When you visit apparel factories, they might seem to be just a room of sewing machines and cutting tables, but behind-the-scenes, these factories represent a lot more. One such factory, is Open Arms, a sewing shop in Austin, TX that is one of several factories on Maker’s Row that has a larger social impact mission. Founded in 2010 by Leslie Beasley and Lacey Strake, Open Arms is part of the non-profit wing of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) and provides sewing training to refugee women. Leslie and Lacey’s mission was created in response to one of the greatest needs in the refugee community: living wage work that allowed local women, who didn’t have as many work opportunities because they lacked necessary knowledge of English or job skills, a wage rate that met the minimum standards of living. They started by using recycled t-shirts to make a line of skirts and scarves that were sold across the US at boutiques, online and at major retailers such as Whole Foods.
In Fall 2014, the MRC acquired Open Arms, becoming the social enterprise wing of the MRC, which is now focused solely on private label manufacturing. We spoke to Meg Erskine, Executive Director, to learn more about Open Arms.
The Multicultural Refugee Coalition offers a 12-week basic and advanced sewing training program that they continue to refine each year. In 2016, there goal is to develop it out to be a more comprehensive 6-month training program leading to more opportunities for employment. For instance, the assistant manager, Christine, is a refugee from Burundi who was trained at MRC and has since worked her way up to her current management role at Open Arms. They currently have a team of 7 refugee women that work at Open Arms and their goal is to help them continue to advance in leadership like Christine has.
When we learned about Open Arms, we were touched by their mission and wanted to learn more. They kindly took the time to tell us their story and we wanted to be able to share it here with you.
How has Open Arms changed the lives of these refugee women?
The stories of impact at Open Arms are plenty. All the women have become more economically empowered as a result of their work and experience at Open Arms. The women have purchased homes, cars, sent their children to school, and engaged in extracurricular activities––all of which were less accessible to them without this employment. One particular impact story was featured on the UN Refugee Day site about Odile Moukissi– one of our team members from Congo Brazzaville.
At Open Arms, we produce private label goods for a variety of businesses from large retailers to small businesses, largely focusing on the production of home-goods, clothing and accessories at this point. This includes large retailers like IKEA for whom we just completed a round of home-goods for their first social enterprise in the USA, and socially conscious small businesses like Raven and Lily and Newton Supply Co. Beyond that, we are continuing to explore some more customizable markets as well.
Tell us about some of the obstacles you have overcome.
While we have a large numbers of customers in the pipeline, we are still working out our processes as far as our ideal order size: We are exploring how we can be more flexible with smaller order sizes in order to accommodate a larger number of partners, and have a higher utilization rate of our manufacturing space year round so that we are able employ more of our team full-time. Currently we employ an average of 3 people full-time, but we have a team of 7 trained seamstresses that we would like to employ more. We hope Maker’s Row can help with this: the more partners that know about us and the products that we can produce, the more our business can continue to grow and, in turn, empower more refugee women.
As a factory based in Austin, what does being Made in USA mean to you?
It is important that we provide a meaningful work space where creativity and friendships can thrive. It is amazing to watch these women come in not knowing much or any English at all and connect with other refugee women from around the world in a meaningful work environment; all while doing what they are skilled at, laughing and talking together over lunch, challenging each other, and learning together. Their English and confidence improves very quickly, which in turn, impacts all other areas of their lives. Moreover, in addition to fostering a meaningful work culture amongst the women, the women are empowered through their integral role in creating high-quality products, made with a quick turnaround time, alongside a team of professionally trained seamstresses and our highly-skilled, fashion-industry veteran Production Director. Altogether, it makes not only for a rewarding and life-changing experience for the women, but also for an especially unique and ethically produced product.