Artwork for podcast The Bonfires of Social Enterprise with Romy  of Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Entrepreneurship in Detroit
S2: Better Life Bags#49
21st April 2016 • The Bonfires of Social Enterprise with Romy of Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Entrepreneurship in Detroit • Romy Kochan | Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Detroit Entrepreneurs
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Season 2 –  Better Life Bags Social Enterprise

Romy interviews Rebecca Smith with Better Life Bags in Hamtramck of Detroit. Hear the incredible story of how she launched a business of making custom handbags hand-sewn by local women who had previously had cultural barriers to employment. Rebecca shares how she grew, used social media, and created dynamic relationships with her now 16 employees~

 

Rebecca Smith of Better Life Bags

BLB-58

Transcription beginning with Fun Fuel:

Jentzen:
Hey, guys. This is Jentzen with your fun fuel for this episode. Now, today’s fun fuel is going to be about Coach Handbags and the history behind them. The Coach Company was originally created in 1941 by the Coach family out of a small shop in Manhattan. The Coach family had a small team of six, and they were making wallets and billfolds out of leather, and they were doing all these by hand.
Five years after the company was created in 1946, the Coach family joined up with a man named Miles Cahn and his wife, Lillian, who owned their own leather handbag manufacturing business. Fifteen years later in 1961, Miles Cahn and his wife ended up buying out the Coach family and making the two companies one company. Now, Miles was amazed at the leather baseball glove and how over time, the leather of the baseball glove becomes more flexible, softer, and more supple. He attempted to mimic that leather in his own leather of wallets and handbags. Through attempting to mimic this, Miles ended up creating leather that was stronger, softer, and more flexible.
Now, he also found ways to color the leather. Little did he know that leather itself actually holds color incredibly well. Now, it wasn’t until Miles’ wife suggested to him that they not only make wallets and bags for men but they start creating accessory bags for women. Now, this is when their company really boomed. As the company grew more and more successful, Miles and his wife hired sportswear and fashion designers to add more creative elements to their bags making them even more successful and growing into the famous Coach bags we see around the US today. This is Jentzen, and this was your fun fuel for today’s episode.

Romy:
Very nice. Thank you, Jentzen. Let’s transition. Please meet Rebecca Smith from Better Life Bags. Welcome, Rebecca to the podcast.

Rebecca:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Romy:
Now, let’s talk about what Better Life Bags is.

Rebecca:
We make custom leather and fabric handbags. We manufacture them here in Detroit, Michigan, actually in a little city called Hamtramck which is surrounded by Detroit on all sides. We hire women who have barriers to traditional employment, and they work here in our workshops. Some of them work from their homes. Whatever their specific need is, we try to work with them in that. Then, our customers go on to our website, and they customize and design their own bag. Then, we make it to order for them here and shop.

Romy:
Social enterprise at its finest. We’ll come back and dig in. Let’s let listeners know where we’re doing this interview.

Rebecca:
Right now, I’m actually in our workshop. If you hear background noise, it’s a working manufacturing studio. Pretty small, I’d say 1600 square feet. Actually, big to us. We just moved from a 700 square foot space into this space. It feels enormous. We’re right here in Hamtramck. We’re cutting leather, we’re cutting fabric, we’re sewing, we’re shipping, and all today.

Romy:
For those who might not have some knowledge about the community and the neighborhood of Hamtramck within Detroit, would you mind giving us a feel of the demographics because, in my opinion, it’s incredibly unique.

Rebecca:
Yeah, it’s super diverse. I believe it is Michigan’s most diverse city. I’ve heard other people say that it’s actually one of the most diverse cities in America. Forty years ago, it was 90% Polish immigrants. Then, over in the past, I don’t know, twenty years or so, there’s been a high influx of immigrants from Yemen, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia. It’s a melting pot of cultures.
This is the first stop for immigrants to land, get their feet on the ground, and then after a few years, they’ll move out to the suburbs and the second generation of immigrants will grow up in the suburbs. We have highly first generation immigrants here in our little city. Twenty-six languages are spoken at my kids’ school. You see them in English. It feels like a different country. It’s only two square miles. It’s very small. It’s just an interesting place to be. Amazing food, for sure, because everyone is bringing their authentic recipes. Then, they’re opening restaurants here. It’s a really fun place to be.

Romy:
If you’re not familiar with Hamtramck, those are your lists, and you’re going to have to make a journey in. Check it out. It’s just a stop worth having. Thanks for that anchoring to your place. Now, would you take us on a journey of how this all started and it will probably lead to the reason why you and your husband are actually living in Hamtramck.

