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Sewing the seeds of entrepreneurship

A textile cooperative along US-Mexican border puts welfare mothers in business for themselves.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 2000



DOUGLAS, ARIZ.

Since 1992, when a workplace accident left Annette Moreno without her right arm - and eventually, without a job - this onetime seamstress and business owner had been in and out of jobs, and mostly living on public assistance.

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Then she heard that a few dozen seamstresses in this tiny border town were going to take themselves off welfare by setting up their own sewing business. Ms. Moreno said, "Let me in."

"It's been my experience that in order for something to happen, one has to make it happen," she says in the coffee room of AriSEWna, the new sewing cooperative she owns with other seamstresses and embroiderers. "One cannot wait for others to make it happen."

Of all the welfare-to-work schemes to come out of the four-year-old welfare reform act - which turned welfare from an entitlement into a five-year limited benefit - cooperatives like AriSEWna are certainly among the most innovative. While the typical former welfare recipient gets off assistance by taking a temporary job in the low-paying service sector, a smaller self-selective crowd go into business for itself.

Within this latter group, cooperatives, which blend the for-profit drive of Wall Street with the vaguely leftish notion of common ownership, are definitely the road less traveled. But co-ops may be a good fit for isolated, oft-abandoned communities like Douglas, where factories come and go with little thought for the workers left behind.

If past studies are any gauge, the outlook for small businesses started by former welfare recipients looks remarkably good, says Catherine Alter, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. "Their survival rate is much better than for small businesses in general," she says. "Seventy-five percent are still in business two years later."

That said, Dr. Alter, like many sociologists, doesn't see self-employment as a cookie-cutter solution for poverty. "The women and men who have the resources, educational or financial, to start a microenterprise are usually quite successful, but they are not the solution to poverty in the USA," she says. "It warms your heat to see women's success stories, but not everyone in poverty is an entrepreneur."

Risks worth taking

For the nine women and two men who currently work for, and own part of AriSEWna, the risks of starting a business from scratch are ominous, but apparently well worth taking. In order to gain a microbusiness loan from state and federal agencies, each co-owner had to pledge $5,000 of her or his own money. This gave the owners a stake in the business's success, but also a potential liability if it failed.

"It's a risk. If the business flops in the first year, they could end up owing some money," says Ginny Jordan of the Arizona Council for Economic Cooperation.

But while the co-op members may lack business experience and formal education - only two members graduated from high school - they have a combined 195 years of sewing experience. Many have worked for months at factories that quickly closed, without handing out a single paycheck. If anybody can make a sewing business work in this town, they tell a visitor, it's them.