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Banking on KC – Kelly Wilson of The Sewing Labs

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Kelly Wilson, the owner or co-founder of three different companies that she's involved with. Weave Gotcha Covered, and Sacred Stitches, and then the non-profit, The Sewing Labs. Welcome to the show Kelly.

Kelly Wilson:

Thank you, Kelly. I'm excited to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have such a wonderful history. None of the companies you're involved with are especially old companies, but still have such a rich history in the short time that you have been involved with them. They're all three intertwined, and you really can't talk about one without talking about the others. As I mentioned, The Sewing Labs is a nonprofit and it's really an outgrowth. I don't want to call it a byproduct, but it's really an outgrowth of one of your for-profit companies, Weave Gotcha Covered, and then Sacred Stitches plays a role in there as well. So stitch that story together for us.

Kelly Wilson:

Weave Gotcha Covered was founded 15 years ago, 2005. My wife and I had started doing some sewing on the side. It was our side hustle to make some extra income, many people who know my story know that I had just come out of losing everything after a big recession in Kansas City, we had lost our home and everything, all of our personal items. And I was trying to figure out how to regroup, kind of like many people are doing right now with the pandemic. And I took a job at a local fabric store, $5 an hour, minimum wage, started having requests for sewing, which people don't do a lot of sewing anymore.

Kelly Scanlon:

No.

Kelly Wilson:

So Lonnie and I started sewing and making window treatments and bedding and pillows out of her basement. And then the next thing we knew, we had a huge following. We had hit a niche market, unintentionally, fast forward, that's how we got to where we are today. The idea for The Sewing Labs came from the fact that as we finished our products, we had all of these scraps and we did not want to send them to the landfill. And we realized... I mean, at that point, what a lucrative business, this could be, having a trade and how easy it was as an entry level to get into. We had each pulled out our high school sewing machines to start this job, so we really had no investment.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). You bootstrapped it. You were really accidental entrepreneurs.

Kelly Wilson:

Oh, absolutely accidental. And I mean, we were just desperate at that point-

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

... now, how do you make enough money to keep food on the table? So we pulled out our high school sewing machines and we had started sewing. So a few years into this, we realized that this was a path that others could use to be able to support themselves. And we became involved with Sister Berta and the Operation Breakthrough Vision for the 100 Jobs for 100 Moms.

Kelly Wilson:

And through that relationship, we started working with some of the moms that were coming through her transitional housing project, Amethyst Place. We started hiring women from Amethyst Place to work at Weave Gotcha Covered which codified the mission of trying to provide employment opportunities for women from marginalized communities that were trying to return to community. And as a byproduct of that another piece of that, The Sewing Labs just walked hand in hand with that. We started offering sewing lessons to anybody in the community that wanted to learn how to sew. Started collecting all of the sewing machines that anybody was willing to donate to us and used all the scraps we had left from Weave Gotcha Covered before we started getting donations.

Kelly Scanlon:

The Sewing Labs has a three tiered mission. There's the job skills training, there's the community connections, and then there's the legacy of sewing, which I want to talk about in more detail in a few minutes, but let's focus on the job skills training for a minute. What all is involved in that?

Kelly Wilson:

Well, Kelly, sewing touches almost every aspect of our life and frequently people don't even realize how entrenched sewing is. The Sewing Labs offers training to anybody in the community that wants to learn how to sew. Sometimes people feel like they have to need it for an economic reason to enroll in a class, and that is absolutely not true. The classes cover any type of sewing as I was referring to. It can be bridal, apparel, industrial, alterations-

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

... any type of sewing. We have some certification programs in each of those areas. The Sewing Labs also received a very large grant from the Kauffman Foundation this past October for an inclusion grant. And they have developed an entire entrepreneurial program that is available if people want to sign up to come down and develop and market their product out of The Sewing Labs. If somebody has an idea, we have areas in The Sewing Labs that people can rent machines and come down and work on their product, kind of like a test area.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

And one of the real beauties of the whole concept is it's all community based, the volunteers are community, the participants are community. It becomes kind of a community center, even though sewing's the middle of everything, the center of it. And when you register for a class, you can either have a full scholarship all the way through pay for the class and donate a class for somebody. But one of the byproducts we have found is that when you have eight people sitting around this machine learning, how to make button holes, it does not matter what your name is, where your family lives, you're all learning the same skill.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

