Along that same line — “Fail quickly.” Failure is never the measure of an organization because every endeavor experiences failure. What matters is not whether we fail, but what we do with, and how we react, to that failure.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terry Esau.
Terry Esau spent most of his career writing and producing music for TV commercials — Target, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Golden Grahams, and everything in between. He worked with incredible celebrities like Amy Grant, Jim Henson, Alice Cooper, and Prince, but his love for bikes led him to launch a non-profit giving bikes to kids in need. Now, Free Bikes 4 Kidz (FB4K), which Terry started as a hobby, is in 17 cities, has given away over 120,000 bikes, holds a Guinness World Record, and is the largest organization of its kind in the country. Terry is not stopping there. Free Bikes 4 Kidz has an astonishing goal of impacting communities in 100 cities and giving away 1,000,000 bikes in the next 5 years!
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I love bikes and have experienced first-hand the difference a bike can make in a child’s life. When I was young I had a paper route and got paid to ride my bike. When I was 16, I rode my bike across the US. I started bike racing as an adult, but my bike passion turned outward when I noticed we still had the bikes we bought for our daughters when they were young — those bikes were just sitting in our garage collecting dust. I got a call early one December from a friend telling me about a family in our neighborhood who had had a very difficult year financially, and wondering if we might have a bike we could give to their child. Noticing that most of my friends also had small bikes their kids had outgrown, I started a bike collection and repair pop-up for two weeks. We collected and repaired 250 bikes and gave them away. We did it again the following December and gave away 700+ bikes. 1500 the third year. Then we formed a non-profit and the rest is history!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Huffy, one of the world’s largest kid’s bike manufacturers, reached out to me offering 11,000 cosmetically flawed bikes they felt they couldn’t sell. They said if we could get them out of their warehouses in two weeks and give them away in countries where they don’t sell their bikes, we could have them. We ended up giving away those 11,000 bikes in 17 different countries. Now there are little girls in Gambia & Cameroon who are riding those bikes 10km, one-way, to school every day — girls who otherwise would not be getting an education. So gratifying!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our first year, we hadn’t thought through our give-away process, so we just invited people to come get a free bike if they felt they didn’t have the resources to purchase one for their kids. A lady showed up in a full-length mink coat with a huge diamond saying, “This is fantastic, now we won’t have to transport our bikes up to the cabin every year — we’ll just have a different set of bikes up there.” I gave her a beat or two, and finally the light went on and she said, “Oh, that’s not what this is about, is it?!?” After that we developed a new give-away model where we partner with existing schools and nonprofits who already work with low-income families. We vet those organizations and then they choose the kids to receive the bikes. Not only does this take the onus off of us to determine which kids really need the bikes, but it allows us to partner with dozens of wonderful organizations within each city.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We launched our Free Bikes 4 Kidz program in Phoenix and Santa Fe/Albuquerque with a commitment to give 50% of the refurbished bikes from those programs to the kids on the reservations of the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. We are working with many native-led organizations on the ground in that area to provide bikes to kids of the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes. We intend for this to be a pilot program, developing solutions to get bikes to kids on all reservations across the country.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Yes! Watch this 1-minute video. We have thousands of stories like this! https://youtu.be/IDdTX8XKtRI
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Currently we are launching a study with 400 kids who receive free bikes through our organization to track how many miles they ride in one year. Our end goal is to begin to calculate the health-care savings on children who become increasingly active. We know there are over 20 million kids in the US who experience obesity and diabetes because of high calorie diets and inactive lifestyles. If we can establish that a bicycle is not only a fun ‘toy,’ but rather a transformational ‘medical device,’ maybe we can get our government and our medical system to prescribe Bx rather than Rx, and maybe we can begin to governmentally fund initiatives like ours that will truly make a health care impact on our kids.
Secondly, this is not simply a physical health solution, but also a mental health remedy. I call my bike my “Carbon-Fiber Therapist” because it washes stress from my life. Kids are carrying more stress now than in the past. More than ever we need healthy solutions to mental health issues.
