In the Business of Smiles

October 28, 2013—Joe Brennan (C’12) is into teeth. That makes sense given he comes from a long line of dentists. But filling cavities and extracting teeth wasn’t for him. Instead, the government major, who also earned a certificate in African studies, wanted to pursue business with a social justice bent.

But before Brennan could do that, he needed to figure out what he was passionate about. What were the issues he cared most about, he asked himself. He kept coming back to oral health.

“I spent a lot of time wondering why oral health wasn’t being addressed by NGOs,” he said. “There are a million different NGOs, but they’re all doing medical work. And oral healthcare is an important part of someone’s overall systemic health.”

From that searching, Smiles for the People was born. Brennan calls his new business, which officially launched in February of 2013, a “small, little toothbrush company,” but it’s really much more than that.

The company works like this: a consumer buys a Smiles for the People bamboo toothbrush and Brennan’s company gives the equivalent dollar value to a partner nonprofit organization that provides dental care to communities in need. It’s similar to the one-to-one model of giving popularized by TOMS, which donates a pair of shoes for every pair they sell.

But unlike the method used by other one-to-one enterprises, Smiles for the People doesn’t give away toothbrushes, unless that’s what their partner organization needs. Instead, Smiles for the People donates funds to the partner so it can use the money as it sees fit.

“It’s giving local ownership to local communities,” Brennan said. “I didn’t want to manufacture toothbrushes in China and then ship them all over the world.”

Smiles for the People is still in its infancy and as such is working with just one nonprofit partner, Foundation Todos Juntos, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Todos Juntos operates clinics that teach children the importance of dental care and provide preventative check-ups and routine procedures like extractions and root canals. Brennan says his company is growing every quarter and as it does, the goal is to be able to work with more nonprofits around the world.

The Chicago native started Smiles for the People “organically” using his own savings and loans from his family. It was a risk, but it seems to be paying off. So far, his toothbrushes, which are sourced and manufactured using sustainable methods, are sold in more than 90 retail locations around the country. A short-term goal is to get his product in Whole Foods grocery stores, he says.

“I knew it was sort of a big commitment,” Brennan said of starting his business. “But I had a lot of passion [for] the idea and that counts for a lot.”

Consumers can also find Brennan’s toothbrushes on his website. One adult-sized toothbrush retails for $5.95, which Brennan admits is a little steep. But each toothbrush is made bamboo, an antimicrobial and biodegradable material, and his products are made by a company who treats its workers fairly by providing a living wage and complying with international labor standards. Plus, the equivalent amount is being given to charity, so consumers can feel good about where the money is going, he says.

Smiles for the People also offers a toothbrush subscription where consumers can get a new toothbrush every three months for a year. It’s a clever idea, not only because it saves people the hassle of remembering to get a new toothbrush, but it also follows the accepted dental advice to replace toothbrushes every three months.

Once Brennan graduated from Georgetown, he had no idea how much his education would impact his future business decisions. The university taught him to think creatively about big problems and their solutions, he says. Smiles for the People is a perfect example of that.

Brennan also never anticipated that the university’s value of cura personalis—care for the whole person—would feature so prominently in his business model.

“A smile is an indicator of your overall health. It’s an indication of your self-esteem and your ability to take care of yourself and your family,” Brennan said. “So by caring for someone’s smile, we’re trying to care for the whole person. Being able to have a job that allows me to live out that value is a privilege.”

—Lauren Ober