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Chicago entrepreneur helps struggling female artists abroad connect with retailers

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Updated: December 4, 2012 6:06AM



Chicago entrepreneur Kathleen Wright counts model-turned-activist Lauren Bush Lauren and fashion designer Rachel Roy among her clients for handbags, scarves, jewelry and other accessories that struggling female artists make in Guatemala, India and West Africa.

The impressive client backing goes on: Upscale women’s fashion designer Trina Turk, supermodel and organic cosmetics creator Josie Maran and surf-inspired sandal and clothing company Reef Footwear, are proving Wright’s startup-company’s mission of convincing big for-profit companies that they can trust in social-good purchases as consistent, efficient and valuable.

The startup, called Collaborative Group and located in the 1871 tech center at the Merchandise Mart, results from Wright’s inspiration when she told 30 Guatemalan artisans that a fashion retailer had placed an order for them to make 4,200 handbags — their biggest order ever.

“I realized that being able to offer living wages and consistent income would have the biggest impact on (the artisans) and the lives of their children,” said Wright, 31, who grew up on a pig farm in Dixon, Ill., and worked for both for-profit and nonprofit companies before going out on her own.

The order — enough to provide a stable income for three months to the artisans — came from Feed Projects, a fashion company founded by Bush Lauren, a model, designer and granddaughter of former President George H.W. Bush who is married to Ralph Lauren’s son, David Lauren.

Reef Footwear’s first sales of sandals made in Guatemala nearly tripled Reef’s own estimates, and the company has since reordered every season.

With each successful partnership, Wright is encouraged that her system will work.

She aims to jump a hurdle in the industry: Retailers demand on-time delivery, consistent quality and no-glitch processes, and they won’t risk fiddling with their sourcing strategies.

So Wright is using her experience in sales, marketing and product development to make high-minded ordering as easy, accessible and cost-effective as possible for big fashion brands.

“My goal is to change the way fashion brands look at their supply chain,” she said. “They can have a positive social impact without disrupting their business model.”

The demand is there, she said, since businesses have found success in touting how they can make a difference by helping society and the environment.

Wright hopes to win over investors to become part of a trend called impact investing or high-margin philanthropy emerging in Chicago and nationwide.

Collaborative Group is one of eight members invited to take a 12-week “boot camp” run by Impact Engine, a Chicago-based tech accelerator that is helping for-profit companies such as Wright’s make the world a better place while their investors make money. The program drew 175 applicants from 15 states and nine countries, including Canada, Spain and Uganda.

Impact Engine provides mentoring, $25,000 in seed funding and business development help to get the entrepreneurs ready to pitch their ideas to investors. The accelerator takes a 7 percent stake in each company.

The companies pitch their ideas to investors on Dec. 5 — their graduation day.

Chuck Templeton, Impact Engine’s managing director, said the goal is for the startups to realize a return for the organization’s 17 investors, who include investor and venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker and Levy Restaurants founder Larry Levy.

The idea is part of an emerging “impact” economy in which altruistic companies are certified “B” or “benefit” corporations — much like organic foods at the grocery store or energy-efficient designs in building construction — to give investors a new investment vehicle and ratings system for corporate accountability.

Starting Jan. 1, an Illinois law takes effect enabling companies to become Benefit Corporations by getting certified by B Lab, a Boston-based nonprofit that started the idea, in five areas: Consumer benefits; workplace culture; environment impact; community investment and activity; and accountability and governance. Certification fees start at $500 a year for companies with sales of less than $2 million.

Templeton said his dream would be for investors to one day expect each other to invest in companies doing social good.



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