JOHN SEBASTIAN CUSENZA, the fifty-four-year-old founder and president of Sebastian International Inc., knows about hardship. Forced to flee his revolution-torn homeland of Tunisia at age fourteen, he has led a life of rags to riches three times over. Together with his wife, Geri Cusenza, Sebastian now sits at the head of a hair-products and cosmetics empire with revenues exceeding $100 million per year.
But Sebastian does more than merely sign checks from behind his corporate desk. With Geri spotting trends, John devotes his time to developing creative strategies to funnel some of their profits back into the coffers of environmental groups, AIDS-research foundations and scholarship funds. The products of Sebastian International, founded in 1973, reach an estimated 8 million consumers, all of whom Sebastian sees, in his words, “as potential social activists.”
In 1990, the Sebastians created Little Green, a campaign designed to increase environmental awareness among children. With Paula Abdul as spokeswoman, the teaching program has reached 2 million children. An activist for most of his adult life, Sebastian proves that in business it pays to put your money where your mouth is.
When did you first become concerned about the environment?
Probably when I was born. In Tunisia we revered trees — there was something special about them, maybe because most of Tunisia is desert. When I went to visit my brother, who was the Peace Corps director in Brazil in 1970, I was shocked because flying over Brazil, all I could see was the thick black smoke of the slash-and-burn open mining that was going on. All of a sudden I was faced with this careless and needless destruction.
What triggered your involvement?
It all began when Sting went to Xingu Park, in Brazil, in the late Eighties and met the Kayapo Indians who live there in harmony with nature — and who were being killed by the miners. We thought if Sting would create the awareness, we’d create the dollars to designate a park for the Indians. It proved a good marriage. I’m happy to say that we raised $300,000 in the first year — and since then we have bought a medical barge for the Indians.
How did you raise the money?
A portion of our sales went directly to the rain-forest campaign. We also did all of the printing and design for the posters to create more awareness, as well as sponsoring fund-raising benefits internationally. Up to that point we were just like everybody else: We’d give certain checks to certain charities because we thought it was the right thing to do, but it was never fulfilling to me personally, because we were at a distance, we were not involved — and it never felt like we were giving enough of ourselves or of our money.
The first step was the rain forest — where has it gone from there?
A year and a half ago, we took seven organizations — the Rainforest Foundation, DIFFA [Design Industry Foundation for AIDS], the Humane Society of the United States, the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the American Indian Children’s Education Foundation, ACT [the Alliance for Children’s Trust Foundation] and Operation Home Shield — and placed them under an umbrella called Club Unite. It stands for Unity Now Is a Tomorrow for Everyone. A client comes in to a salon and writes a ten-dollar check to her favorite of the seven foundations and gets an automatic gift of fifteen dollars’ worth of Sebastian products. She also gets a passport with gift-giving coupons for visiting the salon, buying products, et cetera. It also puts the consumer in contact directly with that charity, so she or he can easily get involved as a volunteer or contributor.
What about work on the local level?
That’s what we’re proudest of. We have a segmented society — you cannot create one concept for the whole country to champion. We thought it would be a good idea to act locally by dealing directly with people who don’t speak English. So we print up our brochures specifically for certain communities and earmark products that they will buy. We had a situation with a school in L.A. that wanted money for air conditioning. We put their PTA in touch with the Club UNITE salons in their neighborhood, and together they raised the money.
But the whole time they’re getting turned on to Sebastian products. In the ‘Wall Street Journal’ you were quoted as saying, “The consumer is going to buy based on what the company stands for.” How much is all of this a marketing tool?
Our job is to make more money, not less. Still, we’re asking, is there a way to be in business, make a profit and still enjoy doing what you’re doing emotionally, spiritually? Can we take the hard-nosed businessman who has no values and kind of bury him for a while and say it’s okay to be a nice guy and still be a good businessperson? Why does the same corporate wheel have to keep on turning?
So business does not mean being cutthroat anymore?
It doesn’t have to be. As a matter of fact, I don’t think it can be, because you can’t survive in business by your own efforts alone; you can only survive with the efforts of others.
It’s kind of the opposite of the Oliver Stone ‘Wall Street‘ vision.
Yeah. And it’s working. I think the time is coming where the ethics of each company are going to be on the line. We’re all in business and groping after the almighty dollar. Well, the consumers have the dollar, and they’re saying, “Give us a break — give us products that are good to the environment, that won’t abuse people.” They are asking us to change, and they’re saying, “You can do better.”
Do you plan to make this a fundamental routine with Sebastian International, so people will always know some of their money will be going to charities?
Yes. Our concept is foundation marketing, and it’s part of our life. And starting in September, a portion of our sales will go directly to Diffa. We’ve decided to do cyclical promotions, focusing on each Club Unite organization for three months to give an equal distribution of funds.
You can’t be as lucky as we have been and turn a deaf ear to the problems out there. I’d like consumers to go to the shelves and say, “Oh, Sebastian — they’re good people, and they make good products.” It’s like the tuna manufacturer that didn’t kill dolphins: You assume they have good quality, but you support the company because they’re nice guys — they have ethics. It’s an emotional reaction.
And it’s catching on?
Our business has never been better. Even with inflation, the recession, our sales have doubled in five years. And from a human standpoint, I’ve never felt better about my business than today. I would highly recommend this kind of venture to any businessperson who really wants to say, “I’m not just one-dimensional — I’m a multifaceted individual, and that involves my heart, my soul, my conscience.” It’s not just a matter of I made money, so here I am — nobody cares about that — but you’ve done something good, and you’ve helped someone. That’s never forgotten.