreneur of 2011 award -- but she remains grounded and firmly focused on the task at hand: Helping cancer patients get whatever they need to get better, whether it's money for bus fare to treatment, childcare or a "special" treat.

"What drives me is making funds available that are unrestricted to do whatever you need to get well," she says. "That's glassybaby in a nutshell."

In a nutshell, Rhodes is an incredible person, running a thriving business that is doing a world of good for a lot of very sick people.

And that's no accident.

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The Driven Team is on a nationwide search for the next entrepreneur to be featured in an upcoming episode! Share your story with us at Driven@yahoo-inc.com or follow us on twitter @aarontask #drivenstories.

Video produced by Scott Fraser and Jessica Ashford.  Production by Michael Manas, Tommy Morquecho, Ricky Montalvo, Victor Velazquez, and Jessie Carter. Edited by Ryan Fritzsche. Graphics by Todd Tanner For Yahoo! Studios. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Peter Gorenstein.

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