GEAR FOR A CAU S E : L STN
It's safe to say that most of our web-browsing routines go a little something like this: we log into Facebook, scroll briefly through our updates, black out for an uncertain period of time, and then mysteriously regain our senses hours later while clicking through our high school significant other's cousin's classmate's spring-break photo album. Occasionally, a YouTube video (or 10) sneaks into this schedule, usually starring cats. Eventually, we pass out with our laptops on our stomachs, as legitimate adults do.
Two years ago, LA resident Bridget Hilton was meandering down that familiar digital rabbit hole when a YouTube video gave her pause. “You've probably clicked on it,” she assures me over the phone. We're on a West Coast-to-East Coast call, and everything about her exudes California cool. “It's the viral one, where a deaf woman about my age hears her own voice for the first time. It's crazy.” In fact, I do remember seeing the video, but the impact it had on me was drastically different than the effect it had on Bridget, as I likely proceeded with my usual snack-movie-nap routine after finishing it.
For Bridget, the video of the woman hearing for the first time was an eye opener. After watching the video and researching a bit, the 15-year music industry vet discovered a staggering statistic: over 360 million people worldwide are hearing impaired. And while most of those afflicted can benefit from treatment with such devices as hearing aids, only a fraction have access to the proper technology. Determined “to recreate the moment from the video on a larger scale,” she rang up a close friend, Joe Huff, who had recently left his own career in fashion with unformulated but serious altruistic goals. “He had realized that the only important thing in life is helping people,” says Bridget, “and we both wanted to do something that mattered.” At Bridget's kitchen table, they began to draw up a business plan.
Companies like Warby Parker and TOMS had piqued the pair's interest in social enterprise, and within hours, Bridget and Joe had settled on headphones as their personal conduit for global
change. Thus, LSTN headphones were born, a sleek, high-quality marriage of Bridget's passion for music and Joe's design acumen. For every pair sold, LSTN works with the Starkey Hearing Foundation to help restore hearing to a person in need.
Even if you know very little about instruments or acoustics, you'll be impressed with the headphones' clear, resonant sound. Working with a small factory overseas, Bridget and Joe devised both over-ear and in-ear designs crafted from reclaimed wood, which Bridget believes creates a superior listening experience. “Think of how many instruments are made of wood. Material affects sound,” Bridget points out.
The combination of wood and metal also makes for a sharp aesthetic. Remember how in middle school, you were fairly certain that, somewhere in this world, an object existed that would make you instantly cool? (This was in the pre-iPhone era—for me, at least.) Well, these are the adult iteration of those adolescent imaginings, and unlike the accessories you dreamed up in middle school, they're actually effective. And they're sold at Whole Foods! No joke, wearing them decidedly makes you a bit more chic, and, more importantly, a better person.
I must admit that, as a journalist, it's in my nature to be cynical. I like to know where my money is going, and to be sure that any donation I make will really have an impact. Bridget apparently feels the same way. At least, it would explain why since launching LSTN in the spring of 2013, she and Joe have gone on four major missions in the United States and abroad, taking the time to distribute hearing aids to “lines of literal thousands,” she says. Over and over, she's witnessed firsthand the extraordinary moment when someone hears for the first time; still, she vows that “watching eyes light up never gets old.” At the time of press, LSTN had helped over 20,000 people in the United States, Kenya, Peru, and Uganda to hear.
For such a young, small company, LSTN's international reach is impressive. Bridget completed two more major missions to China and Sri Lanka in the second half of 2014. To date, the headphones are available for retail purchase in the United States, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as online, with goals to expand the headphones' brick-and-mortar reach to Germany and the UK this year. With all of the positive press the company has been receiving—YouTube highlighted the company in a campaign about small businesses in 2013— LSTN seems well on its way to becoming the next big thing.
As we wind down our conversation, I can't help but ponder aloud how it is that a company with such a noble mission could have been born from such an ordinary act—by surfing the web, like I do every night. Ever nonchalant, Bridget chuckles and agrees. As we hang up, I'm still a little shellshocked—can it really be so simple to change the world? LSTN's achievements prove that a positive global impact is sometimes only a few clicks away.
OV E R 360 MILLION PEOPLE WORLDWIDE ARE HEARING IMPAIRED, ACCORDING TO THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION .
Ranging from $50 to $150, each pair of LSTN headphones sold helps restore hearing to a person in need.
Rebecca Santiago is a New York-based writer and editor, with bylines at Architec
tural Digest, Glamour, Bustle, Boston magazine, and more. She is an alumna of Tufts University. Follow her on Twitter at @rebsanti.