On New Year’s Day 2014, Mary MacCarthy ’96 M.B.A. settled into a chair in her bedroom with a pad of paper and a pen to write the next chapter of her life. She began by taking stock of “everything I’m good at, everything I care about.”
After three decades working the corporate life, the latter part in the medical device industry, “I thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. This is it. I’m turning 50. I’m going for it,’” MacCarthy recalled of that day nearly a year ago.
Her short list of future career qualities was fairly simple: Improve society by bringing joy or providing comfort, employ creatives and create a culture that meets the needs of its employees not only financially but also with “inspiration, flexibility, color and light.” She also would strive to make enough money to sustain her two children (now grown, with the youngest starting university next year) and give herself an adequate retirement.
Within four months she launched Glorious Hugs, LLC, a social entrepreneurial venture with the initial goal of alleviating loneliness in senior citizens through care packages filled with original art and poetry and other goodies that spark joy. Recently she expanded her reach to college students.
The name was inspired by her beloved 97-year-old grandma Gloria, who died last month.
Artful packages that spark joy
MacCarthy summed up her business as “part of a larger picture. The theme is that you may think you’re alone but you’re not. There are people out there who care about you.”
With a degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, MacCarthy’s childhood dream was to become a psychologist and “bring hope to the depressed and lonely.” That sensibility is present in her decision to gear her efforts toward “anyone who needs a hug.” Seniors and college students, she feels, are particularly prone to loneliness and depression because of their unique life circumstances – whether losing some of their independence and nearing the end of life, or living away from home and experiencing independence for the first time.
“Glorious Hugs is about building connections and helping with socialization,” MacCarthy said, remarking on how each item in every care package works in harmony to bring a smile to recipients and, hopefully, spark engagement and conversation.
Every package includes original poetry by a Twin Cities writer; artwork by local artisans, including the customer’s choice of small paintings, glass art, jewelry, mugs and pillowcases; gluten-free cookies; a customizable greeting card; and things meant to awaken the child in us, such as bubbles, coloring pages and stickers.
MacCarthy's past career – particularly growing clinical evidence that suggests depression and lack of optimism are linked to cardiovascular disease – served as the impetus to make her care packages art based.
“Art can be therapeutic, not just creating it but considering it, engaging with it, having conversations about it,” she said. “Depression is primarily managed through pharma now, so I thought here’s an opportunity to use art in a new way to alleviate loneliness.”
MacCarthy’s generous spirit extends to the artists, whom she pays competitively for their original art, using her own funds to purchase every piece – and storing the “huge” inventory in an empty guest room in her Dellwood home.
When her business grows enough to support outsourcing she plans to hire people from the developmentally disabled community to package the boxes. (MacCarthy and her daughter currently do it all themselves.)
The path she took to reach Glorious Hugs was not a typical one, she said, but in retrospect she sees how she followed “a natural flow.”
MacCarthy honed her business acumen through the MBA program at St. Thomas a short time after working in human resources at NPR – her first job after college. Knowing she would be entrepreneur someday, she took a venture class and learned how to write a business plan and how to pitch to investors.
Last year she returned to the university’s Small Business Development Center in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship where she applied for and was granted consulting service free of charge – assistance the center has been offering for 40 years. MacCarthy continues to receive expert advice from Brian Abraham, Ph.D., associate dean of the school.
“There’s a lot of power in aligning your passion with your job,” MacCarthy said as she looked back on leaving her consulting job at Cardiovascular Systems late last year.
Her past work in the packaging industry at 3M afforded her expertise and networking connections in creating the easy-to-open design and the hexagonal, “huggable” shape of the packages. Her vast experience working in the cardiovascular device business at Medtronic led her to her last full-time job at Cardiovascular Systems. There, because it is a smaller corporation, she was able to do “a little bit of everything,” including ethnographic market research – a project that heavily influenced what would become the driving force behind Glorious Hugs.
The research took MacCarthy to Philadelphia, where she spent ample time in the homes of patients with peripheral artery disease – a serious health condition that affects vascularization in the legs and toes, limiting mobility and independence.
“Meeting these people on their own turf … their loneliness was so palpable,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that we could keep all these people alive, we could keep the toes on their feet, but yet they were so sad. They were happy to just talk about their disease because they didn’t have anybody who understood their pain, and we did because we saw it all the time.”
Rewriting her story
Among the handmade art available for purchase is a colorfully painted wood block. An inspirational quote by Marcel Proust adorns it. It reads, “You are living your story today and every day.” MacCarthy collaborated with the artist, as she does with all of her artist-vendors, in its creation.
She selected the quote because she believes it will resonate with college students. But she hopes it will have an even more profound resonance with seniors: “We tend not to buy things for seniors, and this sends the message that if you’re still alive, you’re still writing your story. You’re still in the game,” she said.
Although she admitted that starting her own business was one of the scariest things she has ever done, she never forgets that she also is still in the game, writing her own story.
“I always felt like there was something more I could do, I just didn’t know what it was until this,” she said. “No one can replace me in what I’m doing now.”
Her enthusiasm has garnered her numerous PR opportunities, which she pursues with zeal. “People tell me I have such great energy and so much passion,” MacCarthy said. “I never expected to be interviewed by Belinda Jensen on KARE-11," or that Bill George (a former CEO of Medtronic) would retweet her launch to his 29,000 followers. A self-described introvert, the everyday process of promoting Glorious Hugs has shown her she’s a much better storyteller than she thought she was.
“People like a good story,” MacCarthy said. “Especially when you’re doing something you truly care about.”
Recently MacCarthy was pleasantly astonished to receive in the mail her own product – a stamped postcard – sent from a senior who received a Glorious Hugs care package from a family member. “She didn’t send it to her daughter to say, 'thank you.' She sent it to me to tell me she appreciated what I am doing!” MacCarthy said. “There’s so much pain in the world. I’m happy that I can offset some of that.”