The conversations that happen around the machines are real conversations and they involve mentoring for everybody that is at the table. We all learn about other people's challenges in their life, whether or not you have privilege, you have different lived stories to be able to share. And it makes everyone a lot more involved and tolerant and community based. It's magic is what it is.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. It really strips away a lot of the misconceptions that occur when people really don't know each other. And when you sit down and actually are face to face with somebody and sharing an activity that you both enjoy, then all of that just melts away.

Kelly Wilson:

Absolutely. And you're not just a word anymore, there's a face with that concept.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

It goes a long way to developing great relationships in Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

What have been some of the outcomes? What are the kind of jobs that some of the people who have been through your training have been able to get in the different types of injuries?

Kelly Wilson:

Well, there is a large base in Kansas City of sewing based businesses. At one time Kansas City was a very large leader in the country for sewing industry. I mean, we still have the garment district downtown.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

And we all know of Nelly Don and other legacies in Kansas City, but some of our students have gotten jobs at factories that sew flags, dancewear companies. We've had a couple that have started it at one of my companies, Sacred Stitches for religious vestments. We have a company that does stadium seating and they've hired. It's been interesting. And then Natasha, that has The Grooming Project here in town. We've worked with her developing some of the items for her dog grooming business. Those are all going to work for somebody else, creating your own job and your own product in today's industry and climate is what I think is the real joy of being able to do this. I know a young woman that took a sewing machine to college, did alterations out of her dorm room and paid her way all the way through college.

Kelly Scanlon:

Man.

Kelly Wilson:

And a sewing machine is not a big investment. So being able to have control of your schedule for a single mom, who's trying to balance kids and school right now, especially not being able to go somewhere, but she can sew out of her home. We have several of our staff at Weave Gotcha Covered that sew at home.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

And it provides that flexibility, their employees, but it provides the flexibility for them to manage their life and be able to pay their bills.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up about the current situation we're in because The Sewing Labs has shifted during the pandemic. You are making tens of thousands of masks, I've lost count. I think the website, the last time I looked at it was up to around 51,000 masks that have been made.

Kelly Wilson:

Yes, we have surpassed that, and that was a total accident, but it did come out of the pandemic when we couldn't have classes, and we already had all the fabric and the machines and started sewing masks. It's been a temporary pivot and we will be changing direction again, back into our full programming here in the next few weeks. We've recently moved into a new location and that coincided with a pandemic, so we will be opening to the public with all new facilities here in a couple of weeks.

Kelly Scanlon:

So where are you located now? And what is the extra space going to allow you to do?

Kelly Wilson:

Well, The Sewing Labs had been in the back of Weave Gotcha Covered occupying about 900 square feet for the last few years. And they have just recently moved into the renovated Don Bosco Community Center down in Columbus Park. 4,500 square feet, and many partners within Kansas City have stepped up and donated machines and workstations. And at this point, I believe we have almost any machine available that somebody might want to learn a skill. We've been contacted by an athletic company and they needed someone who could run a cover stitch machine. So we buy a cover stitch machine, do cover stitch training, and then we have clients available for that firm to hire. So if we know that a particular company in Kansas City needs something, we can partner with them to provide the training for their employees.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you'll be able to serve that many more people, and you'll be able to engage with your partners throughout the community in a much better way because of this extra space?

Kelly Wilson:

Oh, absolutely.

Kelly Scanlon:

The legacy of sewing is one of the three parts of your mission statement. And you mentioned yourself that Kansas City has a long history in sewing textile. Nelly Don was a very, very famous dressmaker that operated right here from Kansas City. And it was second only to New York City's operations, so you really don't hear that much about the industry in Kansas City today. What is it status?