Third, 77% of our bikes go to BIPOC. These populations are more severely impacted by health care issues — COVID is an example of that. We are endeavoring to bring greater equity to bicycle ownership. We want to impact the wellbeing of all children. AND, if we can develop healthy habits in kids, there is a much greater likelihood those habits will continue into adulthood.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
So often leaders seem to be defined either by misguided measurables or celebrity — wealth, brashness, or the size of their network. Our culture is excessively visual and influenced by who speaks the loudest and whose Tweets and TikTok videos grab the most eyeballs. Leaders can’t be self-defined or self-assigned. They are defined by the character and actions of their followers. If the people in your wake are making a positive difference in the world, addressing the needs of those least valued, and bringing a presence of love and hope into the world, those are the people displaying healthy, quality leadership. Most often these leaders are characterized by humility, kindness, gentleness, and are ‘others-focused.’ It’s almost anti-celebrity. Actually, I wish these kinds of leaders WERE our celebrities.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s not how high on the ladder you climb, it’s how many people you bring with you.
- Persistence actually impacts success more than skill and education. (Those are important too, of course.)
- Humility and integrity matter. A story: I was hired to create the Target Christmas TV campaign in 1994 and I hired Amy Grant to sing the jingle. At the time she was coming off of the #1 single in the country with ‘Baby, Baby.’ We were in the recording studio in Nashville, and she was struggling to get it right — pitch issues, etc. Her manager was in the studio with me, and after many takes he would approach me and say, “That was good enough.” Of course, it wasn’t — I knew it and Amy knew it — and it was my responsibility to deliver the best possible product for Target. After multiple repetitions of this with her manager, Amy noticed what was going on. She took off her headphones, came through the door into the control room, stepped between me and her manager and said to me, “I’m not leaving here till I’ve given you exactly what you want.” She turned and gave a look to her manager, never said a word to him, and he never said another word to me. AND she killed it — gave a great performance that ran nationally that holiday season. I’ve always had high regard for Amy, because when she was at the pinnacle of her career, she still displayed great humility and integrity — and still does.
- Sometimes incrementalism is the enemy of change. There are times when running an organization where you just have to rip off the Band-Aid and start over. Change is inevitable. Often we try to ease our way into the change that we KNOW is necessary, but we don’t want to rock the boat too much, so we tiptoe into that new territory. And sometimes the needed change doesn’t actually happen because we have been too cautious, too slow — which infects the people under us with fear and trepidation, thinking we as the leaders are not all that committed to the needed change. While there is a healthy kind of fear, and risk should always be ‘calculated,’ there are times when leadership requires a fearless step into the unknown.
- Along that same line — “Fail quickly.” Failure is never the measure of an organization because every endeavor experiences failure. What matters is not whether we fail, but what we do with, and how we react, to that failure.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have recently co-founded a new non-profit called Free Guitars 4 Kids (FG4K). Having spent most of my career in the music business, I have a passion for the arts. Art gives voice to the big questions in life, the ‘why’ questions. Whether it’s music, theater, or poetry — these mediums have the power to move a culture and change people’s thinking. We need songs of love, pain, protest, and hope.
With funding for the arts at a low point, Free Guitars 4 Kids is going to put thousands of guitars in the hands of those least likely to afford one. One of these kids is going to write a song that will start a movement, a song that will make us question an ill, drive us toward justice, and maybe convince us that we must live together in peace. Music is a powerful potion that can make even the coldest heart feel…and break. I believe by putting tens of thousands of guitars in young hands, we might bring a bit more humanity back into our culture.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Forgiveness is the fragrance of the violet on the heel that has crushed it.” -Mark Twain
In a world where there is so much polarization, blaming, anger, tribalism…we need to be a loving, grace-giving, forgiving people if we truly want to heal the world’s wounds. We humans have made many mistakes, and will continue to do so, but if we can start looking at each other with compassion and forgive those mistakes — other’s mistakes and our own — and then make every effort to remedy those ills, we might actually have a shot at a pretty damn good world.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d like to have lunch with my grandson/granddaughter who hasn’t been born yet. I wish I could live to see who they grow up to be. I already know I’ll be proud of them. I pray that all of my grandkids and future grandkids will grow up with eyes that see others with kindness and compassion. I pray they will all think small, but dream big, and live their lives with passion and abandon. Oh, and I’d love to have lunch with Bono, and Bill Gates, and President Obama, and Mother Teresa. Between the four of them we could fund and maneuver Free Bikes 4 Kidz and Free Guitars 4 Kids into global organizations that would certainly change the world!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have written three books that have been published and written many essays which have been published in various publications.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Terry White of Free Bikes 4 Kidz Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.