1955, B.S. Journalism, major in advertising

Joe Pedott headshotTake one step inside the unassuming San Francisco offices of Joseph Enterprises. Inc. and you know what is going on. There are Chia Pets everywhere.

Joe Pedott is the man behind the Chia Pet, the Clapper, the Ove Glove and so much more. Those unusual products and their earworm jingles have become American icons. At least, that is what the Smithsonian thinks. Pedott’s papers and other materials related to the Chia Pet and the Clapper are part of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Pedott was born in Chicago and had a difficult youth. He survived rheumatic fever at the age of 11 and the death of his mother just two years later. At age 16 he had run away from home after an argument with his father and taken up residence at a YMCA.

The turnaround came with the help of SGA Youth and Family Services, known as Scholarship and Guidance at that time. SGA offered him financial assistance and counseling that kept him in school and working toward a college education. He chose the University of Illinois, in part because of the Navy Pier campus.

Pedott was interested in a career in radio and began working for a local station producing a children’s show — for no pay — while still a student. When he discovered that advertising agents were making 15 percent of what they sold, he changed his focus. He and a friend started their own advertising agency, Pedott & Peters.

Pedott was taking classes from Charles H. Sandage, the man many call the father of advertising education. He recalls that Sandage almost flunked him in one course.

“He expected more out of me because I had been working in advertising,” Pedott said. “I redid the work and passed.”

Pedott also taught a course for Sandage and received college credit for that work.

Pedott and his partner split a few years later, and Pedott went to work for a Chicago advertising agency to learn more about the business. He did very well and gave SGA back every dollar they had given him years before — with interest.

The desire to strike out on his own and a visit to San Francisco to stay with a friend prompted Pedott to move west in 1958 and create his own agency. He credits his success with a belief in himself and his work.

“I never ask someone to invest in something I wouldn’t do myself,” Pedott said.

He put his own money on the line when persuading businesses to become clients. They would see how well the advertising worked and couldn’t walk away.

Pedott discovered the Chia Pet at a trade show in Chicago. The product was selling well, but the distributor was losing money. Pedott purchased the rights to the product and revamped the manufacturing. By removing some less-than-ethical middle managers, he had a money-making venture on his hands.

The same process resulted in the successful Clapper. Improving the product’s manufacturing and the technology resulted in another winner.

Through it all, Pedott kept grounded and true to himself.

“Believe in yourself and work hard,” Pedott said. “No one owes you anything. If you fail, that’s good. Failure strengthens you.”

His strong sense of ethics has benefited many. Early in his career he was approached by a friend for a donation in support of constructing a Hillel center at the University of California at Davis. The request: $25. Pedott didn’t have it but promised his next commission check. In those days, they usually amounted to right around that $25 request.

That next check was $25,000.

After a sleepless night, Pedott wrote the check to Hillel and sent it to the national office in Washington, D.C.

“I had to look at myself in the mirror,” Pedott said.

After receiving the check, Hillel called and offered to name the main room after anyone he wished. He chose to name it after his deceased mother.

Some 40 years later, Hillel began fundraising to construct a new $5.3 million house to which Pedott again donated. This time it was $1 million. Along with that donation, he made a simple request.

“If someone comes to the house and is hungry, feed them,” Pedott said. “If they need clothes, clothe them. If they need a place to sleep, give them shelter.”

He has also continued to support SGA through a fund at The Chicago Community Trust. He supports programs that offer educational and scholarship opportunities to underrepresented high school students interested in furthering their education.

“Joe has been a tremendous supporter of SGA Youth & Family Services for many years,” said Susana Marotta, president and CEO of SGA. “As a former client, he understands firsthand the impact of having someone there to support you just when you need it to help you achieve success. And he has paid it forward ever since by supporting hundreds of young people who have faced huge barriers and helping them realize their full potential by attending college or starting a career. 

“It’s exciting to see the lives of so many people who have been transformed for the better thanks to Joe’s continued investment in our services. Joe genuinely cares, and his generosity of spirit inspires us all at SGA each and every day.”

Pedott is moved by the stories of those students on the South Side of Chicago. They are being affected by gangs and find it difficult to break away from those bonds. Students are making progress and going to college.

“They have to have three things,” Pedott said. “The aptitude, the desire and the strength to do it.”

After a rough start and some well-timed assistance, Pedott has led something of a charmed life. He has traveled the world and created many friendships in the process. He has met fascinating people — including President Barack Obama and Joan Rivers — and has the pictures lining his office walls to prove it. And he has shared his good fortune with others asking little in return, including paying for his nieces and nephews to attend college.

At 84, Pedott is starting to think about retirement. He would like to travel with his significant other, Carol. After five open-heart surgeries, he would like to start an exercise program, even though his energy and pace are a match for someone half his age. He still works 10-hour days.

And, he would like to spend more time on his foundations, especially in Chicago.

“These kids will be our future leaders,” Pedott said.