Through Encouraging Oral Hygiene for Underprivileged Youth, Lawrence Inspires Self-Confidence and Success
Written By: Elizabeth Nutt The Smile Life Founder Kyle Lawrence Brightens Smiles and Lives
Photographed By: Madeline Craig
The Expert: Kyle Lawrence
Credentials: Founder and Owner of retail clothing company The Smile Life, whose products fund oral hygiene essentials for underprivileged youth.
Kyle Lawrence, who was born in Newport Beach but raised in Costa Mesa, California, grew up surrounded by surfing culture—and surfing-inspired apparel. His grandfather owned and ran the popular, now closed, Newport-based shop The Storekeeper.
“I’d heard stories my whole life about that store—the good and the bad about running a retail shop—and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was start a clothing company, ” says Lawrence. But his family’s legacy, ultimately, shaped his path.
Lawrence studied hotel and restaurant management at Ohio State University and straight out of college, he began managing restaurants at a luxury resort and business hotel. But the hours, which kept him away from his family and without much time off, left him feeling burnt out both mentally and physically.
One thing that kept him going was a lesson he’d gleaned right away about the hospitality industry: A smile goes a long way. For Lawrence, the word “smile” kept coming up in his work, and he started to understand and appreciate its significance so much that he designed a hat for himself, on which he sewed a patch that read “SMILE.” It was a simple act, but one that inspired the entrepreneur in ways he couldn’t possibly have predicted at the time.
Q: The Smile Life’s concept began with the legendary SMILE hat. Tell me about the hat, and how one simple design transformed into a business plan.
Kyle Lawrence: I wore the hat around all summer and people kept asking me where I got it and telling me that they wanted to buy it, so I started making a few for my friends. After a while, it gained some popularity. I think I naturally just kept going back to this idea of creating something. I’ve always been an entrepreneurial guy, so I decided to follow my passion.
Q: And what was the impetus for starting a retail company that also gives back?
KL: My dad and my grandparents have always instilled in me a sense of philanthropy, and I’ve watched them give back all my life. I think I’ve always had this passion to help others. I wanted to create a product that people would follow not just for how it looked, but also for the inspirational story behind it, and for the impact it has on other people. I kept thinking about how I could relate the word “smile” to giving back to people in need.
Q: When was The Smile Life founded and what is its mission?
KL: It was established at the end of 2014. I made the decision to do something that gives back to kids, instructing young athletes while playing volleyball in college. I’ve always enjoyed working with youth and children, and I’ve always had great role models who helped me build my confidence. So that plays into the company. It’s not just about oral hygiene—our mission is to build confidence in kids, starting with oral hygiene. For every Smile Life product we sell, we fund an oral hygiene kit for under-privileged youth.
Q: Why focus on youth and oral hygiene?
KL: I was filming a Kickstarter video related to The Smile Life with a friend and we were walking around talking to homeless people, trying to learn more about that population. We were handing out dental kits, and I started to realize that a lot of the homeless population didn’t have teeth. It was a lost cause—they didn’t have anything to brush. It was an intense moment. I started to do more and more research on the importance of oral hygiene, and I talked to different professionals in the industry. Our goal is to help youth manage their oral hygiene not only to build their confidence, but also to help them avoid problems later on in their lives.
Q: How does changing the way at-risk youth look at oral hygiene ultimately change their lives?
KL: Throughout my experience with coaching and volunteering my time with young people, I’ve realized just how much oral hygiene is overlooked, and there’s so much potential for disease or sickness there. And when you wake up every day and you brush your teeth and you’re confident about your smile—which is so important—well, that triggers the mentality of feeling better about yourself. Some of these kids struggle with self-image and stress issues, so their confidence is sort of shot. I have no proven tests but I believe that having a healthy smile does impact your life.
Q: How does The Smile Life operate today and what are your plans for the future?
KL: We’ve partnered with two youth-based nonprofits in LA and we donate dental kits to them on a month-to-month basis. We put together the dental kits ourselves, which include toothbrushes and toothpaste and a refillable water bottle. In the future, we’re looking to focus on impacting kids’ lives more through mentorship and internship opportunities. And though we’re focusing on LA right now, we hope to eventually move the program city to city.
Q: Describe The Smile Life brand and the products you’re selling now. What do you plan to sell in the future?
KL: Our goal is to create an inspirational brand. Almost all of our products have the word “smile” on it, so when people see it they get excited and they ask questions about it. We always ask people, “What makes you smile?” to get inspiration. It’s all a clean-cut, timeless look. And there are a few products we’re creating that are a little different. You’ll see a beach towel, a Coachella Style Guide for the festival season and we’re partnering with quite a few brands, like Toms, Levis and Giving Keys—all brands that are socially conscious or eco-friendly. Ultimately, we’re a lifestyle brand, trying to inspire people to live life to the fullest but to help along the way.
Q: How can others get involved in The Smile Life cause?
KL: We need people to buy our products! Because it’s a 1:1 model, for every single product that’s purchased, a child or adolescent in need directly benefits. Our retail locations are listed on our website and you can buy products on our website, too. We also need volunteers to help package oral hygiene kits before they’re shipped out. And on our website we have an info page where you can reach out for information about events that we host.
Q: What is the value of helping others?
KL: I keep falling back on this idea that the more you give the happier you are. When you give back your time you can learn about other people, understand other people and become more tolerant about others outside your comfort zone. I think it’s good to branch out and reach outside of your comfort zone sometimes.
Q: For you, what’s the most rewarding aspect of The Smile Life?
KL: I think that, in this time and era and with what’s going on in the world, people are looking for a way to give back and make it a better place and make the future better for others. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to help people do that.
Kyle’s Mantra: Help others, and find your happy place along the way.
What makes Kyle smile? “I really enjoy being out in nature, and enjoying the company of others outside, too.”
Native Knowledge: Kyle’s favorite Southern California hangouts:
- Groundwork Coffee (Los Angeles)
- Laurel Hardware (Santa Monica)
- Al Cappuccino Coffee House (Newport Beach)
- Wild Taco (Newport Beach)
- Wherever there’s surf.