From Malaysia to Maryland: Half a World Apart, Social Enterprises Pivot to Protect Frontline Workers
In response to COVID-19, many of our social enterprises are pivoting to support their communities, sustain their businesses, and protect their employees. One solution is to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers on the frontlines battling the pandemic.
Malaysian social enterprise Earth Heir works with over 100 artisans from women’s cooperatives, indigenous tribes, and refugee groups to sell handcrafted heritage fashion accessories. Fair trade certified with the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), the company consciously reinvests into growing their impact among the artisans they serve. Earth Heir has been profiled in Forbes and the New York Times, and fashion magazines Elle and Marie Claire. The organization is currently participating in Miller Center’s second Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins accelerator program for enterprises focused on serving migrants, refugees, and human trafficking survivors.
With the spread of Coronavirus, Earth Heir jumped into manufacturing fair trade PPE for Malaysian medical personnel, social workers, and others on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19. The PPE sets are made in a workshop sanitized to WFTO standards and each set includes a gown, head cover, and shoe covers. These sets are made by refugee artisans living in Malaysia, a country which is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and where refugees live on the margins with little protection under the law. According to Earth Heir CEO Xiao Cheng Wong, “This project provides a means for refugee artisans to earn an income and supports our national heroes battling the outbreak.”
On the other side of the globe, Baltimore-based Innovation Works (IW) partnered with a collection of local social enterprises to form Makers Unite! — a collaborative emergency response effort to support the region in flattening the curve.
In March 2019, IW and Miller Center formed a strategic partnership to help launch and grow 250 social enterprises in 10 years that will employ 5,000 Baltimore residents and attract $100M in capital to build sustainable neighborhoods and help mitigate the city’s racial wealth divide. A year later, Baltimore, along with the rest of the country, was sheltering in place in response to COVID-19.
Makers Unite! wasted no time in responding to the crisis. Participating organizations have banded together to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare and human services professionals in Baltimore. And by working with local makers, these businesses are providing income to people in their community who might otherwise be unemployed.
Innovation Works is shepherding this massive effort — organizing and managing business operations and the customer marketplace under the Makers Unite! brand. “The collaboration between volunteer makers across the region and social enterprise producers to protect frontline healthcare workers, first responders, and caregivers is truly inspiring. Their hard work and commitment have created a win-win situation.
The hospitals are grateful for the personal protective equipment, and producing them has literally put laid-off workers back to work and saved lives,” said IW president Jay Nwachu.
This effort is no small feat, requiring these enterprises to retool their infrastructures. Among the Baltimore organizations that have pivoted to PPE under the Makers Unite! brand are Open Works, SewLabs USA, and The Codex Club.
Open Works (OW) is a community-centered, non-profit makerspace whose mission is to make tools and technology accessible to all. Before sheltering-in-place, that meant connecting community members with affordable manufacturing equipment, studio space, education, and Baltimore’s largest community of maker professionals in OW’s state-of-the-art facility. In response to the pandemic, Open Works is empowering and mobilizing their community of makers to manufacture face shields under the Makers Unite! brand. The parts are 3D printed by a network of over 200 makers and institutions in the Baltimore metro area, then delivered to Open Works where their production staff sanitizes, assembles, and packages the shields for medical professionals.
SewLabs USA is a local manufacturing company that creates unique, superior quality soft goods constructed from sustainably sourced materials. The company, in partnership with Open Works and Made in Baltimore — a nonprofit that spurs reinvestment in Baltimore City — also provides workforce development to help meet the growing demand for skilled industrial sewers and machine operators in the Baltimore area. With the onset of the pandemic, SewLabs USA quickly obtained design specifications for protective cloth masks, ordered materials, and started sewing to help meet the needs of their community.
Believing that everyone can make a dent, Dent Education empowers under-resourced youth in Baltimore to discover and develop their creative potential as makers and entrepreneurs. Dent students launch real ventures — building solutions to everyday problems and learning that they can create change. With the pandemic, Dent heard from students that their families are struggling and that they are feeling anxious, unproductive, and powerless. So the organization is engaging them to build protective face shields at home, with a goal of 10,000 units in a month: a win-win for students and frontline workers.
In the face of crisis, Makers Unite! social enterprises in Baltimore are demonstrating their resilience and slowing the spread of COVID-19. When viewed alongside Earth Heir in Malaysia and other enterprises around the world doing the same, it’s clear that we’re more alike than different. And we’re certainly all in this together!