My friend Kelly Alford, designer, founder of IOTA and co-founder of The Whole Works, an innovative social enterprise, is my guest for today’s interview from my series of Women Entrepreneurs on the Rise.
Kelly and I met four years ago in a workshop for 10 entrepreneurs in Seth Godin’s daylong workshop in his NYC office.
In this interview, Kelly talks about how the seeds of inspiration of The Whole Works came out of the struggles in her experience of manufacturing products with IOTA.
This business is hugely inspiring to me because The Whole Works is creating American manufacturing jobs and partnering with non-profits to help train women in new jobs to bring them off federal assistance.
“We want to bring American manufacturing back to the U.S.,” says Alford.
Click below to listen to the audio of our interview
Kelly: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
Sherold: Kelly is the founder and designer of the IOTA Brand, which is a colorful lifestyle brand. She’s had a design studio for 29 years and she founded IOTA in 2003. She sold that company in 2009 to C. R. Gibson and she’s continued on with IOTA as the designer while working in her Colorado design studio called Words, Pictures and Colors.
I was interested in talking to Kelly because she’s recently started a new social enterprise company.
The Whole Works is a brand new Colorado-based clothing production facility that’s dedicated to creating dignified jobs and reinvigorating American manufacturing.
As one of the first Benefit corporations in the state of Colorado, they’re focused on making social impact by partnering with a job preparation program that teaches production sewing to women who are transitioning from federal assistance.
I have to just say that that gives me chills. So fantastic.
Kelly: You know what? Even as you said it, it gave me little goosebumps.
Sherold: I’ve got goosebumps all over my body. I mean, this is really where it’s at, folks. I’m just so happy to have you, Kelly.
I do want to tell them how I know you. Kelly and I had the pleasure of meeting in 2011. We were two of 10 entrepreneurs that went to Seth Godin‘s office in New York. We got to work with Seth for a whole day. He did laser sessions with us and it was just an amazing experience that alone.
Sherold: I knew you had bigger aspirations then. In the last two years, I knew you wanted to go towards this new social enterprise, which was so thrilling for me to even hear about. Then, when I got in touch with you recently, I learned that you indeed did it and you also won an award. We’ll talk about this journey for you, but start back in time and tell us about becoming an entrepreneur. Let’s hear the story of your businesses.
Kelly: Thank you for that beautiful introduction. It’s wonderful to be talking to you.
I have been a graphic designer since 1984 in my own studio. I actually have never worked for anyone else. I am a self-taught graphic designer. Interestingly enough, I studied religion in college.
Religion is the epitome of branding. It’s the branding spirituality.
I’ve been involved with branding, messaging and design ever since because I understand that these things are constructs that we design, that we create to make our lives more meaningful and our products more meaningful. I think my religion degree is significant even though I didn’t formally study art in college.
I had my design studio. It grew over the next 15 years to the point where, in 2002, I had about seven employees and we were doing a tremendous amount of business.
I live in the Roaring Fork Valley, which is outside of Aspen, Colorado. Which is a huge cultural hub. I believe the Roaring Fork Valley has more nonprofit organizations per capita than anywhere else in the country.
That’s significant for me because my little niche became nonprofit arts organizations that I supported with my graphic design business. The Aspen Music Festival, Aspen Film, The Aspen Institute, the Aspen Ideas Festival… really big organizations and did a lot of really wonderful branding and graphic support for those organizations.
I had always wanted to start my own business. I have a passion for paper and cards and color and design and type. I had always had an obsession with stationary, so I really wanted to start a little stationary company.
In 2002, I went with my 12-year-old daughter — at the time — to the New York Stationary Show and walked the show. I realized that, at that time, there really wasn’t anything like what I was doing — colorful, bold patterned cards. There really wasn’t a lot there.
I went back home and decided I was going to start the company. We attended the Stationary Show as an exhibitor the next year in 2003. That’s when we launched the company at the Stationary Show.
