"I Will Never Forget Where I Came From." Chia Pet Whiz Gives Back

When you think of American pop culture icons, a few famous brands and infomercials from past decades may come to mind. Two that most of us still probably remember are the Chia Pet ("Ch-ch-ch-Chia!") and the Clapper ("Clap on, clap off! The Clapper!").

A man named Joseph Pedott is to blame for making these oddly catchy products stick in our minds for so long. Pedott didn’t create the products, but he’s the advertising legend that made them so successful, building a business empire in the process. Pedott's net worth is unknown, but it was reported a few years back that the Chia Pet had steadily sold more than 500,000 units per year for the past three decades.

Pedott's wealth is another great reminder of the varied sources of financial success in America's vast and diversified economy. People get rich in lots of ways, some of them downright odd.

Pedott's philanthropy is more conventional. He opened a fund at the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) a few years ago to channel his wealth to local groups in the Chicago area. He’s no stranger to the local nonprofit community and actually received help himself from SGA Youth and Family Services when he was fending for himself as a teen.

Pedott grew up in Chicago, graduated from the University of Illinois, and moved to San Francisco in the 1960s. But during a trip back home to Chicago, he met a drugstore chain salesman and started talking about Chia Pets; he later figured out how to market the kitschy gifts with a jingle on television.

But turning back to Pedott’s philanthropy, the advertising whiz crossed our radar recently because of a new matching grant to SGA Youth and Family Services up to $1 million. This was a very personal grant for him to make, so it’s likely more about giving back to a group that once helped him in a time of need than anything else. He has regularly donated to this Chicago social services agency for many years now.

Pedott explained:

I was sleeping on a cot and living off of a hot plate. A friend found me and told me about SGA. I started meeting with a counselor — someone who I could tell my grief, my problems, my frustrations. Someone who could guide me. I will never forget where I came from.

He chose CCT to set up the Joseph Pedott Family Fund and entrusted the community funder to continue following his wishes long after he's gone. This Chicago-based fund doesn’t have a website of its own, and it’s unclear at this point how many other local Chicago groups will see Pedott’s support. However, one local development is the launching of the Joseph Pedott Youth Leadership Award.

These days, Pedott splits his giving between his two home cities, Chicago and San Francisco. He has also set up the Joseph Pedott Perpetual Endowment Trust in San Francisco, which holds a little over $2 million in total assets. Past Bay Area grantees include Larkin Street Youth, Children’s Employment, Juma Ventures, and ScholarMatch.

It’s pretty plain to see that in both cities, Pedott has focused the bulk of his giving on education and youth. But he is also a Jewish community philanthropist who has funded the Hillel House and new Hillel construction at U.C. Davis. A lifelong bachelor now in his 80s, Pedott is a philanthropist of note in both the Chicago and Bay Area communities.

“I’ve had four open-heart surgeries,” he once said. “I shouldn’t be here. It’s payback time. My goal is to help as many kids as I can. I just like to help.”