Photo Credit: Custom Collaborative

She’s a force to be reckoned with. Former lawyer. Graduate of Georgetown. And the Founder and Executive Director of Custom Collaborative. At age 6, Ngozi Okaro decided to become a lawyer because she understood lawyers to be problem-solvers. A problem she later faced? As a tall woman, the challenge of finding fashionable, flattering clothing. In 2011, as her honeymoon approached, she decided to find a tailor who could design a few custom pieces. Enter Miriama, a Harlem-based seamstress. Ngozi’s friendship with Miriama gave her insight into the challenges faced by women in the fashion industry—designers and dressmakers- particularly women from low-income and immigrant communities. They struggled to build strategic networks, sell their clothing lines and earn a living wage. Ngozi saw the opportunity to use her problem-solving skills to launch an organization which empowers women and promotes inclusion in New York City.

Since 2014, Custom Collaborative has supported dozens of female fashion designers and dressmakers, most of them just beginning a career in fashion. A New York City-based nonprofit, Custom Collaborative is an entrepreneurship and workforce development organization that trains and supports women from low-income and immigrant communities in launching fashion careers and businesses. By learning standard techniques and ethical business practices, participants professionalize their sewing and design skills, overcome barriers to employment, and ultimately, over time will change the economics of the industry.

Women engage with Custom Collaborative across three programs: a training institute a business incubator, and launching this May, a profit-sharing, worker-owned cooperative. Participants represent 15 different nations; 80 percent of Custom Collaborative participants live below the federal poverty line, and 85 percent of their students are mothers. The vision for a worker-owned cooperative developed as the team at Custom Collaborative saw the need for longer-term support for their graduates.

“We want to pay a fair wage from the beginning. As we pool our resources, we have bigger visibility, and collectively, we can earn more income.” Says Ngozi.

Custom Collaborative partnered with Legal Aid in Harlem and the Economic Development Clinic as part of the CUNY Law School to learn how to create a successful worker-owned cooperative. Every worker-owner has an equal vote and receives dividends, from the floor sweeper to the lead designer.

The cooperative is a one-stop-shop for fashion design, manufacturing, and sales, produced and managed by graduates of Custom Collaborative’s training and incubator programs. They accept sample and white label, contract manufacturing orders of 1 – 200 pieces and sell made-to-measure clothes to individual clients. And did we mention that at least 90 percent of Custom Collaborative designs are made from repurposed and upcycled textiles? Yes. Triple bottom line impact.

Custom Collaborative’s worker-owned cooperative goes live in May. Follow the incredible impact of Custom Collaborative on social. Buy a one-of-a-kind handbag online. And if you feel called to deeper engagement, they are also looking for advisors to support strategy and growth. Get in contact at info@customcollaborative.org

We say this all the time and this time is no exception: we have the best clients. When Ngozi came to our branch in Harlem to open an account we knew we could support her by offering zero maintenance fees on her accounts. And if she ever needs it, our nonprofit lending offering is “tailored”, with flexible terms to suit the needs of nonprofits when they have gaps in funding. Learn more about the benefits we offer to nonprofits and open your checking account online or small business checking account online today.