That company grew very quickly. We used just the platform of the Stationary Show. In five years, we doubled every year until we got to the point in 2008 where the company attracted the attention of C. R. Gibson — the oldest social stationary company in America — and it was acquired in 2008. I went to work with them for a period of five years after that as the lead designer for the brand.
The basis of everything comes from my design studio. That, itself, was an entrepreneurial exercise that grew nicely over a period of years. IOTA was different because it was a product company. It involved inventory — something I didn’t have very much familiarity with. Eventually, as we grew to the point where we did — just before the acquisition — we had a warehouse with a warehouse staff.
Kelly: I learned a lot during those five years. That was very exciting.
Jumping ahead to get to The Whole Works, during those five years that I worked for IOTA as a part of C.R. Gibson, I learned a tremendous amount. CR Gibson is a $70 million company, and I think they had 150 employees. I just learned a lot about the scale of a company I had never had any experience with before at all. That was wonderful.
I was contractually obligated to work for the company for five years. I’m now staying on as the designer for IOTA, but I was actually an employee of C.R. Gibson for those five years.
Towards the end of that time, I started to struggle with our manufacturing because, from the time of the acquisition, all the manufacturing had moved overseas. It had moved to Asia. All our paper products, all of our textile products. Everything was being manufactured in Asia.
I wanted to see if it wasn’t possible to do some kind of American-made manufacturing, even if it was one little piece of the puzzle, one little part of the line.
I started to look into it in 2012/2013. In 2013, I got together with a group of women who had the same interests and started to explore how this might become a possibility.
At the beginning of it, I was interested in this manufacturing facility for my own brand. But, it became pretty clear, pretty quickly, for us as partners that we were interested in American manufacturing in general.
Not just for IOTA, but for other designers as well and that the manufacturing piece was the most important piece for us — although we all love design and we’re all designers of different sorts. But, this job piece was really important.
Creating American manufacturing jobs is incredibly important to us. We understood all the issues around women in poverty and the fact that if you give a woman a job, she will spend her paycheck on her family, not herself, and it just has this incredible ripple effect in the community.
We had all of this stuff rolling around in our minds and we landed on the idea of trying to set up an apparel manufacturing facility.
I’ll back up and say I’ve never started a business with partners before.
Sherold: How did you pick your partners?
Kelly: It’s interesting. They’re all friends — and Sadie is my daughter, of course. The other two are good friends. One is a teacher and one is a landscape architect. We’re just friends and we have shared this love of design, love of product, love of the idea of American made, a real passion for trying to do something around this issue of women’s poverty and women’s independence.
We, all four of us, really understand the beauty of a job. We are passionate about work.
We feel as though work is the place where we really have our own self-discovery every day.
Sherold: You get to know yourself really well. I say it’s like the “Shero’s” Journey because your dragon’s come up on the journey of business building. It challenges your mind, fears, everything.
Kelly: Very dependable. Every day.
Sherold: Very. Very dependable.
Kelly: It’s this combination of women’s empowerment, the importance and dignity of a job and the power of a job to pull a woman out of, not only financial poverty, but a kind of cultural and emotional poverty as well. It’s building self-esteem and all those things. Then, on top of it, it was just this love of design and love of products.
I think, originally, we thought we might make some of our own products, but we abandoned that at the beginning. Although, we’ve picked it up again and I’ll talk about that at the very end.
We realized that we really wanted to serve the designers in our community by providing them with small-run production like I had wanted for IOTA.
The Whole Works really began with the struggle that I was having existentially — myself — about my own brand not having the integrity that I wanted it to have with that American manufacturing piece. It really was born out of that struggle.
The partner thing, I’ll speak to that for a second. I’ve never had a partner. It made me very nervous because I’m very independent, and I like to call the shots. I think I’m a very strong leader.
I was nervous about having partners because we’re all very strong women and we’re all friends and my daughter is one of the partners.
