Rising social enterprises look to lift Kansas City women, industries

For Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer, the inspiration for her organization Rightfully Sewn came from a visit to a Kansas City homeless shelter.

Pfeifer was visiting Sheffield Place, a women’s shelter, during an open house event a few years ago. “You go into this room where they display the wares of the residents,” Pfeifer said. “One woman displayed such amazing craftsmanship on her books and the mugs she painted and the bookmarks that she made — and she was saying that she worked at Starbucks.”

Pfeifer, who served as an executive director of the West 18th Street Fashion Show for three years, knew that fashion designers and their companies were leaving Kansas City because the city lacks local cut-and-sew factories. She also knew that seamstresses today are “aging out” and retiring, leaving a gap in the American-made clothing industry.

When she saw the talent of the woman at Sheffield Place, Preifer had a light bulb moment. What if women living in poverty could be trained as seamstresses and get jobs working for Kansas City clothing companies?

Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer | Courtesy of Samantha Levi Photography
Jennifer Lapka Pfeifer | Courtesy of Samantha Levi

“Why not bring these two groups of people together to stay here and help each other and prosper?” she said.

Rightfully Sewn is one of a growing number of companies and organizations in the Kansas City area that employ women in need while boosting local industries. That group also includes The Grooming Project, which trains mothers of young children to be pet groomers, and Weave Gotcha Covered, which specializes in installation and fabrication of custom window treatments and fabric furnishings.

In 2014, Pfeifer started a business plan for what would eventually become Rightfully Sewn. The organization’s first class will begin in early 2017. Along with a group of local fashion designers and social service agency workers, Pfeifer is working now to finalize the program’s curriculum and secure funding from foundation grants and private donations.

Natasha Kirsch started The Grooming Project as the first program for her organization Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child, which aims to improve the lives of impoverished families through job training for parents.

The Grooming Project just graduated its first class of six women this summer. Kirsch said to qualify for the program, applicants must be living below the poverty line and have a child or children under the age of 8. They must also must have a partnership with a social service agency. Most importantly, Kirsch said, they have to have a good attitude.

Some of the women in the first class have criminal records. But Kirsch said demand for groomers is so high that many companies do not care. Nor does Kirsch when she’s considering who to admit for the program.

“It doesn’t matter to me that they have felonies or if they haven’t had an education or a job before,” Kirsch said. “It’s about where they’re at right now.”

Social enterprise outcomes

Both The Grooming Project and Rightfully Sewn are examples of social enterprises, or organizations and companies that use business models to carry out a social mission, such as providing employment for those who may have difficulty finding it otherwise.

According to a 2015 report from Mathematica Policy Research that analyzed a group of 125 workers in social enterprise organizations in California, 25 percent had never held jobs before and 85 percent did not have stable housing in the previous year. After leaving the training programs, 56 percent of the participants had jobs a year later compared to 37 percent who had only received job support programs.

Perhaps most telling of the benefits social enterprise can have is the increase in pay. The report found a 266 percent increase in the workers’ income after completing the programs, and government benefits being received by the workers had gone from 71 percent before the programs to 24 percent. Housing stability of workers also tripled, and 67 percent were still employed six months later.

Helping finances and families

It’s an approach that not only fills the needs of industries looking for workers, but also provides job training to people who need it, especially if they have children.

Credit: Natasha Kirsch
Natasha Kirsch | Courtesy of Kirsch

Kirsch said pet grooming is an industry that offers flexible hours and doesn’t require a college education, both important factors for the women in the program. The flexible hours allow the women to spend more time with their children while still staying afloat financially.

Her mother is a pet groomer, and Kirsch believes that the flexibility of the job allowed her mother to invest more in her children and still make a good living. Increased spending on pets in the United States is another big factor for The Grooming Project’s business model.

“From what I’m hearing, oversaturation of the market is not a big worry, but something to watch,” Kirsch said.

Kirsch got the idea to start The Grooming Project while working with homeless families and in addiction recovery homes. She met women who were selling drugs or working as sex workers to make a living. She knew there had to be another way to help people with little education and criminal records find sustainable employment at a living wage.

“We need to make work pay,” Kirsch said.

Partners provide opportunities

The Grooming Project has partnered with local PetSmart and Petco locations as well as other local grooming businesses to ensure that graduates are placed with jobs after they complete the program. The program is grounded in hands-on training at its Troost Avenue clinic, and Kirsch said The Grooming Project is booked until Sept. 1. She said the women are currently only grooming dogs, but she hopes to introduce cat grooming into the program soon.

Rightfully Sewn has also found partners in the Kansas City area to assist its efforts. Pfeifer said that the women will start by learning the basics, then eventually work their way up to more complex patterns before beginning apprenticeships at Asiatica and Eleve’ Dancewear (both Kansas City-based clothing companies) or with other local businesses.

“There are 81 alteration companies in the Kansas City area alone, and the owners are aging out,” Pfeifer said. “They’re desperate for alterations employees, too. I envision us placing a lot of our graduates with alterations companies, too.”

Fundraising in focus

Since both The Grooming Project and Rightfully Sewn are in their early stages, both are seeking donations from foundations, grants and private donors. The Grooming Project received its first $10,000 pledge in 2014, and in 2015 it received $100,000 from the city. But the organization needs to raise $35,000 this month to help the incoming class.

“I’ve done three crowd-funders,” Kirsch said. “Those have been helpful but not a huge source of my money. The biggest way for us to raise money has been through individual donors, and because we’re a startup…it was really important for people in the community to support this, that had the money. They gave us money and then they would go challenge their friends to give us money.”

Pfeifer said she funded Rightfully Sewn herself in the beginning, but has a goal of $100,000 before the program begins this winter. She began fundraising in June and so far has raised $10,000.

“We’re going to start fundraising from individuals later this year,” she said. “I self-funded to get Rightfully Sewn started, but can’t self-fund the rest. Once we have that funding in place we’ll start the seamstress training program early in 2017.”

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