Aaron Walters: One of my goals is to build a company that my mother would be proud of. And faith is a part of your life, so I felt like it should be a part of our company.
God’s Love In Action: Altar’d State & Compassion That Compels – Episode #148
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Our guests today are a part of a unique faith-based retail clothing company called Altar’d State. Committed to their mission of “standing out for good,” Altar’d State works with local and international mission organizations to support their efforts to help people in need around the world.
Standing Out for Good
Aaron Walters: My name’s Aaron Walters. I’m the chairman and CEO of Altar’d State and one of the cofounders.
If you were to ask me, there is no way I would have dreamed that I would have ended up in retail. I went off to college on a football scholarship and was planning to be a doctor because I grew up in small town America, and if you did well in school you either became a doctor or a lawyer—at least that was my perception. And then I got a job at a retailer Walgreens as the shop as the Stockroom Manager and just fell in love with [retail] from there. I’ve been there [in retail] ever since.
To be honest, I was very successful at a very young age, and I always felt like this emptiness, like there had to be something more to my life than just my next promotion and my next pay raise, what house I lived in and what car I drove.
In April 2009 when the economy had completely crashed, it was the worst economy since the 1930s. I was working out in California, making really good money. And [my next steps] meant going in and resigning and saying, “Hey, I’m going to start this company. It was selling all of my stock, selling any car I could—anything that we had was sold to get what money we could to found the company.
I think God was just always tugging on my heart, [saying], “What are you going to do with your talents?” And so one of the things I love about Altar’d State is I’m able to do what I’m passionate about and what I really love, but also live out my faith and give back to my community.
“One of the things I love about Altar’d State is I’m able to do what I’m passionate about and what I really love, but also live out my faith and give back to my community.” – Aaron Walters, Altar’d State
I think a lot of people thought I was crazy when we founded the company, but God’s got a plan. On my desk, there’s the scripture Jeremiah 29:11, and I truly believe that with all my heart. I really do. I’ve lived it. I am a living testimony of if you follow God’s plan, He will take care of you.
“I am a living testimony of if you follow God’s plan, He will take care of you.” – Aaron Walters, Altar’d State
And that doesn’t necessarily mean financially. God trust us with all different things. I feel like He has been able to trust me with business and finance and money, but He trusts other people with other things.
It’s been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s been the hardest, it’s been the most challenging thing. This is not an easy walk. You’re going to be attacked, you’re going to be questioned, and you got to put your faith where where you know it is and then you got to be willing to work for it.
Mary Beth Fox: I’m Mary Beth Fox. I’m the chief brand officer for Altar’d State, which means I’m responsible for all the customer touch points. I’ve been with the company for about eight years. It’s really a God thing. I used to work with the founders, Aaron and Brian. And when they started the company, I was in awe of what they were doing. I talked to them for several years, finally went to visit them at store number three grand opening and fell in love. And I’ve been following this brand ever since.
They started as a coffee shop in a bookstore, Christian books music. And even though they had to evolve their platform of what they sold, they never changed who they were.
And who we are as a company at Altar’d State, we give back first. Other people have budget meetings and all they talk about is the bottom line, but we actually have key performance indicators that we have to give back at the same rate or better than we grow our sales.
So as a company, our mission was the heart of who we are. And I don’t think it matters whether we sell books, music, donuts, or apparel and gifts as long as our mission is to give back. God’s on our side, and we’ve done really well with that, just staying close to our mission of who we are.
The Blessings of Giving Back
Aaron Walters: I make giving back the number-one priority. There have been years, and I don’t normally share this publicly, but as an organization we give anywhere from 17- to 24- to 25- percent of our profits away, which is completely and utterly unheard of.
I kind of look at it as almost like tithing. It’s like that’s not an option. It’s not my money, it’s God’s money. He provided that money, and so that’s what we do.
Mary Beth Fox: I was trained to think about money and protect myself and make sure that I was making moves that would allow me to work and make enough money to support my family. The fact that the company gave back, first I thought it was just something they said, didn’t really worry about it.
And then I got here and it’s what we do. I mean our mission of giving back, visiting schools that we built in Peru and seeing the difference we’re making in the lives there. Or through our Mission Monday organizations—every store gets to pick who they’re going to support locally. And it’s not just about giving a check. It’s about creating a relationship and a bond with someone of your local community. And if you do that, then how could you go wrong?
Aaron Walters: Peru came out of just out of a whim.
I’d committed to go on a mission trip. I was stressed to the hilt. I was like, “What have I done? I can’t be out of the office for a week.” I actually had a business trip that I was supposed to be on. And you know the last minute decided, “You know what? I’m going to follow through on this.”
