A my Lukken has made it her mission to understand what humans want out of work. While previously working at a Fortune 500 company 15 years ago, she decided to pursue this new path: to understand the essence of human behavior and what it takes to build a thriving company culture.
“I studied with neurologists, psychologists, anthropologists, behavioral scientists, Buddhist monks, Baptist ministers, Catholic priests—anyone that would speak to me on this subject,” Lukken says of her career pivot. “They all agreed there was one thing that connected us as humans: love. If you think about it, that’s what’s missing from corporate America.”
Lukken aims to change that. That’s why, as chief joyologist at Tito’s Handmade Vodka—seriously, that’s her real job title—she strives to incorporate the principles of altruism into all aspects of the company’s culture. According to Lukken, altruism is a scientifically-proven way to boost happiness by finding meaning through community involvement and by giving to others—and, in turn, increase feelings of love. To that end, Tito’s allots employees a chunk of money to donate to charitable causes of their choosing. They refer to this as “the joy budget,” and it’s an experiment the company has seen through to great, unconventional success.
Over the last seven years, Tito’s Handmade Vodka employees have used their joy budgets to donate to tens of thousands of nonprofits, nurture community gardens, provide relief in response to dozens of natural disasters, and much more. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, employees even turned some of the vodka bottling lines into hand sanitizer lines and distributed more than 1,270 tons of Tito’s Hand Sanitizer to frontline workers who were battling the pandemic across 48 states.
Of the joy-budget initiative, which began in 2015, Lukken says, “People felt they had purpose in their jobs. Innovation started happening all over the place.” She adds, “The more we gave, the more people told their friends about us. And the more they told their friends about us, the more vodka we sold and then the more good we could do.”
At a time when many American employees are disillusioned with corporate progress metrics that prioritize profit above everything, Tito’s continues to reimagine the employee experience by leveraging altruism as corporate strategy. We spoke with Lukken to learn more about how she fosters such an unconventional culture of happiness and gratitude, the merits of generosity, and Tito’s latest charitable effort to distribute small-business grants in celebration of its 25th anniversary.
The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.
Let’s dive straight into the job title: joyologist. What is joyology?
I designed joyology about 15 years ago. I had been in corporate America for about 20 years by this time and witnessed how business was run. I noticed that we’re always looking at what’s wrong with the person and trying to fix their weaknesses versus looking at what’s right with them. And if we even look at all the sciences—neurology, cardiology, psychology—we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong. Joyology is basically a study of love and joy, and the practice of bringing out the good in people.
How did you get to convince people that joyology is an important thing, and not something to perhaps be scoffed at?
You have to be careful. You can’t just say, “Hi, I’m your new joyologist and I’m going to turn this liquor business into a company of love and joy.” They would’ve just laughed me right out of the room. I just slowly eased into it. The first thing that we need to do is make sure that the foundation of the culture is set, meaning that we’re really taking good care of our people first, and we have to value them.
Happiness is not a metric a lot of companies prioritize. How do you measure it? What counts as a positive happiness level?
The measurement seems to be holistic and organic. We measure it in tiers of emotions. We measure it in the gratitude of people, how much gratefulness they have to one another, how grateful they are to be with the company, and how grateful the company is to have them. One measurement is that we have very, very little turnover. And that’s a big deal. We’re not going to kill them with surveys every quarter and give them all these formal tools. We’re making sure everyone is in the right role, and that they are doing a job they enjoy and love. We work hard at creating an open communication atmosphere and our employees tell us when we are off track with our happiness meter.
How do you motivate people to get involved in their community?
One way is the “20-or-more rule.” That’s a company rule that when 20 or more of us are gathered for a meeting—whether it’s local, regional, or national—it’s our duty to build into our agenda two hours of community service together. Initially, our people were unsure of this new rule. About a year into this new company guideline, I attended a regional sales meeting on the West Coast. I looked at their agenda and they had already built a two-hour volunteer project into the schedule without me reminding them. In addition, all of their sales presentations had a component of giving back to the community, whether it was from marketing to trade to distribution. It dawned on me that all of their business strategies had now become centered around how to give back to the local communities. And I sat in the back of the room and just wept. Watching their hearts opening made me realize that they really got it. And we never looked back.
