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COVID-19 Impact on a Growing Start-Up

by Saba Kamaras |

 By Saba Kamaras

Chief Operating Officer at Abilitee Adaptive Wear

Abilitee CEO Saba Karamas
Saba spent eight years working in fashion design in NYC before earning her MBA from Texas McCombs at UT Austin. After learning about adaptive clothing needs from her niece, Eva, she found out about Abilitee and wanted to come on board! In her spare time, she likes gardening, baking, and exploring ghost towns.

As the Chief Operating Officer at Abilitee Adaptive Wear, I manage daily operations, planning, and logistics for Abilitee. You’ve probably read dozens of letters from various company founders (including ours, I hope!) sharing how COVID-19 is impacting their business. I want to be honest with our audience, to share what it’s been like for our team over the last few weeks - without pretending like we're just breezing through business as usual.

Our first priority is our team. Every staff member is integral in building this company, so we want to make sure they stay not only safe but also remain employed. At a scary time when so many people are losing their jobs, even temporarily, we’re striving to keep everyone employed at the same level as before. We’ve modified all our working schedules and responsibilities to make sure we can do that. To keep our team (and customers!) safe, we are avoiding all in-person contact with one another, and allow only one person in the office at a time. We take shifts at the office for necessary activities – like picking up materials or shipping orders – and have a hygiene safety protocol that each of us follows before leaving the office. In essence, "you touch it, you wipe it" (with sanitizing wipes, of course. Fortunately, we sell primarily online, rather than through brick-and-mortar retail. This has saved us from the level of disruption that retail-based brands are currently experiencing – having to close their doors indefinitely. Even so, we still operate under a high level of uncertainty, especially in regards to shipping and supply-chain management. It is also unclear how customer behavior will change: Some plans and new product launches are on hold because of manufacturing or supplier issues. We’ve applied for the Small Business Administration loans to help to keep everyone on payroll, but there’s a long line of others doing the same thing.

Abilitee Seamstress
Featured: Abilitee seamstress volunteering time to make masks

Domestic and international suppliers are facing delays or shutdowns. One LA factory was shut down days before sending us a large order, while the leading supplier of PUL fabric, used for feeding tube pads and ostomy products, was slammed with orders to make protective gear. We also manufacture items in-house but have had to reschedule everyone’s work hours so that we can take turns being physically present in the office without coming in contact with one another. This makes us less flexible to order changes; in-house work now has to be planned days in advance. Luckily, our team is incredible and nimble, so I’m proud to say we’ve shipped almost all orders on time. Of course, there are significant shipping delays across the board with both domestic and international shipments. Some post offices are closed, and all shipping carriers are swamped as more people order items so they can stay home. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about this, but be thankful that so many workers in the shipping industry are still doing their jobs to allow the rest of us some level of normalcy.

Thousands of fashion brands have canceled their manufacturing orders, causing immense ripple effects for garment workers everywhere. Even factories in the US had their orders canceled. It’s frustrating to hear so many in the industry talk about ethical production and sustainable manufacturing and then see these kinds of actions that will devastate overseas apparel workers.

Masking making at Abilitee

featured: PPE sewing at Abilitee

While it was (and still is) a gloomy and frightening outlook for millions of us in the apparel industry, there are things to be proud of. Within days of the shortage of medical supplies for healthcare workers, new message boards and platforms were built by industry resources to connect those who may be able to help. Changing what your factory makes requires a swift overhaul of existing supply chains, and these message boards allow for quick connection building. Brands and manufacturers pivoted to create Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) instead of the dresses, shoes, or jackets they usually make. Domestic factories that lost orders for apparel items are now getting hospital and government contracts for PPE.

Since everyone is busy making items for healthcare workers, we won’t be outsourcing our products for some time. Even our Abilitee seamstresses volunteered their own time to make masks for those who needed them! This reset could cause a long-term change in the industry, hopefully for the better. From my point of view, I’m happy that we can fulfill orders and grateful that we can keep our staff employed and safe at the same time.

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