Rebecca Smith was never particularly interested in sewing. As a child, she says she spent summers quilting blankets with her grandmother, but never really picked it back up until she became pregnant with her first child eight years ago.
"My mom had just given me a sewing machine for my birthday," Smith says. "I think she was hoping I would get back into it." On a whim, she made herself a diaper bag and posted some photos of it on Facebook. Someone commented that she should open an Etsy shop. "I hadn't even heard of Etsy," she recalls.
Smith had just quit her job as a teacher in Georgia. Her husband was in the military, and the two of them wanted to relocate when he returned — somewhere with more diversity, she says. but also someplace where they could feel needed. Somehow, Hamtramck got on their radar, and they moved — sight unseen.
Smith started developing her bags further, adding leather to the design and pledging 10 percent of sales to Kiva, a micro-financing site that offered loans to people in third world countries — hence the name of her Etsy shop, Better Life Bags.
But what was still mostly a hobby for a stay-at-home mom quickly changed when Smith's work caught the eye of Joy Cho, an influential blogger and designer who shared one of Smith's designs with her Pinterest followers. Suddenly, Smith couldn't keep up with the orders.
She says she considered either quitting or outsourcing the work. But then she had another idea. "I knew one of the ladies I met who had just moved here from Yemen. She knew how to sew," Smith says. "So I thought, she can do all the insides, I can do all the outsides, an we can put these together twice as fast."
Things clicked when Smith saw the positive change the arrangement had on her friend's life. "I thought, there's probably a lot of women in this community that can't get jobs [because of] language barriers, education barriers, cultural barriers," Smith says. "Sewing is kind of a universal language."
That first employee still works with Smith. Now, her company has grown to 15 employees total — mostly women, who design, fabricate, and ship Better Life Bags out of a Joseph Campau storefront.
The bags are customizable. Shoppers can go to Smith's website, betterlifebags.com, and choose various swatches of fabric. "You're kind of building your own bag, and having a part in the design process, which I think is really fun for customers," Smith says, describing it as "like a video game."
On the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, Smith opens the storefront to the public, where customers can design their own bags in person. Eventually, she hopes to expand operations into an adjacent storefront, which would allow her to move into printing her own fabric designs.
Now a mother of three, Smith has watched her company grow — balancing creating a quality product with a mission to do good.
"We have a mission for our business, and a lot of customers buy our product because of our mission," Smith says. "We want it to be a really good quality product that someone would buy anyway, but the fact that there's a mission behind it is just like the cherry on top."
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