Young Arlington Heights entrepreneurs promote mental health with merchandise brand
They call it simply Happiness Project.
This grass-roots campaign run by four Arlington Heights friends that's devoted to boosting positivity and removing the stigma of mental illness is gaining national attention.
Jake Lavin, Joey DeFilippo, Mike Jones and Joey Ruben have more than 86,000 followers on Instagram, growing demand for their custom apparel, and now a short film out that confronts teenage suicide while driving home their message of elevating happiness.
Just last month, they were the subject of a Q&A in the online magazine Entrepreneur, which explored their journey to build a clothing brand while creating an impactful business.
It was Lavin who founded the organization after a classmate at Hersey High School lost his battle with mental illness.
"Enough is enough. No person should battle their mental struggles alone," he writes on the organization's website. "And with that thought in my head, I created Happiness Project."
Lavin started as an entrepreneur as far back as middle school when he ran a large Instagram account for custom socks, so he had experience with custom apparel. He brought in DeFilippo, another Hersey grad, for his interest in the project and talent in graphic design.
As the brand grew, they added Mike Jones, a Hersey grad with a degree in computer science and business from Miami University in Ohio, and Joey Ruben, a senior at St. Viator High School, who runs a successful social media influencer account.
All four had experience with community service in high school -- the Hersey grads through its Service Over Self Club and Ruben through St. Viator's Service and Song Camp.
They started spreading their message with basic hoodies, T-shirts, caps and stickers, all designed with the Happiness Project logo. Currently, there are 50 varieties of these bestsellers, in different colors and tie-dyed, which they say they spent much of the summer producing.
All four are committed to their message and have pledged to give 15% of their proceeds to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Yet, as they enter 2021, their biggest challenge is moving their warehouse of inventory out of the basement of one of their homes.
They average around 100 orders per day, and are selling out quickly. Consequently, this year they have decided to outsource all of the production and fulfillment, with the goal of helping the company grow.
When asked what they think is driving the business and building their loyal fan base, they answered simply, their message.
"We really pride ourselves on focusing more on the mission of our project and less and less on the clothes," Lavin says.
Their main platform is their Instagram account, and they fill it with mental health infographics, tips, challenges and quotes. Their six-minute film, called "Happy New You," is their newest project.
They conceived the idea during the pandemic and worked with writer Jeremy Haynes to create the script and Samuel Abu, an advanced film student at Columbia College in Chicago, to direct and produce the film.
"From the first moment we heard the story and saw the script, we thought, as a team, that we have to do this," DeFilippo says. "If we could save someone's life -- it doesn't matter if it's one person, 10 people or 1,000 people -- then this whole thing will have been worth it."