My faith in the future of humanity and this planet rest heavily on the incredible entrepreneurs of my generation. Throughout the city and across the country I see young people not only identifying and filling needs of the community but providing for these needs in a just way that benefits more than their bottom line. Social entrepreneurship is capitalism at its best. Rebecca Smith, founder of the Better Life Bags, is one of our many Detroit area social entrepreneurs. Her company hires local women to create beautiful hand-crafted bags. Her employees face any number of barriers in entering the traditional workforce and Better Life Bags provides them with a living wage that they can earn in the comfort of their own home and neighborhood.
Rebecca and her company are located in Hamtramck, a culturally diverse city located in the center of Detroit. I first discovered Better Life Bags while searching for Detroit blogs on the internet a couple years ago. A blog interview has been on my to-do list for awhile and when I saw she was having a warehouse sale this weekend, I knew the time had finally arrived to check it off my list. Saturday afternoon Danny and I went to the very cute Better Life Bag shop and I sat down with Rebecca to discuss her company. She was just as nice as she seems on her blog and the bags are fantastic. I didn’t get one this weekend but it is on my birthday wishlist and Danny never lets me down.
What inspired you to start your business?
It was an accident. I was pregnant with our first son – this was six years ago – and I wanted to be crafty and make myself the diaper bag I was going to use. I went to JoAnn’s, found fabric, came home and spent all day making my bag. It took me 12 hours to do one bag. I posted pictures on Facebook and people were like, ‘You should open an Etsy shop, you should start selling these’. Etsy was brand new to the scene at the time and I decided why not. It would be something fun for me to do and I just quit my job as a teacher to stay home with my baby, so it would be a nice little hobby. It started as an Etsy shop but over the next three years it grew pretty organically and it got to the point where I couldn’t keep up anymore making them by myself.
We had moved to Hamtramck about six months into the Etsy shop and I noticed my neighbors and so many different cultures here and the women from these cultures weren’t able to just go out and get jobs, yet their husbands couldn’t provide totally for their families. I needed help and I could either shut everything down, find a factory to outsource to or I could hire women from my community.
I started with one, a recent immigrant from Yemen and she started making all these bags for me. I would go to her house once a week and drop off the fabric and pick up what she had done the week before and spend some time visiting with her. About six months into doing this, she said I want to show you something. I followed her up to her girls room and she had bought bunk beds with the money she got to make bags – before her girls were sleeping on the floor. A couple months later they bought their first dining room table. It clicked in my mind at the moment that this was really helping her be able to provide the things I consider necessities. It gave her self-respect and made her feel valued – that she was able to provide for her family. Now we have 12 women like her, who have some sort of barrier to employment – whether that’s culture, language, education. We have one employee who is a single mom of four and it’s hard for her to have the normal 8 to 5 job or weekends.
Because you have looked towards your neighbors for help and to help, how has that impacted your relationship with the community?
It has grounded me here. I moved to Hamtramck as an outsider and now I feel like this place is my home and these neighbors are my friends. I never thought I would be such close friends with someone from such a different culture than me. I kind of entered this neighborhood thinking I have very little in common with these people, they’re from countries I’ve never been too and speak languages I don’t understand but over the three years of spending time with them, I consider them my family.
How do your customers respond to your business model?
They love it. They love that they get the name of the women who made their bag – that there is a personal attachment to it. They are not just sending money to a big corporation. At the same time we’ve never wanted to be a charity. We always wanted our products to be very high quality and something customers would spend their money on regardless but the added mission and the fact that we hire people who you are making a big difference in their life when you purchase a bag – it gives that added benefit.
You have three kids, you’re a working-mom and an entrepreneur. How do you balance those things?
Good questions. I have a really great team of people. We have an operations manager who is here 40 hours a week and allows me the freedom to be a mom when I need to be a mom and the business keeps running. The same thing at home. We have a really great nanny who watches my kids three days a week so that when I’m here I can really be focused, knowing my kids are having a blast. It takes a village – I don’t do it all. I have great people in place.
What do advice to do you have for others looking to start a business?
Just start. I never could have imagined what this would grow into when I opened my Etsy shop and I just sort of road the wave of following the next best things for the business. I have some ideas about what I would like it to be in the next five years but I’m not on this hard fast path, I’m sort of going with were opportunities are – and utilizing social media.
Where do you see things going in the next five years?
We have a couple different product lines launching in the fall that we’re excited about that are neutral colors and different types of fabric. We are dabbling with ideas of branching into other cities and doing what we’re doing here in Atlanta or LA. Or in-home design parties are on the horizon. People can host parties and have their friends design bags. We have three different areas we’re thinking about going into.
Where did you learn to sew and design?
Spending summers at my grandma’s house growing up. She was a quilter and started me on making baby quilts for my dolls.
How do you come up with the names for your bags?
I started by naming them after friends. Then we started where the first customer to purchase the new style got to name the bag. The last one, we just launched a handlebar bike bag, and we opened that up on social media, ‘We need a general neutral name, throw out your suggestions’. We got 200 suggestions and we picked the best one for us and landed on Scout.
What’s your favorite?
I carry the Linda bag almost every day. We have a backpack coming out in the fall that will probably become my favorite.