At stake is $50,000 in Forbes advertising and another $50,000 in investment capital. Forbes unveils the winner this week.
Win or lose, Femrite, 34, caught our interest on a bunch of levels.
She has an interesting story to tell. She manufactures clothing from bamboo fibers. She’s passionate about her ideals and working to find the financing and momentum to keep it rolling. Married with two small children, she also juggles family life.
I interviewed her recently as she waited for her child’s pre-school to finish up.
Ticking off a long list of the ecological benefits and comfort of bamboo fiber clothing, she adds, “What I’m trying to do is potentially huge for the U.S. economy and the planet.”
I broke the interview up into chunks below. As you read, keep in the back of your mind: Can Minnesota build its its economic future around entrepreneurs like Femrite? Can it capitalize on the “green,” sustainable movement? What if it can’t?
Family of entrepreneurs
Femrite didn’t plan to be in business. Her background’s in education and counseling. She was a career counselor at St. Olaf College. But she comes from an entrepreneurial family. Her father had several companies, including a tank car cleaning operation.
Her older brother buys walnut trees and sells them to companies for furniture. They were mulling over new ideas in 2007 when he came over with a newspaper article on bamboo fibers and how they could be made into all kinds of breathable, hypoallergenic clothing. “It just kind of snowballed,” she said, “almost like a calling. I was supposed to do this.”
She spent the next few months researching bamboo fiber, fabric and sewing manufacturers then started producing clothing using a “fair labor facility in China. ” Since then, she’s moved production locally establishing partnerships with “ethical sewing facilities in Minnesota and California who will now be making all future Naturally Bamboo lines.”
Financing and marketing challenges
The business is pretty much self-financed, Femrite says. She’s been able to turn some monthly profits but “it’s still a struggle.”
Funds come from a home equity credit line, business credit cards and a business credit line from a bank and a loan from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.
“I don’t have any free money,” she says.
About 75 percent of her business come from online sales but she’s also picked up a retail outlet in Canada. The hardest hard part, she says, is trying to build a brand name clothing line with no marketing dollars. “I’m still pretty much doing it all by myself.”
We’ve written a lot at MinnEcon about Minnesota’s shrinking and aging workforce and asked aloud what happens if Minnesota can’t keep it’s best and brightest?
Femrite’s staying, even though it might be cheaper to go elsewhere.
“I envision my headquarters always being here. We’re not doing the bamboo planting and processing in Minnesota, but my cut-and-sew operations are in Prior Lake,” she said. “Could I do it cheaper in Mississippi or South Carolina? Maybe, but probably not that much to make it worthwhile.”
What about the tax climate? “It’s not going to sway my decision,” she said. “It’s more about labor pool, quality of life, family, outdoors. You’re not going to see us move someplace that doesn’t have lakes and rivers,” she said. “It would be really hard to go somewhere else.”