What we did is we hired a mediator last fall. We worked with him for about two and a half months and use the book The Partnership Charter.
We worked through that book, literally, chapter by chapter together with the mediator. and we drafted our own partnership charter. The charter process ended with a weekend retreat — a three full-day retreat.
One of the partners has a cabin a remote part of Colorado where there’s no cell service. The mediator and the four of us went away for three days and just drafted the charter together. We drank some whiskey and got it done.
Sherold: Did that help you with clarity around roles and challenges that might come up? You were setting the framework for how you would work together in this charter.
Kelly: Yes. Strengths and weaknesses. We all did the personality tests. It’s an amazing book. It’s really a manual and we literally went through it chapter by chapter. We even went to the point of calling the author and asking if we could work with him. He said we could, but it was very expensive. He said, “Why don’t I talk to your mediator and I can empower him with the process so he can take you through it.”
That’s what we did. We ended up working with our mediator, Tim McFlynn. He actually owns Aspen Dispute Resolution, which is a mediation firm. He did it for us.
Yes, roles and responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, what to do when we would hit roadblocks; decisions about growth or investment or money or loans or lines or credit. All kind of things. That was an incredible thing.
We came home from that weekend with our charter in hand, literally, and we knew we were good to go. We knew we were good to start, so we incorporated that month and rented a space the month after and had our doors open in January of this year — January of 2015. We’re pretty new. We’re a baby.
Sherold: Tell us about the B Corp.
Kelly: It’s been around for a while in other states. I know it’s in New York and California. It was in the legislature of Colorado for a couple of years. I think it actually almost got there and then was defeated and then again in June of 2014 it passed — it was a legitimate corporate status.
A Benefit Corporation does allow you to track more than one bottom line.
For instance, for Patagonia — a benefit corporation in California — they track an environmental bottom line. They also have a social bottom line now, too, because they have all this work around their factories and vetting their factories has become a big part of their business model.
Warby Parker has a mission of giving a pair of glasses when you buy two pairs.
Sherold: These are Warby Parker glasses right here.
Kelly: So are these!
Sherold: Oh they are, too? I know I was admiring your glasses.
Kelly: I love giving them business.
Sherold: Me too.
Kelly: For both of us, we made possible another person to have a pair of glasses.
Sherold: Yes, we did.
We liked this idea that we were going to track a social bottom line of how many women we could employ and, in particular, how many women could — because of our business model — transition off federal assistance.
It’s not called Welfare anymore. It’s called TANF, which is an acronym for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It’s temporary for five years. That’s the temporary part of that.
Also, for us there was a marketing benefit to the benefit corporation status. We liked being able to tell the story that we were a benefit corporation. We liked to talk about our social mission. We had to write a purpose statement around our social mission and the state requires us to just acknowledge how we’ve worked to meet that goal.
That’s the benefit corporation status. I hope it becomes more prevalent in other states because it really allows you to think differently about your business.
Obviously, we’re a for profit company; we love making money. We know the importance of making money. We are not a nonprofit. We do have a nonprofit partner, which is part of our Whole Works business model, but we are a for profit company. We’re proud of it. We do have this other social enterprise mission that’s part of our business model as well.
Sherold: That’s great. As part of this, you said you have a nonprofit partner.
Kelly: It’s a partner. It’s a really interesting model and that sort of helped us in the formation of our company, identifying this nonprofit which formed a couple of years before The Whole Works formed.
It is a nonprofit that’s a partnership program with Colorado Mountain College. Our factory is in Rifle, Colorado. That’s where GarCo is located also — GarCo Sewing Works is the name of the nonprofit.
They work with Garfield County identifying women who are on federal assistance. They take them off federal assistance. The county, instead of paying the federal assistance to the women, pays it to the nonprofit. The women are required to show up 40 hours a week in a training facility and they teach them how to sew.
They’re teaching them a skill, which I’m particularly personally so attached to. I’ve been sewing since I was about eight years old.
