Paige Chenault had her aha moment while on a flight in 2008. A decade later, the Dallas-based entrepreneur has come a long way and on Monday evening at the Women in the World Dallas salon was named a 2018 Toyota Mother of Invention. Chenault is the founder and CEO of The Birthday Party Project. Better yet, as the bio on her company’s website puts it, she is the “chief birthday enthusiast” at the startup, an organization that plans and throws birthday parties for homeless children across the country. Since launching The Birthday Party Project six years ago, Chenault has thrown an astonishing 7,000 parties for children as young as 1-year-old to grownups as old as 21.
Chenault was interviewed by WFAA news anchor Alisha Laventure, who asked her about the inspiration behind the product, the challenges she’s faced along the way and the happiness she’s been bringing to thousands of children all over the country. At one point in the interview, Chenault recounted a heartbreaking story about a little 4-year-old girl who had a birthday cake placed in front of her for the first time in her life at one of Paige’s bashes. The girl, who had fled a domestic violence situation, was unsure what do do with the cake as the flames on the candles burned. One of Chenault’s workers came over to the little tyke and gently explained that it was a candle and the that the tradition is to make a wish a blow it out. The young girl’s mother was standing in the corner sobbing.
Later on, Chenault recalled, she overheard the child telling her mother what had happened.
“Mommy, they had me blow out a fire stick,” she recalled the girl explaining to her mom. It was a powerful moment for Chenault, the realization of a dream that she conceived years ago.
Chenault, 37, had a background in party planning and, one day in 2008, she boarded a commercial airplane. She was pregnant at the time and during her flight began reading about birthday parties, visions of her daughter’s future birthday celebrations dancing in her head. But then she picked up an issue of TIME magazine and began reading a heart-wrenching story about kids in Haiti. She saw black-and-white images of destitute little boy standing amid the rubble and was deeply affected.
“I was that pregnant women sobbing on an airplane,” she told Women in the World. “I could not shake this idea that I was given so much. How could I give back?” Amid of rush of entrepreneurial inspiration, she talked with her husband who suggested she focus her efforts more locally. Look in your own backyard, he advised.
So Chenault did just that and in 2012 partnered with a local homeless shelter. She began visiting the shelter on the third Thursday of the month for a year. She would set up in the shelter’s community and family building, bring in a cake, party favor bags, games and activities — and, for an hour, everybody would just have fun and lose themselves in a ritual that most in life take for granted.
Her idea was an instant hit with those who witnessed it, Chenault said. It took off thanks to a groundswell of grassroots support. People came out of the woodwork to give donations to her cause, and it began picking up some real momentum.
Now, each month, The Birthday Party Project throws a huge birthday bash using that initial template, but on a far grander scale, as you can see in the video above. The celebrations typically have a kid- and family-friendly themes and are staged in a way to make children “experience something that they’ve never experienced before.” And it’s working. The Birthday Party Project has expanded dramatically and his now bringing joy to kids in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Kansas City, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and New York City, among other places.
— Toyota USA (@Toyota) November 6, 2018
“We bring joy and magic to children experiencing homelessness,” Chenault said. “We often say that our parties are so much more than a celebration … They are a loud exclamation point that children matter.”
Lisa Materazzo, the vice president of vehicle marketing and communications at Toyota, also paid tribute to Chenault, who became the 23rd woman to be recognized as a Mother of Invention and received a grant in the amount of $50,000 from the automaker. Toyota has granted more than $1 million to entrepreneurs since the program launched in 2012.
“So much of innovation happens at the ground level,” Chenault observed. “When we start to impact our community, that’s where the change really happens. And then it starts to build and grow from there. And how amazing is it that Toyota recognizes that too?”
Above, watch highlights and the full interview with Chenault about her awe-inspiring startup.
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