The way Peru really happened is God had it all figured out. It was myself and my translator, and I was talking to a young lady in the sixth grade. And as a typical American, because we take a lot for granted—I’m in an area where they have no running water, no place to use the restroom, all these things that we just take for granted from day to day—and I asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And she literally just started crying.
I asked my translator, “What did I say? Did I say something wrong?”
The translator was like, “Well, here it’s not the same.”
The young girl was like, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I don’t have anywhere to go to school. They didn’t have the money to finish high school for us, so I don’t know.”
Without even thinking, I was like, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll build that high school.”
And I get on the bus to go to the next school that we’re visiting, and my translator starts crying, I start crying. And she’s like, “Do you realize what you just said?”
I mean, really, the weight just hit me like, “Oh my goodness. I’m in this third world country, and I just committed to build a school. I’ve never built a school in my life. I have no idea what I’m going to do. And oh, by the way, we’re trying to run the company at the same time. How is this going to happen?”
The partnership with the people in Peru has been outstanding. I’m excited to see what we accomplish. That young lady, I can’t wait—she’s about to graduate. So it’s just a very special thing.
And we’ll have over 19 schools finished in the next three to four years. Very, very exciting. We have five up and finished now and 14 more that are being worked on. And it’s really through a partnership, again, where God has provided that. It’s not necessarily me having to figure all this out.
Showing Compassion That Compels
Narrator: Altar’d State’s heart for helping others is exemplified in their Mission Mondays, where they partner with nonprofits who are working to help people in all different areas of need. One of those organizations is Compassion That Compels, whose mission is to offer support and encouragement to women battling cancer.
Kristianne Stewart: Hi, my name is Kristianne Stewart and I’m the founder and CEO of Compassion That Compels. We provide hope and emotional support to women fighting any type of cancer, one compassionate act at a time.
I’m really excited because we have an opportunity to pack Compassion Bags, a thousand Compassion Bags. This is our second time doing this with an amazing company with a mission to help support nonprofits within their community.
Through the years, Altar’d State has selected Compassion That Compels [to partner with]. And because of their mission Monday program, we’ve reached over 3,200 women battling cancer through their stores and provided Compassion Bags to them. Not only that we’ve encouraged these women through fashion shows, meet and greets. We can’t wait to see the women that will be touched by this season’s Mission Monday.
“We provide hope and emotional support to women fighting any type of cancer, one compassionate act at a time.“ – Kristianne Stewart, Compassion That Compels
Mary Beth Fox: Compassion That Compels is probably our longest running partnership with Mission Monday, and it started kind of funny. Kristianne came to me and wanted me to support Compassion That Compels, and what I told her was Mission Mondays is about our stores. They get to decide who they’re going to support. [When] they pick an organization, they don’t only hand over a check, they they work with that organization, they volunteer, and they get to know the people in the organization.
And so I told her, “If you can convince our store managers we’d love to support you.” And now she has almost the entire chain working with her.
You know, some of the best stories that we hear are we actually keep Compassion That Compels bags in all of our stores. And you would not believe the number of times a month a lady comes into our store and just spills it and tells us that she’s going through this tough time. She just got bad news, found out that she’s battling cancer, and we are able to hand her, right then and there, the bag. And right then and there is a connection with her that makes her feel like we care about her, and that’s something that we can’t just tell her—we have to show her.
And so the connection with Compassion That Compels is just one other way that we can be there for our guest when she needs us.
Kristianne Stewart: So you walk into the store, and you walk in as a guest as a singular experience, but you come together and you walk out knowing that you suddenly have community. So it can be walking in, looking at their scriptures everywhere, and you have a shopping experience, but at the same time you have it on a level where you know that that inner beauty is what’s going to carry you through long after that piece of clothing is gone.
Giving back is what they do. It’s who they are. And they stress it so much that their employees have a dedicated day [when] they go through training. It is the reason why their employees are so committed.
Mary Beth Fox: Everything is about an Altar’d State, even the name, is about transformation and inspiring and growing, continuously growing and changing.
And so our customers actually decide what the product is going to be in our store. So we try a lot. We have an amazing group of merchants that are real passionate about our brand. Most of them have been here from the beginning of Altar’d State. They try products, they put it in the store, we wait to see how a customer reacts.
And what are the great things about Altar’d State is that we can turn on a dime. The minute we know something’s checking [the boxes] and the guest loves it, then we get back into it and find other ways to bring that to her, whether it’s other colors, other patterns, other fabrics.
The inspirational piece has just taken off. We have prayer books in every one of our fitting rooms, and people write their deepest, darkest secrets things, things they really want guidance on and help with. As an organization, we share that. We share the prayer requests throughout our team. And we even have decided that they’re so inspirational to us that we make wallpaper for our fitting rooms out of the prayers from some of the books.
