Paul talks to Archel, whose ethical fashion company, Bombchel, was on the verge of shutting down. Archel discusses running a business in Liberia, and what it’s like to be stranded stateside while her staff make masks in Liberia.
Episode 4: Archel from Bombchel
Paul Jarvis: Hi there friend. I’m Paul Jarvis, and you’re listening to Call Paul, business as unusual, where we explore how small business owners are living through and seeing hope during this global pandemic.
Archel: It's kind of like when you get in the water and you get a little scared and you start flailing your arms, it doesn't help you swim. You just kind of sink, and I think that when you pay attention to the environment, when you pay attention to the community, when you pay attention to the water and you just kind of calmly step out and do the best that you can, that's when you find the most success. For us, it has really been an act of listening and paying attention to what people need.
Paul: That’s Archel, the owner of Bomchel—an ethical fashion company. Archel has always done a good job of paying attention to the water, as she puts it. Archel’s family are refugees from Liberia, a country on the West African Coast. Her factory, located in the heart of the capital city Monrovia, is an all-woman staff who have endured civil wars (yes that’s plural), the longest and largest outbreak of Ebola, and domestic violence. And now, this global pandemic. Archel's commitment to her staff and community is rooted in her love of the country. She remembers the first time she really connected with the place that she had heard so much about. She had just finished her highschool finals and boarded the once weekly international flight to Monrovia.
Archel: I had put on my freshest J-Lo inspired Velour tracksuit. It was baby blue.
Paul: As one does.
Archel: Yes, as one does in 2004. I thought I looked like J-Lo. Then I landed on this hot asphalt and I had never seen asphalt so hot where you could actually... I'd heard of you being able to fry an egg on the asphalt, but I actually was like, you could actually fry an egg on this asphalt because it was wide open. It was the first time I ever landed at an airport and they didn't have the jet bridge where they they push the stairs up to the airplane and you walk out on the asphalt into this house that's supposed to be an airport. The airport in Monrovia is about an hour outside of the city and we drove... 45 minutes of the hour is just, almost the stereotypical African shack houses, mud houses and just green and lush and beautiful on this one stretch of road, and just a few people walking up and down the road. I was like, "Wow, this is where I'm from.”
Paul: I kind of want to get a sense of why you decided to start Bombchel in the first place. Can you kind of give us that story?
Archel: I graduated from Georgia Tech in 2010, and at that time I had seen all my friends who had competitive GPA and internships finding it very, very hard for them to get jobs. I knew that with my GPA and the fact that I didn't really know what I wanted to do, I wasn't going to be seen as a special candidate or somebody... I didn't think that I would be competitive in the job market, so I said, "Why don't I go to Liberia, work a year there and then maybe that will give me some sort of experience that makes me valuable to somebody." Still not knowing what I was going to do in life, I moved to Liberia in 2011 and I just never left. I knew that I wanted to become the West African Oprah Winfrey. In my mind, the West African Oprah Winfrey had to wear West African clothes. I began to design clothes more out of a necessity than out of a desire. I would just design the clothes that I wanted to wear on air. Funny enough, nobody was interested in my hosting abilities. They would watch the shows and be like, I like your dress. I like your outfit. Can you make that for me? So the business started when I had my tailor who, because we don't have malls in Liberia, I had my tailor make a dress for me and it took her two weeks to make the dress. When I got there, my dresses ready, but also she was wearing a copy of my dress. She had another customer in there wearing a copy of my dress and she was making my dress for sale and I wasn't going to get any money from it. I was like, "Well, we have to change that." Then I made a bunch of different dresses, brought them to Atlanta and started to sell them. I started to sell clothes in the back of my pickup trucks and I outgrew the pickup truck, opened a shop, opened the shop on our one year anniversary. That was when I heard about Ebola, and at that time Ebola was so far out into the rural areas that I just didn't think it would affect me. Similar to how now when people were talking about Wuhan, they couldn't find Wuhan on a map. A lot of people didn't think that Corona would affect them, so I totally felt that dejavu, but when Ebola really spread, we had to close my shop down. I had to come back to Atlanta, sit down and kind of look around and see that what I was doing, my professional work, it was selfish work. It was just for me and I wanted to do something that would involve more people, create opportunities for more women. When I went back to Liberia after Ebola was kind of subsiding, I began construction on the factory. My father laid tiles while I was gone. When I came back, I started buying sewing machines and I was just basically selling one dress, saving half of that money and putting it into building this factory for women. That's how the factory came about.
