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Meet Christine Wyman of Social Catalysts Charitable Foundation in Stow

Today we’d like to introduce you to Christine Wyman.

Christine, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’ve seen first-hand the challenges that individuals with disabilities face, both through the people I’m close to, and through my volunteer work with an organization that provides services for individuals with cognitive disabilities. While exploring another social venture idea, my partner and I discovered the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is very high, by some measures, as high as 90%. Around the same time, I was trying to recycle some old videotapes and I couldn’t find a place to take them. My partner and I started looking into videotape recycling and found a company that made machine-woven fabric out of audiotape. We thought we’d try it with videotape but with a twist: we’d create jobs for individuals with disabilities to weave the videotape into fabric.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Like any small business we have faced some challenges. The original mechanized looms we considered were very noisy and we were concerned that the loud noise would not work with our individuals. So we shifted to hand-weaving where the weaver controls the movement of the shuttle. This is how fabric was made in the 1700’s. It’s much less noisy and it gives our workers control over the process. That change from machine-weaving to hand-weaving affected our costs but resulted in a better environment for our workers.

Weaving quality was also an issue at the start. There were defects due to mistakes in loading the yarn onto the loom or in weaving. We’ve refined the process and now we’re really proud of our product. We’ve had professional weavers comment on how nice the fabric looks.

We are working with a non-traditional fabric (think Project Runway!) and the material is not the easiest to sew. We work with skilled seamstresses to create our beautiful bags and accessories and they can be a challenge to find. There’s a whole generation that hasn’t been training in sewing. No one does Home Ec. anymore!

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Social Catalysts Charitable Foundation – what should we know?
Social Catalysts makes products out of fabric made from recycled videotape. The fabric is hand woven by individuals with disabilities who are paid for their work. From this beautiful hand-woven fabric with a bit of shine from the videotape, our seamstresses and designers create products such as purses, tote bags and accessories. We’ve got key chains, coin purses and much more—some with novel designs.

Many individuals with disabilities are not able to work in the community. I’m proud that we are making difference in their lives. It was a great moment when I heard that one of our workers was able to get a job in the community.

What sets us apart? There are lots of craft businesses out there, but we’re a nonprofit social enterprise, selling products to support a social cause. Our social benefit is two-fold: we create jobs for people with disabilities and reduce waste in the environment.

And…most products on the market are not hand-woven. That’s our core competence.

How do you, personally, define success? What’s your criteria, the markers you’re looking out for, etc?
We know we’re successful when we have a positive impact on people’s lives. Part of our impact is to open up the conversation about what people with disabilities can do and advance the dialogue on waste recycling and reuse. There is a lot of focus now on reuse, which is really what we’re doing—reusing uses less resources than processing the material.

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