Bridget Hilton doesn’t go a day without music in her life. The raw energy of live shows, the soft hiss of vinyl on a record player, the soul and grit of rock ‘n’ roll––it’s all second nature to her.
Growing up in Flint, Mich., she wrote album reviews for her local newspaper and worked for concert venues and retailers––any chance she could get to be around music. An upstart teenager, she wedged herself into the prestigious Universal Music Group. After a few years, she worked her way up to a marketing executive, collaborating with some of the top artists in the music industry, including Taylor Swift and Kanye West. Her hard work and hustle were paying dividends.
Though happily settled into her career, Hilton found herself increasingly drawn to charity. Then, she learned about the Starkey Hearing Foundation and its quest to restore hearing in the 275 million people worldwide who struggle with hearing impairment.
“Music and charity are my two passions,” she said. “When I heard about Starkey I thought, ‘This is the most amazing thing ever.’ I saw all of these videos of people hearing for the first time and it was so inspiring. I’m such a music fan that I can’t imagine never having heard music before.”
Hilton merged her two passions. The result: LSTN Headphones, a social enterprise that sells vintage-inspired headphones to benefit the Starkey Hearing Foundation. Inspired by ‘one-for-one’ businesses, each pair of LSTN Headphones sold helps restore hearing to someone in need––a twist on the ‘one-for-one’ trend––or as Hilton calls it: “Giving Back. Amplified.” LSTN Headphones are also handcrafted with reclaimed wood from furniture and flooring manufacturers, giving them another dimension of social consciousness.
“I love Toms, Warby Parker, Krochet Kids,” Hilton said. “I wanted to do something related to hearing so naturally, headphones was an obvious choice. It’s working out well for us and people really gravitate toward it.”
The Starkey Hearing Foundation provides 100,000 hearing aids to people in need around the world each year, allowing many to hear for the first time. To date, Starkey has given hearing aids in more than 120 countries.
In August 2012, Hilton launched LSTN’s website with pictures and prototypes. The following month, LSTN was featured on “The Today Show” before it had manufactured any products.
“We were getting all of these orders, but we didn’t have any products,” she said. “It was exciting but it was kind of crazy.”
In January 2013, she officially left her corporate cocoon for the sink-or-swim ranks of entrepreneurism, perhaps inevitably.
“When I was like 11, I was selling candy bars at bowling alleys to make money,” she laughed. “I actually made enough to go to Europe. I’ve always had the entrepreneur bug in me.”
With momentum mounting, Hilton brought in friend and seasoned businessman Joe Huff to help run things. Huff shared Hilton’s vision from the first time they spoke and believes it’s the type of idea that could put social enterprise “on the map.”
“She really had the billion-dollar idea,” he said. “For me, it really became, ‘How do we make social enterprise the coolest thing ever?’ And it really sunk in that [LSTN] is music, and there’s really nothing cooler than music.”
Following LSTN’s official launch in April 2013, Huff and Hilton went to Peru with Starkey for two weeks late in 2013 to help fit 10,000 people for hearing aids.
“It was amazing,” Hilton said of the trip. “Some of those kids have never heard anything in their lives so you literally see them hear for the first time.”
In 2012 alone, Starkey fitted more than 131,000 people for hearing aids, surpassing its Clinton Global Initiative commitment of fitting 100,000 hearing aids annually. At this rate, Starkey is 25 percent ahead of schedule for fitting 1 million people this decade.
“[Starkey is] not just dropping the hearing aids off and leaving,” Hilton said. “They’re there talking to the people and seeing who really needs them, and afterwards they stay. They follow up with the patients…We’re a small partner of theirs, but we’re trying to help as much as we can and hoping we’ll grow with them.”
Outside of its alliance with Starkey, LSTN has also struck up an impressive short list of retail and subscription-based partners, including Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters and Spotify. Last fall, LSTN was added to the Toms Marketplace, an online store Toms launched in November 2013 to help other businesses with a social purpose. The online store features more than 200 products from about 30 companies and charities.
“We didn’t just want to start another headphone company,” Huff said. “Our goal was to start a business that could change the world through the power of music.”
In her spare time Hilton lectures at UCLA and USC, but these days, being at the helm of one of the most rapidly emerging social enterprises consumes the lot of her waking hours.
“I don’t have the same lifestyle as I might have when I was working [at Universal], but the long term is going to be way more worth it,” Hilton said. “The reason why we started this company is to help people.”