The Pursuit of ‘Made in the USA’: Meet Sharon of Factory45

This is a guest post from Factory45’er Sharon Eisenhauer, founder of With Meraki, a sustainable leather goods company launching in 2015. This post was originally published here.

photo 1Having sold my company almost 2 years ago, I have had the great fortune to have some time to explore what my next venture will be. Always the serial entrepreneur, I tried on a number of ideas, wrote business plans, did financials, etc.. I even built websites for a couple of ideas. Nothing really seemed like it. Yet.

In April, I saw this story on EcoSalon about an accelerator program called Factory45. Shannon Whitehead, the founder, was launching the inaugural class for this incubator and was reaching out to designers and makers who wanted to start sustainable and profitable businesses and keep everything made in the USA. Something clicked. I applied, and knew that this was something substantial.

I tried to do production for my former company in the US – but that was 10 years ago. A sew shop here in the Bay Area made some disastrous samples for me. Then I went to Texas and launched my collection with bags made in El Paso. Sadly, my cost of goods was 75%. Not a good formula for success!

My mentor, Rob Honeycutt, founder of Timbuk2, pointed me to a factory in China. I went to Shenzhen, walked the factory floor, explored the dormitories where the workers lived and checked out the cafeteria. It was important to me that the people who helped me to make a living and support others were not working in a sweatshop and were living decent lives. Taking the vastly different standards of living into account, I felt okay about doing my production there. Okay, but not great.

With the language barrier and cultural disparity, trying to engage with the workers resulted mostly in nodded heads and lowered eyes. My attempts at Mandarin were laughable, at best. How could I really connect with the people who were so integral to the creation of my products without a discernable means of communication? Sure, the factory owners and managers spoke excellent English, but how does one express a feeling through a middle-man? It just didn’t translate.

Through the years, I made several half-attempts at researching production here in the US. Overland Equipment used to make their bags in Chico, California. I knew the former owner. He said, “no way”. It was just too expensive to keep a factory running here and still be competitively priced. Even Timbuk2, who manufactures the exterior of some of their bags here in San Francisco, makes the more complicated pieces in Asia. I was dissuaded.

photo 3I believe that, regardless of where they live, people deserve to make a decent living. As human beings, we all do. It astounds me that anyone would ever question that. But I also want to be able to connect with those people, to have a relationship – to be able to share that expression of meraki – the soul, love and creativity put into their work.  Combining language and cultural barriers with distance made that pretty darn difficult.

So, when I learned about Factory45, I felt like a long un-answered prayer had been answered. Maybe there was a way. Maybe I could create something with some scale here. Maybe I could even source the components here. Maybe even a little more than maybe…

To keep up with the behind-the-scenes of the making of With Meraki, follow on Facebook and on the blog.