Speaking of giving back, Tito’s is teaming up with Accion Opportunity Fund for its 25th anniversary to give out 10 individual grants of $25,000 to small business owners. Can you tell us a little bit about this program and what inspired it?
When Tito [Beveridge, the founder of Tito’s Handmade Vodka] started the company, everyone thought he was just absolutely crazy. He actually funded the whole thing on 19 credit cards, and the company didn’t really take off and get its footing for 10 years or so. But with his grit and determination, he never gave up on his dream and ultimately made it happen. And here we are, 25 years later and he’s still got this baby rolling. So as a part of our anniversary celebrations, we wanted to give back to small business owners who are actually following their passion and making an impact in the community, just like Tito did and continues to do. We’re looking for small business owners who demonstrate a meaningful connection to their community, a clear and compelling vision for their business, and then, lastly, the Tito’s values of grit, love, kindness, family, meaning, and purpose.
The purpose of a company is to turn a profit, but what you guys do—give millions of profit away to charity—seems almost counterintuitive. Can you give us a better picture of the benefits?
It started about 25 years ago when Tito was invited down to bartend at a charity event. At the end of the night, the charity was just so grateful. They hugged and thanked him. The feeling was so overwhelming that Tito made the decision that night that he wanted his employees to feel that same gratitude. That’s when he said, “Okay, anytime a charity calls and they need help, they’re doing something good in the community, the answer is yes. If you align with their values and want to help them, do so.” Giving is contagious, but it’s also a selfish act. The more you give, you get tenfold back. It’s this really fun, creative cycle: We keep giving, we just keep getting more back, and our business has just really, really taken off.
Have you noticed a shift in people when gratitude is prioritized?
We have these hardcore competitive liquor salespeople that are all of a sudden showing empathetic and compassionate traits on the job. Instead of calling me to discuss market share or sales numbers, our salespeople began calling to discuss the difference in people’s lives they were making. One rep called me late on a Saturday night from a children’s hospital to tell me what joy they had brought to a child with cancer.
It seems that altruism and happiness are interlinked. Can you talk a little bit about how this emphasis on community service came about?
We had an intentional experiment that began in 2015. We’re sitting in a room and Tito said, “Why don’t we just flatten the marketing budget and triple our philanthropy budget.” His theory was to take the profits of the company and give it back to the communities that grew us, that built our brand. We told the team to find your passion and wrap a Tito’s label around it. We were giving our employees the permission to find causes that meant something to them and figure out ways to integrate their passions with their business model.
So we created the joy budget. Employees actually get to choose who they want to support in their communities.
What are some causes people have supported?
Our field sales director in Florida, Andrea, has raised over $200,000 for American Lung Cancer Association research in the last four years. Our Arizona and New Mexico state manager, Courtney, recently did a Dancing with the Stars-style competition to raise funds for the LGBTQ+ community in Arizona. Courtney is a celebrity in Phoenix because of her job. When people are given the chance to find what’s meaningful in their lives, employee engagement just skyrockets.
What advice do you have for other companies or people looking to install a similar program into their organization?
You have to start with taking care of your people first. You have to make sure that their basic needs are covered. We can’t just pay people a decent wage—you’ve got to pay them a really good wage that allows them a little freedom in life. Give them good healthcare. If you can, give a 401k plan and match them. Everybody should have the opportunity to save for their future. If you take good care of your people, then your people will take care of your business. Happy employees make happy customers. Scaling happiness was just a beautiful, unintended consequence, and business has been our vehicle to deliver this. It’s been a long and winding road, and our model’s not perfect by any means. We’re still learning every day. We’re still learning how to become better humans.