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I Fell in Love with Local
I had just launched my first children’s book as a new entrepreneur and had big visions for my fledgling business. I wanted to create a happy children’s brand that expanded beyond my initial book. I envisioned additional books, stuffed animals, blankets, clothing, accessories…you name it and I wanted to create it! The lovable Oliver Poons would bring smiles to little ones both on the page and off I hoped.
However, the reality was that I had no idea how to make any of those visions come to fruition. I had barely pulled together the print file for my self-published children’s book, and here I was wanting to launch an entire character-inspired children’s line. I was also chronically ill, facing repercussions from a long battle with Lyme Disease, and helping to care for my mother (also the book’s illustrator) who was recovering from a severely broken ankle.
“I want to create a line of stuffed animals,” I remember saying.
“Can we make them in the USA?”
While I wasn’t so naive to be surprised that the answer was, “Probably not”, I was surprised by one of the reasons I was given when I pressed further for the “Why?”
“It’s partially a price point and labor issue, but it’s also that we’ve been out of the game so long, our technology isn’t as up to date. You’ll get a better quality stuffed animal overseas.”
I left the meeting to battle the pouring rain to catch my train home. As I slumped into my seat, my body nearly collapsing from exhaustion, I felt bewildered.
My mind raced with a million thoughts. I had always equated “American Made” with “quality”. Had we outsourced too much for too long that we were no longer competitive? What did it mean for our manufacturing and textile industries if making a simple stuffed animal in America was no longer a feasible project?
Then the environmentalist and economist in me chimed in. Instead of creating a product locally, I’m going to create a product on the other side of the world and have it shipped in crates on a boat across the ocean? How do I feel about being responsible for that carbon footprint? And what about the U.S. economy and American labor? Are there people in this country who would want the work?
I came home and chatted with the military man. He’s a man of few words, but I could tell by his tone that he wasn’t thrilled by the idea of me manufacturing overseas either. Dating an American soldier and outsourcing business seemed especially paradoxical. He fought to defend our country’s strength, so should I.
My crusade for manufacturing locally took place over a period of about two years in between constant health issues and my mother’s numerous ankle surgeries. It included phone calls, visits to some of the few remaining textile mills, meetings with additional sourcing agents, and scouring the internet for anyone who could help. I had to better understand the manufacturing process to understand what the issues were and where to go from here.
Two moments from this crusade particularly impacted me. At one point, I was so fed up with struggling to find USA made fabric to my liking, I decided to Google and call an organic cotton farmer in Texas to see if I could figure out where the cotton went, farm to fabric. The short version of the story is that he sold his cotton directly to a few places in the U.S., most of it was turned into cotton batting, not fabric, and he was struggling with low demand.
He was one of the kindest people I’ve had the pleasure to speak with and we spent about an hour chatting. His pride in his crop was apparent through his exuberant descriptions of his work, and I was upset to hear about the low demand for U.S. grown cotton. The conversation ended with an open invitation for a tour of his farm any time I was feeling up for a visit.
My second experience was similar. I again decided to turn to Google, this time searching for nearby seamstresses. I had learned so much from the cotton farmer, I was curious what my conversation with the seamstress would bring. As it turned out, she had worked on an assembly line for a textile company in her youth and was well versed in how a stuffed animal would be made in larger scale production. She explained the process to me, immediately followed by, “There’s no one doing that kind of work around here anymore, though.” We chatted awhile longer and she ended by saying that she and her husband would welcome work and perhaps we could find a way to make this project a reality together.
The takeaway from the two experiences was similar: There are people right in our backyard who are skilled, who can help, and who would welcome work.
It’s now two and a half years since I started my journey to entrepreneurship amidst my illness and my mother’s injury. In addition to our manufacturing crusade, it’s felt like we have also been on a constant crusade to find local help. With a prolonged illness and prolonged injury, we’ve had to rely on a lot of help from neighbors along the way, and at times, wished we knew more people around us.
In my conversations with the military man, I learned about the values of teamwork and brotherhood the military had instilled in him. When it came time to embark on a mission, there was always a level of respect and equality that took precedence over anything else. There was also an unspoken acknowledgement that the team is only as strong as its weakest member.
Local Strong is the culmination of all my experiences. It’s the idea that we’re stronger together than apart. It’s the idea that we should know and respect the talents and skills our neighbors bring to our communities so we can all benefit. It’s the idea that if our neighbors or our farmers or our local businesses are struggling, so are we. And it’s the idea, that, together, we can unite to spark positive change, as that has always been at the core of our American strength.