Sadie, my daughter who is one of the partners, likes to joke that I gave all my children a sewing machine — which I did — because I just felt like it was one of those skills in life that was really important.
It’s a particularly beautiful thing to learn because you’re working with your hands. It’s very meditative, very tactile, very creative and it’s very useful because you can make beautiful things, including clothing and apparel, which is what we focus on.
They’re teaching the women how to sew, but they’re also putting them on an education plan. If the women don’t want to become an industrial sewer, they can become something else: a nurse, a welder, a truck driver… Those are all real things that these women have become.
They take care of their children so they — almost all these women on federal assistance have children. Some of these mothers are very young, which is another very poignant thing. They put them in an education plan so if they need to go back to school or if they need to get a GED or whatever it is.
That’s the nonprofit partner. One of the motivations for us forming — other than our own desire to make beautiful things but with American workers — was that when these women finish the program, if they wanted to become an industrial sewer, there were no jobs because there’s no apparel, there’s no textile manufacturing economy really. It’s in pockets in different places.
The biggest concentration of this is in Los Angeles right now. It’s quite vital there, although I think we all heard American Apparel just declared bankruptcy, so that model may or may not be vital.
Our dream is big. We want to bring back American manufacturing. We know that American sewing jobs are good jobs. They’re creative jobs, they’re sustainable jobs; you can grow in that job.
That’s our nonprofit partnership. First, when we’re hiring, we look to their sewers and see if there’s anyone in their group that’s trained at the level that we need — or close to the level that we need — and that really wants to become an industrial sewer.
We have one woman with us right now who just came from the program. She’s incredible. We had to train her for a few months when she first came over because the level of sewing that they do is not quite at the level that we’re doing, but she’s now a production sewer and more or less fully trained.
Sherold: That’s fantastic.
Kelly: That’s our partnership with our nonprofit.
What we wanted to talk to you about was our business model, which is really unique and an experiment, like all startups — which is an important thing.
Sherold: That word is a word I use all the time. When you’re in business, you’re experimenting.
Kelly: You’re trying every day. As we find success setting up The Whole Works in our first location — Rifle, Colorado — our business model is to, rather than create and grow one business to a big level — say $40 million in one community — we would like to create forty $1 million businesses, thereby invigorating 40 communities.
What happens with this model is that it becomes this energizer in each community because when you have a sewing apparel manufacturing plant, you also need a silk screener, you need an embroiderer, you need a fabric cutter, and you need a pattern maker. There’s all these adjunct services that plug into The Whole Works that create a ripple effect in your community. That’s exciting as well.
But, we’re starting with the first one. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re trying to get it right. We’re actually in the process of writing our playbook, which will be the book we’ll use to create the next one.
Sherold: Or you can do lessons learned and then modify. That’s so great. You’re not only helping these women — as you said, it is a ripple effect — feed their families and support themselves, get off assistance, but you’re also helping reinvigorate communities.
Kelly: Most rural communities — not just in Colorado, but in the south and northeast — they’re looking for some kind of economic engine that is sustainable and fits with the scale of the community. It’s very exciting.
I’ll jump to talk a little bit about the trajectory of our year because we’re just approaching the end of our first year in business. We moved into our facility in January and started setting up and started ordering machines and buying machines. But we really weren’t up and running until about April when we hired our first factory manager and our first sewer. We’ve had a sewer and a factory manager to start.
That’s when we started making our own sample items. We made some tote bags and some t-shirts just so we could practice with our machines and get ourselves up to speed.
Then we started working with clients in June. It hasn’t been very long. We’re really up and running now. We have quite a few clients. The purchase orders that are coming in are bigger and bigger each week and we’re figuring it out. We’re figuring it out.
Sherold: Wow. Actually, that is very fast.
Kelly: It’s very fast.
Sherold: This is such a beautiful outgrowth of IOTA because you’ve learned licensing, you’ve learned the manufacturing process. It’s been tremendous for you.