And honestly, what we find is that through our music, through the product that we carry, every little bit of it is an inspiration for her. We get feedback constantly from guest saying, “I was having this really tough day. I lost my pet. My mother found out she had an illness. I was in the store, and everywhere I looked was something that helped me in spirit and guided me to get through this rough time.”
So what we say always as a store team is we want her to leave feeling better than when she walked in the door. So no matter what situation she has going on, if she comes into Altar’d State, we want her to leave feeling better than when she walked in.
Nicola Bone: Hey, I’m Nicola Bone, and I’m here with Compassion That Compels.
So I had my own cancer journey a year ago, and I walked into the Altar’d State store at Turkey Creek here, and I just was not feeling pretty at all. It was right before Mother’s Day. I had no hair.
I really felt a lot like an alien, to be honest with you, and I just wanted to feel beautiful.
And one of the associates there, Miranda, just opened her arms to me. She ended up praying for me. She found a sundress that I could feel pretty in after my surgery, and she gave me my Compassion Bag.
I’ll be honest: in that moment I didn’t really understand how my life was going it changed and what that Compassion Bag was going to mean to me.
Mary Beth Fox: I think the fact that we’re a give-back company first has attracted a group of people that if you love giving back, typically you are a selfless person. Our other core values are empowering and leadership and excellence. And if you start with selflessness, though, all of those other things seem to follow suit anyway.
As a group we spend a lot of time hiring a whole lot of time hiring to find the right mix, and we always look for somebody who makes us better.
So one of our principles is to hire your weakness and that’s why I call [our group] The Misfits because we’re all so unique and different. But it’s a group of people that love each other like a family. And gosh, you’re lucky if you get to work with people every day that you love like that.
A Company United in One Purpose: Showing Their Faith
Mary Beth Fox: Every day as a company, we do a daily devotional every single day. We take the day, and we share it throughout our company.
There’s a person in our office who takes the daily verse and actually elaborates on how it’s impacted her life over time or talks a little bit about how she grew up and how the verse applies to her life. And so not only do we get the verse, but we get her take on it as well.
Honestly, Jesus Calling has been with us since day one, the first time I set foot in a store.
The one thing that I love about a daily devotional if you’re all focused on the same thing, you get the same verse and it to as you know you have to ask yourself how you apply to that and how that applies to what you do every day. So as a company, we feel like the more we can all be together and focus on the same thing, there’s a lot of power in that, for sure.
Aaron Walters: Running a company, there’s a lot of pressure on you and a lot of long days, which is great but it is challenging. It’s not easy. And when you have 2,000 families depending on you to make good decisions, good final decisions, that does carry a little bit of weight.
I had an associate named Teri Lefkow and she brought it up to me one day and said, “I’ve been praying for you. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’d like for you to use [Jesus Calling].” And so I did.
When I found it, whatever was it always spoke to me the topic or the devotion seemed to fit with what I was being faced with at that moment. So I think it’s a very simple way to kind of ground yourself and take some quiet time in the morning.
And so that’s how I used it, and that’s what I like about it.
Mary Beth Fox: We try to satisfy our guests in everything that we do and we stay true to our passion, which is giving back. So instead of telling people we’re Christians, we just show them that we’re Christians. That’s the best way to get everybody on your side, I think, and it doesn’t alienate anybody. We’re very inclusive when we do that.
“Instead of telling people we’re Christians, we just show them that we’re Christians.” – Mary Beth Fox, Altar’d State
Aaron Walters: We just want to build a phenomenal company that makes a huge impact.
Whether we have 200 stores, 300 stores, or 700 stores, that’s really not a big priority for me. Do we want to continue to grow the business? Absolutely. Do we want to continue to learn and grow as an organization and as a people? Absolutely. One of the best things about us growing is we can help more communities. And believe it or not, we are really motivated about that.
Narrator: For more information about Altar’d State and their Mission Mondays, visit altardstate.com/giving. To find out more about how you can help a woman who is battling cancer through Compassion That Compels, visit compassionthatcompels.org.
Narrator: If you found inspiration from this story and would like to hear another story of someone who found courage in Christ as they battled cancer, check out our interview with former Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we speak with members of the Brookland Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina during their Women’s Day event, which brings women from the community into their church to hear inspirational speakers and to provide helpful resources. The committee that plans this event convenes weekly for a prayer call, where they pray for each other’s needs and share that day’s passage of Jesus Calling together.
Josephine: The Women’s Day group has been so gracious and loving to me. I know that’s because they have God in their life, and because we are taught at church to be loving to one another. Our church is based . . . the foundation is based on loving one another. And y’all have shown me that, and the Jesus Calling book just shows me that God loves us no matter what. No matter what, through it all He loves us.