Rebecca:
About seven years ago, I was pregnant with our first child, and I decided to make myself a diaper bag. My grandpa had taught me to sew when I was really young, and I’d lost the art of it. My mom had bought me a sewing machine for my birthday that year maybe to spark something up again. I had the time, so I decided, “Let’s try it.” I had a friend help me make my first diaper bags. We went to the fabric store, we picked out the fabrics I wanted, came home, and created my very own diaper bag that fit my style and to match my son’s nursery.
I posted pictures of that bag on Facebook. Some friends and family commented, “You should sell these. I would buy one of them. You should open an Etsy shop,” which Etsy had just come on to the scene about that time, and I had never heard of it before, but after doing some exploration, I realized anyone can open an Etsy shop, and you just have to have an email address, and you can start selling things that you make on Etsy. I had nothing lose. I thought it would be a fun hobby of mine that I could sew bags as I enter this new season of motherhood.
Opened an Etsy shop. We named it Better Life Bags even way back then because my brother had introduced me to Kiva, the microloan company at Christmas that year. He had given us a $25 Kiva gift card which, at first, I thought was the worst Christmas gift you could ever give anyone because I had to turn around and give that money away. It’s $25 that you can’t have. You have to go and loan it to someone. I hopped on the site and I’m looking through all these profiles of people who are raising money in third world countries to open a grocery store, to buy more sheep, and I was just addicted to the whole concept. I thought it was so cool.
I decided, these bags that I’m selling on Etsy, I can donate a percentage of them and give more and more loans through Kiva. We named it Better Life Bags in the sense that these bags would be helping make someone’s life better by your purchase. I sent a picture of, it’s usually a woman, sometimes a man that that loan was going to go help with the bags. The customer was receiving a bag, and then a picture, and a story of the person through Kiva. That was the original intent. It seemed very easy to me and just ought to be a simple, little hobby.
About six months later, my husband decided to move us to Michigan. We were in Savannah previously, Savannah, Georgia. He had been overseas in the military, just developed a real love for Muslim culture and Muslim people, and just thought it would be really cool to raise our kids and our family in a really diverse neighborhood, a place that has a need that we can really get grounded in, and invest in. Somehow, he heard about Hamtramck, Michigan. We had never visited before.

Romy:
Oh my goodness.

Rebecca:
I just said, “Let’s go.” I think I was in this newborn fog. I didn’t realize what I was saying yes to. We packed up everything and moved to Michigan to this very different city that I never had in my life lived in anything remotely close to it. I grew up in suburbs, in middle-class America. To be in a low-income city with so many different cultures, it was a real culture shock. I really desired to have friends with people with different cultures, but it was very awkward and hard.
My first friend that I made, she was from Yemen. Her name was Nadia. She spoke no English. I spoke, obviously, no Arabic, but we both knew how to sell. We spent our first evening together in my basement sewing a bag, one of the bags that I sold on Etsy. We had a good time. We didn’t have to speak each other’s language to sew. That’s a universal language.

Romy:
I love this.

Rebecca:
That’s how we spent our first night together as friends. About three years into living here, the business, some bloggers caught wind of it. Someone with about three million Pinterest followers pinned one of my bags on the Pinterest, and things just went crazy. I couldn’t keep up anymore. It was too busy to do during my kids’ nap times. I had two kids then at that point, and I couldn’t keep up.
I called my friend, Nadia, that I had spent time with in the basement sewing. She has gotten much better at English as the years had gone by and I said, “I need help. Can you sew all the insides of these bags, also all the outsides, and we’ll put them together twice as fast?” She was really excited about it. I started going to her house once a week and dropping off fabric, and picking up the bags that she had done the week before. Then, the same thing the next week, drop off and pick up. I’d bring my kids, and we would stay, and we would hang out every week, and just really deep into our friendship at that point. I pay her bag, per piece.
Eventually, she got so good at the insides that I said, “Here, I’ll teach you the outsides too,” and she was doing the whole bag, and we went even faster at that point. I’d say about six to eight months into this routine, she met me at our weekly drop off and picked up, and she said, “I got to show you something.” She leads me upstairs to her kids’ bedrooms and for the first time, she had bought her kid’s bunk beds; whereas before, they were just sleeping on the floor. She has four children.
Her husband works at a gas station and does his very best to make ends meet, but it’s never really enough. This extra income in their family was allowing them to buy things that I consider necessities, but they had never been able to afford before like a dining room table. Like I said, bunk beds. They got their first couch. I started to see really the difference that a job could do for her. She’s unable to get a job outside of her home because she’s a Muslim woman because she’s very conservative Muslim woman I should say. In her culture, it’s not easy to go out and get a job amongst mixed genders, but she could sew inside the comfort of her home, and she has four children. Getting the job outside of the home is impossible in that way too.
We now have about sixteen employees. All of them have some barrier to employment whether it’s culture, language, education, kids. The Better Life Bag aspect of it switched from sending money to someone overseas that I would never meet to investing deeply into the lives of my neighbors and the people in our city.

Romy:
Wow. I just want to make a comment here. You’ve hit on something that is not talked about very often. Often, we talk about the barriers to employment to be maybe former criminal records or past drug use. You come over one level or go over, I guess, one neighborhood and their barriers are languages, education, and potentially culture. I think a lot of people don’t think about that; and yet, it does prevent. It’s amazing.