Kelly: It has. The one partner of the four of us that has the most experience is actually our 26 year old, Sadie, who is also my daughter.
She’s been working in the fashion industry in LA since she graduated from college. She’s a fashion designer, worked with fashion design, but came most interested in production. Fashion production. Which is, of course, how she came to become a partner with us because that’s really what we’re doing.
She’s been the one who’s helped us the most with understanding what machines we needed to order, setting out our procedures for, not only preproduction, but production. It’s been a learning curve.
We don’t have anybody that’s done this before in our company. There really isn’t anybody… there are other small sew centers/apparel manufacturing centers in other cities. I know there’s some in Detroit, I know there’s some in New York. There’s some in LA. None with the social enterprise model that we have, so we’re really learning as we go.
We were going along and then towards the end of August we got an email saying we had been nominated for a Colorado business award. It would be awarded to companies who are at the intersection of lifestyle and commerce. We didn’t know what this was.
We were sort of ostensibly seven months old, but really about three months old. It was a little nerve wracking. But, of 160 companies — Colorado companies — that got nominated, 11 were chosen as contenders for this award and were then told that we were a contender. That was a big honor.
Then, they asked us to make a video explaining our business model and our business structure. Then, all 11 companies converged in Denver in the middle of October to show the videos.
We had roundtables with the economic development office of the state of Colorado, the Colorado Innovation Network… just all kinds of really wonderful Colorado entrepreneurial networking.
We were in the company of amazing Colorado companies. Osprey Backpacks, which is a 40-year-old Colorado company that was nominated in our group. The first company that successfully canned Craft Beer was a company called Wild Goose Canning. Really cool companies. Really amazing.
This one handicapped veteran who had started a manufacturing company making hand bikes for handicapped veterans. Mountain bikes. These are mountain bikes. These allow veterans — paraplegics and quadriplegics — to actually mountain bike.
These were incredible companies. We spent two days with everyone networking and we felt very much like the baby at the table. But, we were drinking it up. We were loving it and learning a lot.
Long story short, we ended up winning the award.
Sherold: That’s incredible.
Kelly: An incredible honor. An incredible validation of our idea, our business plan. Most importantly, it launched us into this network of companies and resources that we would never have otherwise had.
We have an open door with the Office of Economic Development and International Trade of the State of Colorado. In fact, I just met with him yesterday. He came to Rifle and met with us. We’re going to do some exciting things.
Not only grow The Whole Works and The Whole Works business model, but we’re going to — with the Office of Economic Development — start industrial sewing education curriculum that will become a training ground for these new employees that will populate this new industry.
Other than the just whole running of business, this is the kind of ripple effect that we never, ever dreamed we could have. At least not this quickly.
The other exciting thing that we’re doing and are just in conversation with Luis, who is the Chief Marketing Officer for the Colorado Economic Development Office, he’s going to take me with him and we’re going to go in front of state legislature and ask for some assistance for entrepreneurial companies at our level.
Right now, the threshold for these companies getting assistance from the state is seven employees and $50,000 in the bank.
Well, that’s a pretty big leap to get from your garage to that.
Sherold: Right. That is.
Kelly: He’d like to see something in the middle, which is exactly where we are. Three employees/$20,000 in the bank. We’d really benefit from help from the state, but we don’t quite qualify for that threshold. He wants to have that threshold lowered so that companies like ours can benefit. We’re actually doing that kind of networking too. It’s exciting.
One of our clients, which is a very cool Colorado apparel manufacturing company, was just featured in Entrepreneur Magazine. We were a big part of that article because we are a huge part of his business model, which is a vertically integrated Colorado Apparel manufacturing company. .
Sherold: It’s a great story for how this idea and this B Corp and public/private partnership model that you’re using to help women.
Kelly: My favorite new way to talk about the startup is our name, The Whole Works. It’s the name of our company, but it’s also a sentence. It’s got an article, a noun and a verb.
