It was cold, hard winter day in late November 1995 when Beth called me to say she was going under and had to close her business. Her voice sounded from far away as I watched the snow flurry from the window over the pasture. I don’t remember what she said, just that she did. I hung up the phone. Empty then, drained, I put my head down and I sobbed for a long while. It didn’t have to happen, it was such a waste. Overnight, eight stitchers were out of work.
What was going to happen to Beth’s eight stitchers? Living on the Navajo reservation, it’s not as though they could have gotten other jobs; the unemployment rate was 80%. Overnight, eight families weren’t going to buy winter clothes or wood to heat their homes against the elements. It’s cold on the reservation. Even these days, many don’t have plumbing or even electricity. No phones either. Overnight, there were eight more mothers without the means to feed their children. Eight families without a future, all gone overnight. They were all I could think about. Like I said, I just cried.
I became very angry at Beth and more so as time passed. I resented her. This was her fault. Eight families weren’t eating because of her. The problem wasn’t her costs, her market, her designs or being knocked off (she was copying Blue Fish); it was purely stupid business practices. That’s it. She should have dispensed with formality and had a bulls-eye or the word “victim” tattooed on her forehead. I know she owned the business but why did she have the right to act so irresponsibly? People were trusting her to make simple sane decisions, they helped her. They invested in her. She didn’t listen to anything I said, ever. She wouldn’t even do something as basic as issuing style numbers because it was “too corporate and conflicted with her image”. She really said that. She’s the one I wrote about in my book who named her styles “the Dorothy zoo blue dress” and “the June Cleaver meets Zuni Pueblo”. The stupidest part of that is that her stitchers mostly spoke Navajo and very little English. And she wondered why she had so many problems? Beth changed a lot of lives, mine, hers, theirs, maybe even yours.
But I digress. Today is Blog Action Day, an internet event in which thousands of bloggers post on a singular topic with the hopes of affecting social change. This year’s topic is Poverty. I wasn’t sure what to write about which is kind of ironic because eradicating poverty is the basis of what gets me out of bed every day. People always ask me how I got started. I started with Beth. So, I thought I’d tell my story about Beth so that once and for all, everybody will know what I do and why. Fighting poverty with job creation is all I do.
This blog, my book, all I do, is not about you. Not about you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to like you, sometimes love you, adapt to you, give you what you need, pull you along in fits and starts with cajoling, teasing, humor or occasionally, even thinly veiled threats. But, I don’t do this for you. I do this for the people you hire. People like Beth’s stitchers. People who are too busy struggling on increasingly limited incomes to even know I exist much less know my name, visit my blog or read my book. Obviously I’m not doing this for adoration or acclaim if the people I’m working for will never even know to thank me, assuming they felt I deserved it.
Returning to that day in 1995, I needed to do something. First I thought I’d start a factory but it was a stupid idea if my goal was to help employ people. I wasn’t sure what to do. A couple of months previous, my mentor had died and it profoundly affected me. Slowly, I realized I could create jobs if I made an effort to help people like you. If I helped you, you’d create jobs and a whole lot more than I ever could on my own. So that’s what I did. I just wasn’t sure how to go it.
The fact is, I’m using you. You’re a tool. A means to my nefarious ends.
I started with a newsletter and called it The Designer’s Network Newsletter. It was really lame but surprisingly popular. New to computing, I’d forget to run spell check. My son, much younger then, thought they were ugly and drew dragons in the margins in colored pencil on some of them. Not all my subscribers appreciated it but still, circulation doubled every month, all word of mouth. In 1997, tired of being chained to publishing deadlines, I put it all into a book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing. I thought I’d end up with 990 copies gathering dust in the garage but those sold, all word of mouth. And they continue to. I thought I could get back to pattern making and the occasional consulting if I had a ready reference to pass off to people. Naively, I thought they’d read it, follow my advice to the dot and scamper off to fame and fortune. Right. Why are you so stubborn?
I reiterate, I’m using you. My means to an end. Job creation.
If you think about it, some of my entries make a lot more sense through this lens. You get mad or frustrated if your tools don’t work the way they are supposed to. And I know that people aren’t really tools. You can’t meld them as much as I may have tried. Why do you think I get mad at you? Why do I get so frustrated with you? Logically, if you have my book, I’ve made my money off you so why would I care what you do now? This is why I genuinely do not care if you are literally, the finest designer to ever draw breath. I only care that you become a profitable enterprise and that you are a good, fair and ethical person on your way there. I think I’ve been rather transparent about it. As I’ve said before:
If you haven’t figured it out yet, my driving passion is job creation. Not everybody can work at Mc Donald’s and support a family.
Manufacturing does support families. I don’t know why people think factories are so awful, have you ever worked in one? They can be kind of cool, fun places. I have literally spent the best years of my life in factories. Some people like the noise of the machines… Factories aren’t what you think. Only 3% of US manufacturers are sweat-shops so very few factories are boring, dangerous, dank and dirty. People who work or have worked in factories may resent your sweat-shop comments because they wouldn’t work at a place like that anymore than you would and if you intimate that they have, that’s an underhanded way of saying you’re better than they are. Some of us deeply admire and respect our previous factory employers so a sweatshop comment can be offensive. DEs call me up and that’s the first thing they’ll say, “I need your advice but I don’t run a sweat-shop”. It makes me want to say, “are you suggesting that I do run a sweatshop or that I advise people on how to set them up? Do you think that if I suggest a cost-effective way to do something, that what I’m really saying is that you have to run a sweat shop yourself?”
In summary, the best path to the eradication of poverty is to run your enterprises intelligently. You don’t have to run a sweatshop to turn a profit but you can’t be selfish, you can’t be pig headed, short sighted or in love with the vision of your fashion empire unfolding. If you don’t listen, I can’t respect you; I don’t care how talented you are. I don’t care where you went to school. I don’t care if you worked under the best designer who ever lived. I don’t care how much money you have. The fact is, most of you will never become large enterprises and that’s just fine by me. Small businesses hire a lot more people than large ones. Did you know that? Small companies, when profits are compared to head count, are more profitable than large ones. Did you know that? Maybe no one else gives you the time of day but I respect your impact. I’ve staked my entire career on it.
Now go give me a count of how many jobs or hours of work my advice has helped you to create. Together we have an impact, what is it?