Founder and CEO Nicholina Womack sees manufacturing as a vehicle to improve people’s lives.
Womack’s background as a social justice activist led her to work with disadvantaged youth on the Wasatch Front. “It just grabbed me by my soul and I was hooked,” she says. “What do we have to do on a micro level to make big, system-wide change?”
Her passion for the area led her to start FutureINDesign (FIND) in 2017 to help young adults “overcome barriers to employment,” says Womack.
She started in the Rose Park neighborhood in Salt Lake City where she grew up. “We have so many young people who are really bright, very talented, but they don’t have the resources to finish college,” she says. “You have to have a lot of means to get through that entire four-year degree.”
Now a hybrid nonprofit/social enterprise, FIND expanded to adults after officials in Price, Utah, approached her in 2018. “They came to me and said, ‘What you’re able to do with young adults, do you think you can do with adults?'”
Womack was initially reluctant. “Adults are hard,” she says. That concrete is cemented, and you’ve got to break through that concrete. With teenagers, it’s still a little moldable.”
But she changed her mind after realizing there was potential for a big impact, and launched FIND Manufacturing in Price in 2019.
Price had a ready cut-and-sew workforce that had largely idled since a jeans manufacturer, Caress of California, shuttered its factory there in the mid-1990s, “literally, the day after NAFTA was passed,” says Womack. “Everything went over to Mexico.”
“In 1980, you had single moms making $16 an hour,” she adds. “After they left, there wasn’t a lot of diversity in employment opportunities in the area.”
After learning that Caress had been a major provider of jobs in Price in the 1970s and ’80s, Womack positioned FIND Manufacturing to fill that void. The approach differed from likeminded initiatives by focusing on manufacturing.
“We keep talking about STEM, but manufacturing gets left out — we’re thinking engineering, but we’re not thinking manufacturing,” says Womack. “So many people . . . were going into these rural communities saying, ‘We’re here to save you. We’re going to make you all computer programmers and it’ll equal the wages you were making in mining, and it’ll be perfect.”
But those initiatives largely flopped, she adds. “We were able to listen and ask, ‘What do these people want to do? What are they good at? What’s in their DNA?'”
Today, FIND Manufacturing is leveraging that talent pool in its 16,000-square-foot facility in Price. The parent organization, FutureINDesign, has 22 employees, and FIND Manufacturing has 15 participants working in production. The program for young adults, now also based in Price, has 19 participants.
The operation’s forte is sewn goods outside of apparel, including home decor, outdoor gear, and other accessories. The crew has made upwards of 20,000 pillowcases in a week for Lindon, Utah-based Pillow Cube. “We helped them go from Kickstarter to Costco,” says Womack. “They were not able to keep up with demand, and we just got their weekly order done in two days this week.”
In 2020, FIND Manufacturing pivoted in response to the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage. Womack says she was able to hire 75 workers as many local businesses laid off employees. “Our team stepped up, worked with the state, and made over 100,000 masks and about 12,000 hospital gowns,” she notes.
Womack sees a big opening to help outdoor brands manufacture domestically. “Tell Patagonia to give us a call,” she laughs. “We need some of those bigger brands to put action behind their corporate-responsibility speak. A lot of them say, ‘Let’s do made in America, let’s be more sustainable,’ and the customers, that’s what they want right now.”
FIND Manufacturing offers a platform for big brands to walk the talk. “We offer that in a nutshell,” says Womack.
The organization relies on contract jobs as well as donations and grant funding to support its programs. “With the adult program, they have a work-and-learn program, so they’re working and getting paid, but we’re also taking them through very intensive soft-skills programming,” says Womack.
As of early 2022, FIND Manufacturing’s first cohorts had numerous success stories. “We’ve seen some amazing growth from these individuals,” says Womack. “Some of them wouldn’t even get out of their car because they were so afraid of people, and now they’re some of our best leaders.”
Womack has big plans for FutureINDesign all over Utah, expanding her program with young adults to Kearns on the Wasatch Front in 2022 while working to help adult graduates start their own manufacturing businesses.
“We are partnered with our local college, Utah State University Eastern, and they’re going to start providing business classes and advanced manufacturing classes, so the adults can start their own micro-factories.”
As participants complete the 18-month program, FIND Manufacturing “will work with the local SBA and EDCs to set them up as micro-factories in their homes,” says Womack. “We’re getting ready to pilot our first micro-factory, which we’re really excited about.”
Womack says she’s pleased with her organization’s progress in its first five years. “We’re leveraging both capitalism and social justice — and I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive at all. I think the solutions are in the middle.”
Challenges: “Getting the brands to commit to having a good percentage of their manufacturing here in the United States,” says Womack. “I think that’s going to be the challenge.”
Opportunities: Expanding the FIND Manufacturing model to other rural communities in Utah over the next five years. “Our goal is to scale from where we’re at down to Green River down to Moab and then on down to San Juan County,” says Womack. “Our goal is to open about three or four training facilities. . . . The ultimate vision is for this to move into being one large, localized, and networked supply chain.” She says the long-term plan might even include yarn and textile manufacturing.
Labor is not a bottleneck, says FutureINDesign Chief Marketing Officer Becky Guertler. “If we had 50 jobs, we would probably be able to fill them.”
Womack also points to opportunities to expand beyond cut-and-sew with the micro-factory model. “Maybe they’re doing micro-factories with 3D printing. Maybe they’re doing it in welding,” she says. “Our biggest economic superpower societies that we have currently have in the world, they actually started with cut-and-sew manufacturing and then moved up the value chain over time.”
But the overarching opportunity is to improve people’s lives. “I think we have this opportunity right now to uplift women, uplift women of color, uplift individuals from generational poverty and disenfranchised communities, and move them into being business owners,” says Womack.
Needs: “We’re trying to get a full-time social worker in, because a lot of these people have dealt with serious amounts of trauma,” says Womack. “But the biggest need is work. The more work that comes in, the more people we’re able to serve.”