Before launching Southwest Creations Collaborative, I worked with the Women's Self-Employment Project in Chicago, and I organized the Full Circle Fund, a microlending initiative launched in partnership with Muhammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank. Although women participating in the Fund gained a powerful sense of community, very few became successful entrepreneurs. Lacking adequate access to markets, most who participated in these micro-lending were unable to generate sufficient income. So I started to look beyond this model as a strategy for ending poverty in the United States.
In 1992 I moved to New Mexico, and continued working with economic development projects geared for low-income women. However, what I noticed was that instead of getting a small business loan what women really needed were jobs with a steady incomes that would help them provide for their families.
With the help of Sister Bernice Garcia of the San Jose Parish in Albuquerque, a sewing and handwork project was organized for low-income women. We worked in the donated space and we were very part-time, trying to see if our business plan would be a success. Soon afterwards, Southwest Creations Collaborative was formed, and sixteen years later we‘re still here proving that a sustainable business can be driven by an ambitious social mission, which has been and continues to this day, to end poverty and create intergenerational wealth.
Our specialty is high-volume manufacturing—both of sewn soft goods and hand-assembled products that demand high-touch precision, as well as artistic attention to detail. Our clients ran the gamut from artisanal to industrial, which includes precision hand assembly and embellishment in which we work with a full range of products from glass mosaic tiles, to beaded jewelry, sachets, paper products, as well as industrial goods.
On the design side, one of our long-standing contracts is Erin Adams, an artisan and interior designer who’s known for her glass mosaic tiles, and is based in Albuquerque. Erin came to us nearly seven years ago after she heard that we provide cutting and sewing services. Her approach to her glass tile mosaics is similar to sewing, and she didn't see why we couldn't do the work. In the beginning, Erin cut the glass in her studio and drove it over to our workshop every day where we would produce 200-250 square feet a week. Now we deliver 800-1000 square feet a week, and work very closely with her studio staff.
Our employees are eighty percent Latinas. Currently, we employ thirty-two people full-time. Over the past 16 years, we’ve employed more than 120 employees. Many of the skills we need, such as artistic sewing or working with silk-screening or laying out the tile mosaics, we provide the basic training and within a month the women are skilled to be part of our team.
We’ve seen women from low-income communities and those with limited English-speaking skills encounter numerous obstacles, in addition to lacking the experience and resources that will help them fully compete in today’s job market and helping them provide for their families. Taking the premise of ending poverty and creating intergenerational wealth, we’ve paved the way in helping the women who work for us with a benefits package that Creating Family Assets. The benefits package includes:
- Onsite, affordable childcare. Available to employees for only twenty five cents per hour. Our thought to keep the costs down was to ensure that the money saved on childcare would go to necessities, increasing the employee’s economic stability, and her commitment to her job and employer. It’s a win-win situation where mothers are confident in the care provided for their children, which allows them to remain focused on the job, and be more productive.
- Buena FE (Familias + Escuelas) Employees receive paid, protected leave to volunteer once a month in their child's classroom. Three times a year, we host themed dinner dialogues with teachers, school representatives and parents, providing a forum where Albuquerque Public School staff can meet and strengthen their relationships with parents. Parental involvement in a child's education improves academic achievement — and when children graduate and pursue higher education, families can begin to create intergenerational wealth.
- Adult Education+ Literacy. Our on-site continuing education classes are free to employees and include English as a Second Language, computer literacy, GED preparation, citizenship, basic business concepts/open book management, and a book club. Each program has a corresponding community partner with whom we collaborate to develop curricula, evaluation strategies, and support services for working adults.
- Health + Well-being. We collaborate with community partners to enroll our employees in local health care programs. We've developed a directory of health services for uninsured and under-insured Spanish-speaking people, and we've been an aggressive advocate, working with our public hospital to improve access to programs for the working poor.
Like most many businesses in this economy we’ve been affected and we’ve had to lay-off some employees. Therefore it’s imperative that our employees can adapt to this new economy. But a good job isn’t simply enough—it’s important that they acquire the skills to do other jobs, therefore cross-training is a requirement, with the thought that a having a variety of skills will pay-off for everyone—employees and employers—in the long-run.
Susan Matteucci is the founder and executive director of Southwest Creations Collaborative. For more information, please visit www.southwestcreations.com.