Sara is the owner of Batiks for Life LLC, a fair-trade oriented company that manufactures medical scrubs and accessories using the traditional batik fabric of Ghana, West Africa. The mission of Batiks for Life is threefold. First, to support an NGO in Ghana that provides education and vocational training to young single mothers and their children through the manufacture of these garments. Second, to create additional small sewing businesses in villages in Ghana, using fair trade practices. Third, to use a portion of profits to fund the creation of medical clinics in underserved communities in Ghana. The tagline for Batiks for Life is “scrubs on a mission!” and Sara’s business is truly on a mission to make a difference in people’s lives.
Meredith: Today we have one of those rare occasions where our guest is live with us in our studio. We are interviewing Sara Corey from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is the owner of Batiks for Life. It’s a fair trade company that manufactures medical scrubs and accessories using the traditional batik fabric of Ghana, West Africa. Sara has set up this amazing system where every piece of scrubs that is produced is produced in Ghana. Batiks for Life is helping people get jobs in Ghana by helping a small family business that actually sews them together. The scrubs themselves use Ghanaian batik and the different symbols have different messages of health and wellness and things like that. It all just fits together wonderfully, and it’s a great example of how a business doing something that seems kind of mundane, like making medical scrubs, can really do a world of good and help people realize their passions at the same time.
Jasper: Yes, and it’s the first social enterprise we’ve had on the show, so it’s really exciting for us. We’re planning to do some follow-ups on this story later in the year as well, so keep an ear open for that one.
Sara: I visited Ghana back in 2011 and one of the things that you really notice when you go to Ghana is that the fabrics there are just incredibly colorful and beautiful. I really fell in love with the batik fabric, and I knew I wanted to do something with that fabric, but I wasn’t really sure what. Then, sort of out of the blue, I just got an inspiration to make medical scrubs using the traditional batik fabric of Ghana. So that’s kind of where the business started and then it just kind of took off from there.
Meredith: How did you get started with that? Was it like, “Okay, I’m in Ghana. Pretty fabric. Ghana is very far away. Things are very different there. How do I start a business making something like that and bringing it back here?”
Sara: That is a really interesting question. I literally just got this inspiration and started researching it on the internet, and I started thinking that there has to be some way to get the fabric from some source, but I didn’t know how to do that. I mean, I’ve never really done a business before. I just Googled “batik from Ghana” and this non-profit organization, “ABAN for Life,” came up. I looked at their website and, as it turned out, they use batik fabric in their products. It’s an NGO, a non-profit, so they are part in the States and part in Ghana. They do all of the manufacturing of their products in Ghana. I thought, “Oh, my gosh. They are using batik and they are manufacturing something and they have a sewing aspect to their business — maybe I could work with them on what I want to do.”
Jasper: For those in our audience who haven’t actually heard of batik before, please explain a little bit about the technique, as it’s actually a really interesting way of creating art, isn’t it?
Sara: Yes, exactly. Basically, you start with cotton fabric, just plain cotton fabric. Then there are designs stamped onto the fabric with wax, and then the fabric is dyed, and that wax is removed, and then other symbols are stamped on and waxed, and then it’s dyed again. So it’s kind of like an over-dying process using wax.
Jasper: Right, and the wax creates areas that are not dyed. So it’s kind of a removal process.
Sara: Yes, sort of like a counter-design or something.
Jasper: And then you build it up over several different layers to create a multi-colored design. It’s very interesting.
Sara: One of the interesting things about the batiks from Ghana is that they use these traditional symbols. They are called Adinkra symbols, and they all have a special meaning. For instance, the one that I’m wearing now the symbol is a moon and a star, a symbol for eternity, so it’s just kind of interesting to me.
Meredith: Do you include information on the meaning of the symbols when you sell people the scrubs?
Sara: Yes, we are definitely going to do that.
Meredith: That’s cool. So do you have customers now, or are you just in the process of setting that up?
Sara: We are just in the process of doing some marketing now. We don’t have a website yet, but it is under development and we have a lot of people that are interested.
Meredith: Is your intention to sell these primarily online or to sell them to companies that provide scrubs for healthcare workers?
Sara: Primarily to sell online. We’ll probably also market to small businesses that sell medical uniforms and that type of thing, but not to the major huge manufacturers, because that’s just not the direction that we want to go. We want to stay more along the lines of fair trade and that type of thing.
Meredith: How does that work? Let’s say someone is buying batik scrubs from you. Who made that and who is getting the money and how is that all working?
Sara: We start with fabric we purchased here in the States and ship it over there, because, unfortunately, it’s not possible to get a consistent quality of cotton over there. Then the material is batiked by a small family-owned business in the capital city of Ghana, Accra, who are batik artisans. Then that fabric is sewed by the NGO that we are working with. They have what is called their community employment program, and they employ tailors and seamstresses from the local community who are all paid a fair wage for their work, so they’re actually producing the product. We will be marketing partly in Ghana and partly in the States and other places in the world.
Jasper: You said earlier that you’d never done a business before. I can understand the sort of passion behind doing it, because it is a very cool thing to do. But tell us a little bit about what you did before and how you made the transition.
Sara: Actually, for close to 15 years I’ve been in the counseling field, and most recently working as the manager of a counseling agency. So I guess I have that managerial experience that I can draw upon.
Jasper: Right. The thing about business is that you have to sort of manage every little piece of the business, don’t you, whereas in a job you’re given a particular role to do. But in business you have to become the accountant, the supply manager, and everything else. So how is that working?
Sara: Well, I’m really good at delegating responsibility.
Meredith: Who are you delegating it to?
Sara: My son is actually working on the business with me, and he’s very well versed in shipping, receiving, and operations.
Meredith: How did you come to that decision, because I know that deciding to do something as a family business is also a fraught decision, versus being a solopreneur or actually hiring employees? What made you decide that this would be a good thing for you and your son to do together?
Sara: He and I have a great relationship and he is very experienced in that type of work. He has been doing it for a long time. He was interested in the business and in developing the business, so I just asked him if he’d be interested in coming on and working on it with me and he said he was, so…
Meredith: So for start-up funding, did you go out and get start-up funds or are you funding this yourself?
Sara: I’m pretty much funding it myself, but we are also exploring some other options as well.
Favorite Book: Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah
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At Batiks for Life, we don’t want to be “just another scrubs company.” We believe that business can be a win-win situation for everyone. We can both make a profit, and support the communities in which the products are made. The sale of our scrubs and accessories can help young women and single mothers living on the streets to move out of poverty and into productive, empowered lives.
We started by identifying an existing community employment program where tailors and seamstresses were working under excellent conditions and being paid a living wage. An added benefit was that the work we provided for them would support vocational training for the marginalized young mothers in their program. Some of them were training to become seamstresses, while others were apprenticing in the community as hairdressers and hospitality workers.
Through our work with this community employment program, it became clear that the issues facing young mothers living on the streets are both extreme and widespread. It’s estimated that as of this writing in 2015, there are 100,000 street kids in Accra, and young women can face particular dangers from physical abuse and sexual exploitation. Thus, planning began to develop our own fair trade-oriented community employment program so that more young women could be trained to become seamstresses and thus be empowered to support themselves.
But we won’t stop here. Our ultimate goal is to use profits from BATIKS FOR LIFE to fund small, volunteer-run medical clinics in underserved villages, empowering the local residents by providing basic health care.
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