In this issue, we highlight a nonprofit founded by an African-American woman who is "Making A Difference" (MAD) in the fashion industry, empowering marginalized women from low-income and immigrant communities to own their own businesses — giving them and their families a taste of freedom and prosperity.
Arranged and written by Pat Craddick in collaboration with Custom Collaborative.
Ngozi Okaro, CEO
Photo Credit: Heather Sten
In 2015, Ngozi Okaro launched Custom Collaborative, a 501(c)3 nonprofit workforce development and incubator program that trains women from low-income and immigrant communities to launch careers and businesses as designers, fashion entrepreneurs, pattern-makers and seamstresses. Based in New York City, the nonprofit is made up of a three-legged stool: a 14-week training institute where women design clothing and develop an entrepreneurial business plan, a business skills incubator and an employee-owned cooperative.
“Repurposed and upcycled textiles make up 90 percent of Custom Collaborative’s pieces, which are customized and designed to last so they can follow people over their lifetimes” says Ms. Okaro.
The 51-year-old Maryland native was always searching for a way to orient work with her sense of purpose — but practicing law, working as a gifts fundraiser in higher education and nonprofit consulting hadn’t quite satisfied her itch.
The lawyer turned nonprofit fundraiser found her calling after spending many midnight hours tinkering with custom designs that a Guinean seamstress, Mariama, assembled for her. After her father insisted she start her business, the idea stuck and left her wondering if she couldn’t help talented seamstresses like Mariama professionalize their skills, scale home businesses and connect to larger markets for their custom designs.
Custom Collaborative’s students have hailed from 20 countries, while 85 percent are mothers and 80 percent live below the federal poverty level. They’ve found the program through word-of-mouth or fliers posted in taxis and laundromats — what Ms. Okaro describes as a “grassroots guerrilla” approach.
“Although mothers, aunts and grandmothers have been sewing to earn extra money for centuries, making clothing can be relegated to a pragmatic life skill rather than a commodifiable one”, says Ms. Okaro. “Clothing is our most intimate form of shelter. Before we had caves to live in, we had elk skins” she added. The way she sees it, Custom Collaborative can help re-skill New York’s fashion workforce while investing in the livelihoods of hands who’ve long labored at the craft.
“Custom Collaborative provides viable tools, a structured path upward and equity in their outcomes to low-income women — including those who don’t have U.S. work authorizations. Because it’s a cooperative, women participating in Custom Collaborative’s training institute can legally own and control the business even if they’re undocumented”, says Ms. Okaro.
At the same time, Ms. Okaro is lifting up a model that diverges from “fast fashion” in a moment when consumers pay attention to companies’ carbon footprints, materials and waste. The fashion industry has doubled production over the last 15 years, according to the World Economic Forum. Meanwhile, the time consumers wear an item before discarding it has dropped by roughly 40 percent — and once clothing is tossed, nearly three-quarters of it becomes burned or buried in landfills. Custom Collaborative is looking to revive this kind of handicraft — and also environmental sensibility — by and for ordinary women.
Ms. Okaro has raised $750,000 so far and recently announced a partnership with Swarovski and Slow Factory Foundation, but she is well aware that consistent funding will be hard to achieve. It remains to be seen whether the foundations supporting her can endure and become a model for other places with large immigrant populations.
Through Custom Collaborative, Ms. Okaro is opening a door for people who are largely invisible while empowering them with the training and tools to lift them and their families out of poverty and into prosperity.
Join POP Social Enterprise and Custom Collaborative's supporters to help this extraordinary organization build its operating capacity through sustainable funding.
Email POP Social Enterprise to find out how we could partner to help this nonprofit.
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Shop their beautiful handmade sustainable merchandise online.