Persie delivers finished masks

Yeah! It’s September and the San Diego heatwave has broken for a few days. The extreme heat might have put the kibosh on our garden but our By Jeeni business continues to grow. This little cottage industry, and thousands like it, born from this pandemic, could be the thing that saves our economy. It’s going to take some re-imagining.

One possible scenario, when the COVID dust settles, is that traditional enterprises will expend all of their resources trying to go back to business as usual. But “usual” has evolved.  The pandemic, heightened awareness of racial injustice, climate catastrophes, and a government that is so out of alignment with decency that there is little expectation there will be any help when the next hurricane, firestorm, or flood hits our community.  We’ve learned that we have to look out for one another. Our values have changed.

That quickly, everything changed

It’s more than a case of the little sailboat being able to change direction faster than the big old cruise ship. The people on the little sailboat are having a lot more fun! Capitalism is going to have to adapt to this new perspective if it is going to continue. Business is going to have to accommodate a changed awareness of what’s really important to their customers – hoarding up more money than you can possibly ever spend has lost its appeal. Spending time with family… staying healthy… being loved… preserving our planet for our grandchildren… creative expression… having a higher purpose… these are the new capital in Capitalism.

Even as the economy has faltered, or perhaps because of it, homespun businesses have been springing up in spare rooms and garages in communities throughout the country. We must acknowledge that it takes the privilege of having a home, to start a home-based business. For those who have a roof over their head, being forced to stay home has motivated many to take that entrepreneurial leap, with more of a “What have I got to lose?” than an “Eh, maybe I’m not ready yet.”

Others, who had never considered leaving the security of employment, suddenly found themselves without income and jumped onto the self-employed lifeboat for survival. As for myself, having started multiple businesses throughout my career, I just seem to gravitate toward turning my ideas into a livelihood. With Social Security to just barely cover the rent, this endeavor could make the difference between pinching pennies ’til I die, or having enough to get by. In addition to the mask-making business, Juan and I have also been working on a wood-kit website that will be a resource for wood crafters of all levels. I will tell you more about this soon.

Persie joins the team!

As mask sales grew, I soon realized this was going to be more than one person can handle. And sewing is not something my husband is adept at doing (although he’s a great snap snapper-oner for the bandanas). Some hard-won lessons of my past endeavors are that I want to keep things simple; I don’t want to be a corporation or partnership, and I don’t want to be an employer.  So I was on the lookout for a similarly enterprising person who wanted to turn their sewing skills into an income.

Using independent contractors is a sticky wicket these days since companies like Uber and Lyft created a “gig” economy that essentially circumvents unions by making employees into WWBs – Workers Without Benefits. California passed a law last year that was supposed to prevent this abuse, but unfortunately, the law used too big of a brush. It swept many small and start-up businesses into the regulatory trough. Hopefully, this will be corrected this year, but meanwhile, it’s important for small business owners to clarify that an independent contractor is truly independent and a contractor and they set their own prices.

Meet Persie! It was my great fortune to discover that my next-door neighbor is not only a  delightful fellow gardener,  she’s also a meticulous seamstress.  Back in pre-COVID days, when we were both out working in our gardens, we would always exchange pleasantries and share seeds and cuttings along with secrets to overcoming gardening challenges. Persie shared her wealth of knowledge (and cuttings) of medicinal plants I had never heard of before, like Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) and Family Doctor Plant (Callisia fragrans) that both now thrive in my garden. Like the plumeria branch she gave to me when we first moved in, our friendship was slow-growing – Persie worked nights and was often busy with her large extended family, and I was involved in a lot of community work, so our overlapping gardening schedules were infrequent. 

The COVID stay-at-home mandates slowed us both down, and while remaining socially distanced by the plant-covered wall between our properties, we finally had time to carry on entire actual conversations! And that’s when we realized that we were both sewing and donating facemasks for various organizations. When my orders started coming in faster than I could keep up with,  I asked Persie if she wanted to earn some money sewing masks. She jumped at the opportunity. It has turned out to be a fantastic joint effort – sort of like a sous chef, I do all of the prep work while Persie does the sewing and packaging. Then we exchange our packages at arm’s length. (Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that the combined outreach of arms is close to the requisite 6 feet we should stay apart?)

Our Start-up has Started Up

Like most start-ups, we had to make up a lot of this as we went along. Originally I was using copper wire for the nosebridge and kept breaking needles every time I accidentally hit the wire while topstitching. Eventually, I found something just as pliable but softer and Persie found a way to sew it into the mask without breaking needles! When it was impossible to find ¼” elastic for the ear loops, we sliced ½” elastic we happened to have on hand. Now, a softer 1/8” elastic is available and we use a small crochet hook to thread it through a silicone bead to make adjustable ear loops.

It’s so enjoyable to work with someone who is an enthusiastic and creative problem-solver. Together, we designed a mask pouch, so people have a place to store their mask where it will stay clean and easily accessible (it can also serve as a cell phone pocket and has a place for your ID /credit card). We are launching the pouch as part of the Back to School Special this week. Our next handmade project will be chicken potholders and aprons for all of the new cooks out there!

Work was never so much fun! We wear our masks when we have to huddle over the sewing machine to figure something out, but most of the time we do the 6-foot distance handoff, and each of us works in our own home, on our own schedule. Venmo makes it easy for Persie to bill me and for me to pay her bill. Finally, running a business is simplified! I wonder how we could have made it through this COVID phase without Zoom and Venmo and WooCommerce and YouTube videos. Talk about re-imagining a Post-COVID economy! We certainly have the tools.

Making masks in America is not going to make me a ton of money, because I need to keep our prices competitive with businesses operating on a far less equitable model. But it’s enough. Life is good. (I actually list our products as Name Your Price, where the minimum price is my cost, and you can choose to pay more if you can afford it and believe my effort should earn a fair profit.

A Smaller Economy That Fits Just Fine

This is how business endeavors usually begin – seeing a problem and coming up with a solution, seeing a need, and filling the void – whether it is inventing Zoom or making the safest possible facemask. One positive outcome of the COVID pandemic is that it has given us the opportunity to re-think how to do business, so it stays worthy of our time and effort. With this new perspective on what is important, we can re-write the rules and re-imagine what makes a successful economy. It’s no longer about “making a killing” (as I am typing this, it hits me that that goal is as awful as the expression for it) but about making a good life. How can we meet our financial responsibilities, while maintaining our values, respecting and enjoying those we work with, considering the impact of our choices on our planet and other people, and maintaining a balance so that we stay healthy and our relationships remain joyful?

If we can reimagine capitalism, so that it is fair and responsible and fun, (and maybe smaller?) that might just be a more feasible way to rescue our economy. Better yet, it could help to address the huge issues we face – inequality, climate change, healthcare, and injustice.

What’s New in Facemasks

And in that mode/mood, we are offering a Back-to-School Pouch and Masks Special at Name Your Price, so every kid going back to school can be safe.

We’ve also created a separate mask line called Chrysalis for Kids with masks in Youth and Child sizes in fabrics your young ones will love.

For the grown-ups, we’ve added some more sophisticated fabrics in solid colors, with Made in the USA Kona Cotton. So now you can have professional work masks and have fun masks too!

Be well! We will visit again soon.

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