The Whole Works. When you keep your eye on the whole thing — family and work, the environment and industry, social… public and private — that’s when things work.
When the whole is paid attention to. That’s really our vision. I think that will create sustainable companies that will be fun to work with.
Sherold: I think this is a beautiful story, and I’m so thrilled to have stayed in touch and to have seen you go through this whole process.
Is there anything you’d share with new entrepreneurial women that are out there? You know what it’s like struggling. There’s challenges always.
Kelly: That’s a great question. I like to start answering that question from my own experience of being in Colorado and being an outdoors person and an athlete, an adventurer. One of my mentors — in addition to Seth Godin, who is my chief mentor — is Yvon Chouinard, who is the founder of Patagonia. My favorite lines of his is,
“The adventure begins when things start to go wrong.” ~ ~Yvonne Chouinard
It’s a beautiful sentence and it’s a beautiful thought because it’s so true.
Kelly: This has taken me a long time to embrace because I’ve been in business for myself for 30 years.
You really have to get comfortable with the fear and get comfortable with the idea that things are always going to change. But most of all, understand that something’s going wrong.
But also understand that in that struggle are the seeds of something that you’re going to learn, something that may actually turn into a bigger success story after all.
I’d say in the struggles are the seeds for new opportunity. ~Kelly Alford
That’s how I try to embrace change now. It’s with the idea that not only is it inevitable, but that it will bring new seeds; it will bring new ideas; it will bring new opportunities. I think that’s the biggest thing.
I will share one struggle that we’ve had this year with The Whole Works in particular. With bringing these women off federal assistance and into the sewing training facility and into our factory where they have real jobs with a for profit company, working with real clients on real products that’s going to ship into the marketplace.
Our nonprofit partner came to us with this information about women transitioning from federal assistance. It’s that for them to be successful, they have to have the trifecta of transportation, childcare and housing. Once those three things for them were secure, they were really in a good place to be successful.
We thought, “Okay, that’s a very meaningful trifecta. Let’s work with that.” Then we bring these women off federal assistance, out of the training facility and into the for profit world with real jobs and what did we discover right away? There was a fourth one that was more important and trumped all the others. That was mental health.
In that area of mental health are a lot of things. Are these women suffering from depression? Do they have substance abuse issues?
Do their spouses have substance abuse issues? Do their children? What is their work ethic? When did they ever learn about a work ethic? How is their executive function? What is the level of their executive function? What is their self-esteem?
These issues far trumped all the other issues for us. We quickly discovered that if these women didn’t have access to some mental health support systems, they weren’t going to be successful whether or not they had childcare, whether or not they had housing and whether or not they had transportation.
We’ve taken this knowledge back to our nonprofit partner and said, “Yeah, that’s a really good foundation, but you’ve got a gin it up with this one: mental health.” That’s been our biggest lesson. Without that piece for these women, they will not be successful.
We have a lot of programs in our factory going for these women that helps them with these mental health issues — and with executive function and organizational skills and things like that. But that was a big lesson. We took at face value what our nonprofit told us, but we were quickly learning otherwise. Now we’ve been able to transfer that information back to our nonprofit partner.
Sherold: That’s why I think this whole process, this whole company, is going to be an incubator for how this works. What you’re doing right now. It can be the basis for others. This is a great way to extend it to women and then to communities. I hope that this is one that’s studied by other states and other people come in and see how you’re doing this. It’s just so good. The whole idea is… The Whole Works is a great idea.
Kelly: It’s The Whole Works.
Sherold: I wanted to share your story because this lesson of look for the seeds and the challenges. I take that philosophy to life as well. When you’ve got something that happens, what was the good that was there for you? How did it make you a stronger person? How did it make you more resilient? I think it’s all there for us.
This is such a great interview. I really thank you for taking this time.
Kelly: Thank you, Sherold. It’s been a great honor.
Sherold: Also, knowing you and following you after these years, it’s great to hear this. Take care of yourself and thanks again.
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