Paul: Can you describe what the factory is like visually, just to kind of get a sense of that?
Archel: The factory is located inside what's called the YES Transport Compound. It's a compound that's been in my family since the 50s. Right now, my father manages it, but his father managed it before him. My shop actually used to be a bay where they would repair cars. They just sealed it up and put a door on it, and now it's a retail space. On top of my shop is the factory, and the factory, it's a labor of love. You walk in and there's this great big mural that says, create the things you wish existed and it has beautiful brown women and lots of color, pink doors. The women wear pink shirts, so it's just very bright and lively. Usually, when I go in there in the morning, Blessing is already at her workstation sewing things, playing music from her phone and dancing and singing. It's very airy. We don't have electricity in the factory because electricity is not consistent in Liberia. So we got foot pedals sewing machines. It's got great big windows that we can open to get a great cross breeze so that everybody is comfortable, and we have these great patchwork curtains just to kind of keep the color going through and remind us that we are the lucky ones. I always like to say that. We are the people in Liberia who get to come to a job that we love and feel respected and valued in our workspace, and so I think our space really reflects that.
Paul: Obviously Ebola and Coronavirus are very different, but it feels like going through something like that. What was Liberia like after Ebola started to lessen and go away? When things started to be like, we can get back to normal. What was that like?
Archel: I want to say that our economy never fully recovered. In 2013, my shop was making good money because we had all kinds of people, Liberian, what we call returnees, people who've come back after the war. Lots of ex-pats, lots of people, I would say definitely people were making a life for themselves. Once Ebola came and went, I haven't seen that kind of money flow through our economy anymore, so our normal has been a bit of a struggle is what I will say. I think that we've all kind of found a way to survive and thrive, but we're still trying to get our footing in the economy.
Paul: Can you describe where you're calling from? Is this where you're supposed to be right now?
Archel: Wow. That's amazing, actually. I am calling from my friend from college, her spare room (in Atlanta) because I was supposed to go back to Liberia April 1st. By that time, the government had already shut down the airport in Monrovia, so I wasn't able to make that flight.
Paul: How does that feel to not be where you're supposed to be?
Archel: I think because of the nature of the work that I do going between Liberia and Atlanta, I always feel like I'm in some sort of limbo. I can adapt to sleeping anywhere in any sort of environment. I just feel good and blessed to have a roof overtop of my head.
Paul: What happened on April 1st for you and for Bombchel?
Archel: I had been trying to raise money, sell things, whatever, so that I can make sure that I could send the women in Liberia at our factory a good bit of salary. I wanted to send them their salaries and then send them enough money to save so they could just sit at home and wait this out. I figured I would just keep sending them money every month when I got it from doing, Lord knows what. I had no idea what I would do in order to make money during this time, but I knew that I had to take care of my women because these are women who trust me with their livelihoods, basically. One of the women went to the factory to go pick up her salary and she said, "Well, we just bought all of our materials for our spring collection, so why don't we convert that. I saw these masks online. Let me see if I can make some masks." Within two hours, she sent me pictures of 10 samples of our masks, of the masks that we're distributing now. She was like, "We can do this for the community." She said we could sell these, and I was like, "Okay, let's see if I can get people to pay for them, for other people." It's a way that people could sponsor a mask for somebody in the Liberian community. That way the women in Liberia can still maintain their normal salaries and we're still doing something that can help people. I sent an email just to say, "Okay, the women in Liberia have started to make these masks. If you would sponsor 10 of them. It'll cost $50 to send 10 masks to different people in the community." My phone just started chiming off the hook for the whole day because people were so excited to help people in an already fragile country. Now, we're just coming off of another health crisis five years ago, right? Liberia can't take this. Already, the poorest country in the world had to deal with Ebola and now we're going to have to deal with Corona, so people, I think really understood that and it really brought out the humanity in them.
Paul: You said that these women in the factory trust you and obviously you have this relationship with them. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
Archel: We have six women who work in our factory. Blessing is the one who came up with the idea to make the masks and she is the youngest tailor that we have sewing. Basically, during Ebola she had signed up to do a fashion school program and the school had to shut down and so she became a nanny, but Blessing has this real love for Western culture and she likes to watch YouTube videos and read old magazines and really is into gossip and fashion and fun, things like that, like any 20 something would be interested in, but she doesn't have much access to these things. Anyways, I met her and she was like, "I'm really excited to join this program because I want to learn how to sew. I want to learn how to sew." She likes fashion. She wants to create her own fashion, so she's very creative in that way. Blessing now is able to pay for her two younger brothers to go to school. She pays for her own tuition and go to college because her mother sells Kool-Aid in the market.
