They might be a wardrobe basic but UNIFORM’s t-shirts have a much bigger story to tell and, considering the project’s managed to raise over $192,627 so far on Kickstarter, it’s a story that’s resonating. Here we chat to Chid Liberty, the innovative mind behind the company that’s empowering Liberian women and children one luxurious, meticulously-cut tee at a time.
What’s your elevator pitch?
UNIFORM is a premium clothing company that sends kids to school and provides women with sustainable jobs in post-Ebola Liberia. For every t-shirt we sell, we donate a school uniform to a child who otherwise wouldn’t get to attend school. Both the school uniforms and the high-quality tees are made at our Fairtrade certified factory in Liberia, where 98 per cent of employees are local mothers.
What pushed you to stop talking about launching UNIFORM to actually doing it?
There are countless consequences from the Ebola crisis, and launching UNIFORM was a really effective way to address two of them. Ebola led to unemployment skyrocketing and school attendance rates dropped in Liberia. Sitting around during this nationwide standstill didn’t seem like an option to me. Launching UNIFORM was really the only way to get our 300 workers back to full-time work and keep our business alive.
Since so many parents couldn’t afford the mandatory school uniforms to get their kids back to school, we decided we would donate them. But given that we had just lost millions in revenue as a result of brands pulling out of our factory during the Ebola outbreak, we were in little position to donate anything. So we took an innovative twist on the traditional ‘buy one, donate one’ model – every item we donate is made right in the local community by women in our worker-owned factory.
Tell us about the ins and outs of how you got high-profile names on board, and any practical tips you have for others trying to do the same?
I think people are intrigued and inspired by the durable grit of entrepreneurship. The best way to get people on board is to show them that they should expect every risk to be met with a new solution. One of our investors called me “indefatigable” the other day because I just can’t quite back down. I wish I could take the credit but honestly, the women in the factory are ready to work and I’m not going to get in their way. My job is to keep the factory filled with orders. They remind me of that every day.
What has been the biggest challenge in this venture and how did you overcome it?
I’ve woken up to the real risks that come with starting innovative business ventures. I wore rose-coloured glasses to look at the prospect of doing business in Liberia. We had just elected Africa’s first woman president. And honestly, the women’s movement in Liberia made me feel like anything was possible. I used to get offended when investors would bring up country risk after months of negotiation because I felt that it was obvious that we were investing in Liberia specifically because of the factors that make it so risky. We needed to be proactive about investing with a gender lens, about adding value to commodities, and creating the farms and factories our economy so desperately needed, despite the country risk.
I’m still resolved that we need to invest in these farms and factories, but I respect capital and risk a bit more than I did five years ago. If an investor would have brought up Ebola as a risk factor for our business five years ago, I would have written them off as ignorant. But the truth is, Liberia’s vulnerability isn’t specific; everything is a risk.
What advice you can pass on to others wanting to get their product/service off the ground with crowdfunding?
Now that the campaign is getting towards the end and we’ve begun to focus on the future of the company, I’ve become even more confident about our decision to launch with crowdfunding. We decided to launch through crowdfunding because we wanted to start lean, not only because we had lost revenue from the idle factory during Ebola, but also because starting lean forces you to be smart in the decisions being made at the start of a business.
By reaching out to the public to support our launch, we now have a wide community of backers who are part of our origin story, and who will feel connected to UNIFORM in the long run. Crowdfunding is really an opportunity to build a loyal community from the start – people who will stick around to see where the company goes next.
The Kickstarter campaign for UNIFORM: World’s Softest Tee ends on 17 July. Find out more here.