Kelly Wilson:

You know, Kelly, I can't give you any hard stats, but something I think about when you talk about the legacy, people that sew and most of them are women that I talked to can tell you the moment they learn to sew. That magic of being at the sewing machine and watching your creation turn into something that was a physical thing you could wear, you could stuff or something that you had created. And sometime during the '70s, when it became cheaper to buy ready-made clothes than to make them at home, the trickle down of that was eventually the high schools quit teaching sewing, then eventually the colleges quit teaching sewing. And now we have a couple of generations that have not had that exposure that don't light up and tell you the moment like I would when I was five years old and my mom taught me how to smock a dress.

Kelly Wilson:

That part of the legacy is gone or you don't see it much. And it used to be, it was a grandmother, to daughter, to daughter. It was a generational thing. The sewing program manager at The Sewing Labs, Linnca Stevens, ask her about legacy selling and she will just light up because the fond memory she has of all of these community based events, even back when they would do the quilting bees, I mean, they're all tied together, but they were all about helping each other, being self-sufficient, being generationally involved. And then just the flat-out art of it, that falls in this category too, because so many of the arts are being lost, the techniques.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

That we think of sewing once again, oh, a dress. Right?

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Kelly Wilson:

We don't think about this technique of making maybe bound buttonholes with interline... That I could put six adjectives with it, are just no one even knows any anymore. There's a lot of legacy from a lot of different paths, I guess.

Kelly Scanlon:

So talk to us about that whole concept of being a for-profit business and yet doing social good. What are some of the different things you can do to achieve that? To achieve both those goals?

Kelly Wilson:

Yes, Kelly, I agree with you. And what I am finding with some of the younger generations is it's about the passion. They need to work, they need to pay their bills, but they want to believe in what they're doing and be passionate. And I am so grateful that they have the momentum to be pushing this initiative forward. We have always been considered a social enterprise at Weave Gotcha Covered, which as I mentioned is 15 years, and there's been a lot of conversations over the last 15 years because the B Corp status became higher profile and everyone thought, "Oh, that's the way we have to do if we want to do that." And what I have learned over time is the first thing you do is you just do the next right thing and you don't have to have any kind of a status, designation certification, unless whatever you want to do requires that certification.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

I believe that what we're going to see is some blending and morphing of the IRS rules, the tax rules over the next few years, as these ideas become more prominent and people are putting them together. I know a lot of for-profit businesses here in Kansas City that have a non-profit arm, and that's kind of what we had with The Sewing Labs, but not maybe quite that tight, but that's how they do their social good within their own company.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

Or if you just want to start your business and do it for social reasons, just put that out and let your customers know. Most of them don't care if you've got a B Corp certification, they just really want to know you're doing good, and you're doing what you say you're going to do. They want to put their money where their beliefs are. That's the trend that is only getting stronger.

Kelly Wilson:

And with the availability of the internet, you can check up on a company very easily. And there's a lot of companies out there saying, "Oh, we do this," and you do a little check-in. Yeah, no. And people are smart. They're figuring that out and they're paying attention and they're watching where their dollars go.

Kelly Scanlon:

What role are you playing in rejuvenating that industry in Kansas City and casting a national spotlight on Kansas City in this area?

Kelly Wilson:

Each of the three entities that I'm involved with have different... Are highlighted in different ways. And we've had a lot of national exposure for all three companies. The Sewing Labs is intriguing to people all over the United States because of the model of being able to go in, use resources that are donated from the community, which are the sewing machines and anything related to sewing. And we combine that with people that have a love for sewing. There's so many, for lack of a better... One demographic, retired home-ec teachers.

Kelly Scanlon:

Ah.

Kelly Wilson:

This is like a club. They're like, "Oh my gosh, I have found my tribe."

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

So they come back down to The Sewing Labs and they're able to share their skill and their life wisdom. There's all these little pieces. There's that which creates like I said, this community and this love and this passion, which then they're able to share their gifts with the students that are coming in. And because it's a skill that they're learning and they can take out to earn a living with it. And then the mentoring that happens at the machines as people are sewing, it's kind of like-

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, sure.