Archel: We talk a lot about Beatrice because she was our first BombChel and she was an Ebola widow. Basically, her husband was working in the mines. He developed Ebola and somebody called her and said, "Your husband has Ebola. He's going to the hospital." She gets to the hospital, and for three days, she walks around unable to find her husband. It's not like America where there's a chart or something like that. She's also not able to read or write and she has no formal skills. Finally on the third day, she met the man who drove her husband to the hospital and he said that he died on the way. He didn't even ever make it to the hospital and they'd already disposed of the body because during Ebola you have to burn the body. She goes back to her community and the community thinks that she's bringing Ebola to them, so they outcast her. She then had to move across town where nobody knew her and she started to sell fish.
Archel: Every day she would go to the fishermen, buy this raw fish and hope that somebody would buy it from her, so that she could make an income. When she came to me, she didn't have any formal skills. Now she's our longest serving BombChel. She's able to pay for her daughter to go to school, which is very important because she is the first woman in her family to receive any sort of education. Beatrice is a really valuable part of our story and I'll tell you about one more. Our senior member of our staff is Louise. Louise is, we call her Sis Louise because that's a sign of respect in Liberia. She has a large family, but her husband used to beat her. She is a domestic abuse survivor, and when she started making enough money with the BombChel factory, she started to fix up her own house and she moved out and moved her family with her. Now, she has a safe home that she pays all the bills for. Those are just some of the stories of the women who work with us and why it was so important for us to make sure that these women kept their salaries.
Paul: That's amazing. earlier you said that you'd started working and it was selfish for yourself, now it sounds like it's the exact opposite.
Archel: Absolutely, and that was the point. That was the point for me was I knew that fashion could provide opportunities for so many other people the way that it provided opportunities for me.
Paul: Are you still making clothing? Are there still orders coming in? How's that side of the business working right now?
Archel: Right now, we're a masks factory. I always say we just woke up and now we are a mask factory. We're no longer a clothing factory. We still sell clothes on our website, and so many of our generous supporters have ordered things knowing that the Liberian airport is closed, so we can't get anything out to you right now and they're like, "That's okay. We're patient." I'm so grateful for them and for that. We are still making their orders, but they're all sitting until we can mail them.
Paul: Yeah, and then the rest is just masks, masks, masks.
Archel: We're currently able to sell more masks than we were clothing because I think a mask is just like a bright pop of color on your face. You can wear whatever you want, but you still have that in unity. You're wearing the African print over your face, the same as our women are in Liberia. I think right now there's a panic motion, so people are buying masks out of fear and out of, I want to protect myself, I need to protect myself. This is what I'm using for that. I think in the future, because I don't think we're going to stop wearing masks anytime soon, I think they're going to become a form of self-expression. It's like you see this African mask and you know that you're affiliated with us or just like, I want to wear this colorful thing or just try out this fun print. I think that this is going to be the new fashion statement in 10 years when people look back at a time capsule of now, they're going to see some really funky masks that help us express ourselves, so I'm into it. Each day they try to make about 100 masks, and so today we went and distributed masks in the Old Road Market.Beatrice went into the market and gave them out to women in the Old Road marketplace because while the government came and said, "Okay, you guys need to wear masks now and practice social distancing." They didn't really explain what that meant and they didn't have masks for them. It felt really good to be able to go there and say, "Okay, here's something that you can, use this to try to help you out right now."
Paul: Yeah. I know everything is basically up in the air and uncertain at the moment, but if you had a crystal ball to look into the future of BombChel, what do you think you would see once all of this is over, once things have gotten back to whatever state they get to, whether it's normal or something different, what do you kind of see for the business?
Archel: I really want retail locations that can share with the world what a new African shopping experience is like. and I want to show that African fashion is truly a part of global fashion. It’s not just one kind of person that can wear it or experience it. And also I'm excited to see how my women grow. I want to see my employees come to the States and train people here. I know that there's this feeling that first world has to train the third world or the developing nations, but I think that there's so many things that we could teach other people and I want to see my woman come here and participate in some of that knowledge exchange. I would just love to see how we can grow our presence as the Bombchel factory and kind of break some of those stereotypes and get more women in some of this really fun African fashion.
Paul: Yeah, that would be amazing. Have you seen, I guess a reluctance from people who aren't West African, white people I guess for maybe feeling weird wearing those clothes?
