It's tempting to say they never had a chance, really, this upstart bunch that somehow was selected a finalist for Walmart's U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund.
The idea for Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing, or RCAM, was strong, so the submission was eye-catching and in keeping with Walmart's push to support domestic manufacturing. But last month, Walmart informed CSU's Dr. Nancy Miller and Carol Engel-Enright, along with the RCAM team including its visionary, Julie Worley, that they didn't win. Walmart's selections read instead like a laundry list of academic exercises with tertiary ties to manufacturing.
Think it's deterred the group from pushing forward? Think again.
"It’s a blessing we weren't selected for funding," Engel-Enright says, with perhaps a hint of disappointment. How far would $300,000 have gone in rural Colorado? A country mile. But Engel-Enright insists a clean break will force RCAM to act like a real business. To develop realistic budgets, to generate revenue, control costs, and be accountable to investors.
As with any startup, it won't be easy. But RCAM is one of a number of grassroots efforts aligned with the region's incredibly active apparel and lifestyle business ecosystem, in this case intent on reconstituting a U.S. cut-and-sew workforce decimated by decades of offshoring and neglect, to keep jobs here instead of shipping more overseas.
Born from the 2014 Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit, Worley, a Phillips County economic developer, boldly envisioned that underutilized labor in the small towns of eastern Colorado could comprise a new workforce of sewers, assemblers, and finishers.
Enter RCAM. Today it's more than an idea. RCAM-Wray center, in northeast Colorado, is up and running "in its third production run!" Engel-Enright states proudly, sewing long-sleeve T-shirts and hoodies with 'kangaroo' pockets. Today the Wray center employs six operators, led by Leslie Starks, who happens to have a fashion degree and acumen, it turns out, for the business side. "She's caught on quick to industrial matters," Engel-Enright says.
That RCAM-Wray is online -- with centers in Julesburg and Ordway, Colorado, to follow -- is testament in part to Engel-Enright's unique skill-set, a combination of industry experience in fashion design and production, of owning and operating businesses of different stripes, of finding jobs for her fashion students in private industry and recently of a hard earned doctorate from CSU in education with an emphasis on design entrepreneurship. I tracked her down at CSU in early 2014 with the idea for a Colorado apparel manufacturing summit. It wouldn't have happened without her.
Still, she's realistic about the daunting challenge of developing apparel manufacturing infrastructure to compete with the Asian powers, in particular. "When it comes down to it, there's no model out there, no blueprint to follow, to train a new generation of sewers and production specialists. We're developing the plan and the process as we go," she says.
That's not to say the end results are also obscure. "We know the standard. We have to produce quality garments that measure up to the best in the world," she asserts, but adds, "When do we know our efforts will translate into quality apparel? No matter how big the order, can we produce a quality piece?" More questions.
Early returns from the initial production runs and training sessions promise answers. "There's no surprise about the quality of people we're finding from these communities. They're incredibly hardworking -- we can't get them to stop and take breaks!" she laughs. "But Julie and Darlene Carpio and others knew this would be the case. Rural America has so much to offer; there's no doubt we can train a workforce to compete on an international stage if we're smart about this."
There are other needs -- like equipment. "The Wray center's working on knits, on flatlock machines [a sewing machine that creates a flat seam with the same appearance inside and out]," says Engel-Enright. "All three centers will have all the basics -- straight stitch, overlock, and coverstitch. Julesburg is organized and investors are in place with deposits on equipment. We're ready to go there when training and jobs are lined up." But advanced cutting equipment and specialized sewing and finishing machines are much needed.
Without Walmart dollars, funding is the challenge. An Advanced Industry grant from Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade seems to fit the bill, but OEDIT views apparel-related business as a 'Creative Industry', not 'Advanced Industry.' The AI grant program is today under review; perhaps a revision will accommodate a wider cross-section of manufacturing industries.
All of which leaves Engel-Enright entirely unfazed. "These centers won't replace Asian factories," she says matter-of-factly, "but they will reduce barriers to entry for small business. A former student and budding entrepreneur told me, 'What seemed insurmountable now seems possible.'"
Supporting a business-savvy academic would have been yet another benefit for Walmart, along with goosing domestic manufacturing and helping rural America 'Live Better'.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at email@example.com with questions or information about the 2016 Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit, September 28 in Denver, Colorado.