Kelly Wilson:

... all these little pieces. We're contacted all the time by people in other cities saying, "Hey, we want to replicate what you've done at The Sewing Labs. How can we get started here?" And seriously, it is as simple as saying to them, "Get some people that know how to sew, buy some sewing machines, and start having some classes and it'll take off." And it does. And it's just grassroots and it's not a, oh, here, we're going to give this to you. This is a, here, we're all sitting together at this table and we're all going to work this out together and learn it together. And it's very empowering and-

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Kelly Wilson:

... it's a win-win-win. I look at Weave Gotcha Covered and what that has represented and the national exposure we've had was we weren't Tom Shoes, we didn't have that high profile, but it's been a lot of years we've been doing what we consider to be social enterprise. How do you make it work? Why do you put an Uber app on all your staff's phone? How can you manage doing flexible schedules? How do you do this?

Kelly Wilson:

We work a lot with companies that are still entrenched in the old business model of you're there eight to five, of course, that kind of got blown out of the water a little bit during the pandemic.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Kelly Wilson:

But able to share ways to be able to work with employees that maybe do not have the privilege of having access to the resources that were always considered to be necessary for another job. And before the pandemic, what we would share with people is we have a 95% employee engagement rate at Weave Gotcha Covered. And the national standard was 30.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wow.

Kelly Wilson:

I mean, it was-

Kelly Scanlon:

Incredible.

Kelly Wilson:

... It was incredible. But our goal was to meet employees where they were, what can we do to make this job work for you? And that in turn gave us back the employee engagement, but we were able to do things that other companies just kind of looked at. As I referred to earlier, mentioned the Uber app for someone who didn't have a car.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

And the bottom line actually has a more positive impact, and you're part of the community. I mean, Weave Gotcha Covered, part of their motto is using business to help solve community challenges.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

We're all in this together. How do we walk this path together? So that's been our profile.

Kelly Scanlon:

Where do you go from here? All this community that you keep talking about for our listeners today, who may be hearing about you for the first time, or that knew about you, but this is a good reminder. How can they get involved?

Kelly Wilson:

Well, if they are interested in The Sewing Labs, being a part of that fabulous organization. The Sewing Labs, which is plural, is on Facebook, a great way to find them. As I mentioned, they're down in Columbus Park and you do not have to know how to sew to volunteer. We have all kinds of needs for people for different jobs. And I know of at least one volunteer that's 83, so you're not too old. Please come down, and especially if you're missing your tribe, a sewing tribe< come down.

Kelly Scanlon:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kelly Wilson:

They also do other kinds of fiber arts and sewing art, so anything in that realm. If you have sewing related items, machines, fabrics, notions, patterns, anything that's related to sewing, they would be thrilled to have your donation. And once again, they're down in Columbus Park.

Kelly Wilson:

If you're thinking about Weave Gotcha Covered, we fabricate anything fabric for an interior. We do bedding, pillows, upholstery, cushions, anything fabric. And we also do anything related to a window. We've kind of branched out because we had some mentoring early on in Kansas City, and it was that we had to have a strong enough bottom line to be able to support our mission, and it's not always easy to do that on labor only. So we are really finding a niche in Kansas City on doing items related to windows, specifically like large motorized roller shades, interior, and exterior screening systems. And that's been a new addition for us, but it's really helping us grow our ability to give back and mentoring with that extra product line.

Kelly Scanlon:

So much going on. Thesewinglabs.community, not com. Thesewinglabs.community. And as Kelly pointed out, that is plural. And then Weave Gotcha Covered, and weave as in a fabric weave, W-E-A-V-E. Weavegotchacaovered.com.

Kelly Scanlon:

Kelly, thank you so much for being with us, your passion for helping community and for all the good work you're doing here in Kansas City.

Kelly Wilson:

Well, thank you Kelly. As mentioned, I love being here and I appreciate the fact that you keep stitching all of us together in this community and sharing all of our stories for others. So thank you for all you do too.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. The times when things seem most hopeless, are sometimes the beginning of a new and better journey, that's what today's guest, Kelly Wilson discovered when she lost everything during The Great Recession, but that low was a turning point in Kelly's life. It became the catalyst for launching a new for-profit business and later for her non-profit organization that teaches people how to sew so they can use that skill for their own new beginnings.

Joe Close:

Country Club Bank embraces Kelly Wilson's motto of using business to help solve community challenges. As she says, "We're all walking this path together. Each of us just needs to do the next right thing." That goes a long way towards stitching our community together. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.