Archel: Totally, because nobody wants to seem like they're wearing a costume. People are very nervous about appropriation and I get it, totally. That's why we design so many different pieces is because I believe that there's something for everybody, and I'm always excited to help people find their something. It's like no other feeling in the world, and somebody on Twitter said, "I bought some hoops from you before the earrings because they're subtle." Then she got an email that said, "Sisters of all shades." She took that as, yes, you white woman can wear African fashion, and so she bought a skirt and she said she gets compliments on her skirt all the time.
Paul: You have had to deal with another crazy health scare, right? I've had to pivot and had to become more resilient from it, so if you could speak to that.
Archel: Yeah, I think that we become more successful as a business when we really pay attention to what the community around us needs. Every time that I have sunk back into being a selfish business, our business has not grown. It's kind of like when you get in the water and you get a little scared and you start flailing your arms, it doesn't help you swim. You just kind of sink, and I think that when you pay attention to the environment, when you pay attention to the community, when you pay attention to the water and you just kind of calmly step out and do the best that you can, that's when you find the most success. For us, it has really been an act of listening and paying attention to what people need, and that has been the biggest gift for us financially with our brand, with our reputation. For us, we raised a lot of money to make these masks, and so we're distributing masks. This is not an opportunity for us to make money to just sit down and split it amongst people, no. Everything that we say we're going to do, we should do because people recognize integrity and they want to buy into brands that have integrity now more than ever.
Paul: Yeah. I mean, I 100% agree with everything that you said. What would you say to a business that thinks maybe that's not true or maybe that all altruistic stuff is good for other businesses, but not for mine?
Archel: I think people are seeing through it right now. Every day I open my email or I check the news and they're talking about who received the small business bailouts that shouldn't have and people are getting dragged, okay? Right now, while information is so easily shared and free flowing, even if you don't have a heart to give, you should give just because you want to be on the right side of this situation. If you don't lead with integrity, it'll catch up to you. It will absolutely catch up to you. So for us it’s so interesting because it’s when people buy the masks to donate, when they sponsor a mask for a Liberian that mask is going to a Liberian.I think that people sprung into action to sponsor masks for women who they will never meet to make an income for a community that they will probably never visit to heal.
Paul: It feels comforting as well to know that right now we could be becoming more isolated or wanting to be more selfish or wanting to just take care of ourselves. When you're seeing the opposite happen, that makes me feel really good that the opposite is in fact happening right now.
Archel: Something that I've noticed working in Africa for the past decade, but also being American is I feel there's this feeling that Africans or people in developing nations are waiting for some big savior to come. As someone who's from Liberia, where our women ended the war, where our community activism ended Ebola and community activism, again, will kick Corona out of Liberia. I know that we are willing to take action and we're not waiting for a savior to come make something happen for us. I'm just so grateful that my mother taught me to lead with love and compassion and we were able to do that. Then that as a result, let us to be able to just step up and do what we could.
Paul: While Bombchel has transitioned from making bright clothing to masks (which are equally bright), her business hasn’t changed much. She didn’t start doing the right thing because right now required it, she was already doing the right thing, and simply adjusted a little to what was needed at present. Archel’s factory has always had a mission of creating social change through fashion. The only difference now is they’re doing it through masks, as well as colourful skirts and big hoop earrings. Archel treats the women who work with her with respect and dignity. Many of them are making a living salary for the first time. Many of them, seeing a literally bright and shining example of how an entrepreneur can work to fix the social divide, are curious and eager to start their own enterprises. These women have faced war and epidemics before, and come through the other side. And I know that they’ll do the same with this. If you’d like to check out their clothes, their website is shopbombchel.com - spelled B O M B C H E L. I promise you their clothing will brighten your day.
Call Paul is produced by Ruth Eddy and is a Mailchimp Original Podcast. Subscribe now on your favourite podcast platform, so you can get new episodes every Thursday. To learn more about my thoughts on business and living online, you can hop on my newsletter at sundaydispatches.com. If you’re a small business who’s adapting and shining now, we want to hear from you, so send us an email to email@example.com
Let’s face it: Things are far from “business as usual.” Paul Jarvis has thoughtful conversations with small business owners and entrepreneurs negotiating new economic realities from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s face it: Things are far from “business as usual.” Paul Jarvis has thoughtful conversations with small business owners and entrepreneurs negotiating new economic realities from the COVID-19 pandemic.
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