Rebecca:
Yeah, the unexpected barrier to employment because definitely, wouldn’t we say if we hire women with barriers to employment, you think ex-con, people who are trying to enter back from the prison system, but there’s a whole gallery of women that have different barriers to employment.

Romy:
Right. Sometimes, it can just be got some children at home that you have to talk about as got to be some type of employment that you can sneak into the cracks of motherhood.

Rebecca:
Absolutely, yes.

Romy:
You’re up to sixteen employees now. Some are in your workshop, and some stay at the home as you told us in the beginning.

Rebecca:
Right. We let them choose. Our newest seamstress that we hired is from Afghanistan. She’s an asylum seeker to the States. She is free and able to come to the workshop every day to work. She spends Mondays through Thursday in the shop with us which is really fun just to get to see her and interact with her on a daily basis. Then, our other seamstresses do about 90% of the bags in their homes. Then, they come into our shop once a week for a couple of hours, and they use our industrial sewing machines to finish up any leather work. Then, they pick up their next batch for the week.

Romy:
Let’s stay on this social mission of employment. What else are you noticing that changes with the women after they’ve been with you for a season? What other subtle things do you tend to notice?

Rebecca:
I think one of the unexpected things that even I didn’t see coming is we have so many different cultures represented in our sixteen employees. We have African-American, we have Bengali, we have Yemeni, we have Afghani, we have white American, and to see all of that interact on a family level, I think, is really unique. I actually remember their first day that our African-American women started work. Some of our seamstresses were actually a little bit afraid. They had never interacted, or talked, or been in the same small space with people that were not from their country. To see that stereotype be overcome and to see them say hi to each other, and hug, and share a meal together is just really, really cool and something I would never have anticipated would be a result of this type of social enterprise.

Romy:
It’s reminded me of some of the work we’ve done in other countries where this Christian Jewish and Muslim, and finding this common denominator whether it’s cultural, or religion, or whatever, you could fill in the blank. If the hearts, I’d like to say, are graceful enough to take the time to find that common denominator, now, you’ve got something to build on together. There’s always something in here. We’ve got motherhood. We’ve got similar, perhaps, reasons why they have barriers. Then, yet, they’re all coming together around producing a product. It’s just really, really great.

Rebecca:
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. Challenging but a lot of fun.

Romy:
Yeah, I’m just imagining, you’ve got to have a lot more patience because there’s translations going on, right?

Rebecca:
Yeah, a lot can be lost in translation for sure. Even quality translations on what our customers in America are expecting their product to be, quality-wise. It was a huge jump that we’ve had to make with every new seamstress. They are in quite a training period before we start shipping out their products. Not good or bad but quality expectations are different in various countries than they are in America. That’s been interesting. Sometimes, I joke with my husband that things would have been so much easier could I just kept sending money overseas but anything that is hard is always worth it, in my opinion. I won’t change anything for sure, but sometimes, that seems so much easier, in fact.

Romy:
Let’s go to your husband for just a minute. When I met Neil, I was so taken aback at his heart. He had gone overseas, served in the war, and instead of coming back, just like “I got to get home. I got to get away from this,” he came back with a burden in his heart to serve the culture and moves his whole family from Savannah to Hamtramck. I just was struck by the burden of his heart to help a group that’s very different from him. It’s not just he’s a man, and these are women. There was differences in where he grew up, differences in religion, yet, he was so burdened to serve. I was just so struck by that.

Rebecca:
Yeah. He’s an incredible man. We would not be here if it weren’t for him. I would not have the guts to move out of something I was comfortable to me and move into a new city. I would not have had the guts to keep going with the business when it seemed too big, or too scary, or too hard if it weren’t for his cheerleading a lot behind the scenes. He definitely doesn’t get enough credit outwardly for the success of the business or even the ideas, the social enterprise ideas behind it. He has definitely been the visionary behind it. He has been the servant behind it.
He stayed home with our kids as a stay-at-home dad for at least a year and a half while I got things off the ground. Now, we share parenting duties and all of that, but he has put a lot of his dreams and a lot of his wishes on hold for the business and helped us really get that going. Yeah, he’s definitely the lifeblood behind it.

Romy:
All right. Big shout out to Neil.

Rebecca:
Yeah, this goes to you. I love you, Neil.

Romy:
Let’s transition here to the bags themselves, these amazing bags. Could you just start to describe your product itself?

Rebecca:
Yeah. They’re leather and fabric combination bags. Some of our bags can be made with all leather, but none of them can be made with just fabric. There’s leather somewhere on every bag. Everything is custom and made to order. Our website is interactive. You go on our website, and you pick a style of bag that you really like. We have over forty-five fabrics and three leather colors that you can click on, and see them pop up on this white sketch of a bag, and all sorts of combinations. I haven’t sat down and do the math to think about how many actual combinations of bags you could create on our website, but you’re essentially creating a one-of-a-kind piece. Then, it’s made to order with about a two to three-week turnaround time.
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