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Ngozi Okaro

Executive Director, Custom Collaborative

“When you bring together different generations, ethnicities and genders to imagine and execute a project, you send the message that all people have value. It promotes equity and inclusion.”

Garment manufacturing in the United States relies heavily on immigrant workers, but many are paid way below minimum range and work up to 12 hours a day without adequate breaks. In 2015 I launched Custom Collaborative, a workforce development and incubator program that trains women from low-income immigrant communities to launch careers as seamstresses, designers and even fashion entrepreneurs. Today our graduates are in high demand, and most have seen their income at least double.

The problem I’m trying to solve

In New York City the garment industry accounts for 14 percent of all manufacturing jobs; yet the immigrant workers employed in some of the factories are harshly exploited. Custom Collaborative aims to ensure that these women are afforded dignified, meaningful work and are paid a fair wage. Since 2017 we’ve enrolled 65 women in our Training Institute. Virtually all of them are minorities and have income below the U.S. poverty guidelines. When they graduate, our business incubator gives them access to a network of skilled professionals, training, equipment and marketing resources to give them the best shot possible at finding a decent-paying job.

Finally, our wholly worker-owned cooperative, Fashion That Works Production, enables participants to pool their resources and generate more income by selling to commercial clients. This is particularly important for women who don’t have a U.S. work authorization: Because it’s a cooperative, they can still legally earn income even if they’re undocumented.

The moment that sparked my passion

At 6 feet tall, I have always found it hard, if not downright impossible, to buy clothes that fit me. Then, in 2014, my 74-year-old father temporarily moved in with me after a stroke. The only time I had to myself was after midnight. One night I was up until 3 a.m. over my sewing machine, trying to adjust a bustline. The next morning my father asked me what I’d stayed up late engineering. I told him I wasn’t engineering anything, but he insisted I was and that I should start my own business. The idea stuck with me. Why couldn’t I help talented but impoverished minority seamstresses professionalize their skills? They could make a lot more money, and consumers like me would be able to finally wear well-fitting, customized clothes.

What I wish other people knew

There’s truly abundance in the world. There are enough women who can make clothes that satisfy our needs and enough money in the economy to pay them fairly to do it. When we connect those resources, we can all thrive and determine our own path, regardless of our age, race, ethnicity or income level.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Listen to others. As an only child, I grew up used to being in charge and self-reliant. But once I founded Custom Collaborative, I quickly realized I could not go it alone. I hadn’t worked in fashion retailing since my early 20s. I had to rely on people who had more skills, expertise and credentials to help me. When I allowed others to weigh in, our company had much better outcomes. When you bring together different generations, ethnicities and genders to imagine and execute a project, you send the message that all people have value. It promotes equity and inclusion.

A case in point is the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a devastating time for our company and required a lot of change. But we all put our heads together and realized that we could continue to provide employment for the women in our programs by having them design and make personal protective equipment. It just reinforced the fact that we can lift people up even in times of darkness with just a little creative thinking.

How my approach is unique

The workplace that I have created is very different from the workplace I experienced in my former career. I spent years working in companies that favored a top-down style, where people in high authority called all the shots. As a black woman, I found it hard to achieve career growth in that sort of environment. But here, at Custom Collaborative, everyone has a voice. Virtually all of the women we work with are racial or ethnic minorities and/or recent migrants to this country. We want to hear their ideas and include their contributions. We believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to be a leader. We work with people of all different backgrounds and age ranges. If someone dismisses something someone else says, I push back. Everyone here has something uniquely important to contribute, otherwise they would not be with us.

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