A few years back, and halfway through a Master’s degree in Business Administration, Kansas City native John Pryor realized he didn’t want to spend his life in a “digital nothingness.” So he left his corporate tech job in Boston and moved home, looking to recover from the stress of the tech world by retreating to a workshop where he could craft furniture by hand.
Creating tangible things, he said, “made me come alive.”
Earlier this year the 40-year-old opened a showroom called Madison Flitch where he could display and sell his artisan furniture pieces.
Then the pandemic hit.
Pryor, like many others, was hit hard by the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic. He feared his budding business wouldn’t be able to survive. He needed to pivot.
In the early days of the pandemic there was a desperate need for masks, so Pryor pounced, transforming his showroom into a mask-making operation. It was a decision he now realizes was an absurd idea, considering he didn’t even know how to work a sewing machine. But he couldn’t let his business collapse.
Pryor took a sewing lesson, at one point becoming so frustrated that he rested his chin on top of the sewing table in defeat
“What did I get myself into?” he remembered thinking.
Nevertheless, Pryor pushed on. He launched the masks on his website on a Wednesday, and by Friday he had thousands of orders, way more than he had planned for. He thought he’d make 50 to 100 masks a week with his part-time assistant, but that plan was thrown out the window.
The volume of orders was too much for him to handle alone. He needed help. So, again, he pivoted.
A connection at Downtown Council of Kansas City recommended Pryor reach out to Kansas City’s Refugee Employment Services, Rightfully Sewn and Catholic Charities to find people who knew how to sew and could help fill the burgeoning demand coming from all 50 states, even other countries.
Soon after, women were knocking on Pryor’s door, sewing samples in hand. Within a short time he had 60 employees helping to make masks. Many of his new seamstresses were from communities unfamiliar to him. They were refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and Afghanistan.
Included in the team is a family of five women from Afghanistan. When they approached Pyror about jobs making masks, they said they could produce 500 a day from the home the women share.
At first, Pryor laughed. His newfound sewing skills had him making about 30 masks a day.
But he gave the women the material anyway. The next day they handed him 500 masks. He couldn’t believe it.
“I thought of it like a war effort,” said Pryor, also a historian, as he conjured images of factories converted to supply war needs in generations past.
He replaced his woodworking machines with sewing machines. His showroom became a supply closet and an expensive desk he crafted was turned into a shipping table.
“It was madness there for a while,” said Pryor, who had been working 16 hour days. “I was tired, I was cranky, I missed my family.”
But he had a larger goal in sight.
His team made a commitment early on to donate one mask to a medical professional for every one sold.
“All of us felt not only like it was an effort just to keep this business afloat, but to do something good for the community,” he said.
So far, they have donated more than 10,000 masks to healthcare workers.
While striving to help supply the community and healthcare professionals with masks, however, Pryor also created a place where women — and those from refugee communities — could find meaningful work.
The pandemic has taken a particular toll on women in the workforce. According to an NPR report, four times more women than men left the U.S. workforce in September.
But at Madison Stitch, women are finding new career opportunities.
Lasi Jaroi is one such women who came to Pryor’s aide and in the process found a career again. Jaroi answered the call to action from her pastor at the Myanmar Christian Church. He asked if she’d be willing to take up a part-time job sewing masks.
It was the beginning of the pandemic at the time, and she recalled being captivated by a recording she’d seen of a scared nurse tearfully talking with a TV news crew.
“Of course,” Jaroi told her pastor.
Jaroi has spent more than two decades as a seamstress and a dress-maker. She took up the trade in her home country of Burma before moving to America, and after spending five years at home caring for her two young sons, Jaroi longed for a career again.
Finding a job at Madison Stitch allowed her to watch her children during the day and sew masks in the evening once they went to bed.
“What is just remarkable is just seeing people from every walk of life, from every background you can imagine, come together with the single-minded focus to fight something that was threatening the community,” Pryor said.
His team wasn’t what he initially imagined assembling, but it was born out of necessity, and being in a tight spot from the onset led to a serendipitous result.
“The attention on getting the job done has allowed us to uncover an incredible amount of beauty, skill and attitude that I’d never encountered before in my multiple careers,” he said.
He wanted to give a platform to not only the women’s skills, but their stories.
When mask demand diminished significantly about two months into the pandemic, Pryor decided to shift focus again, but this time to handbags. Everyone on his team could submit a bag design for consideration. And unlike Madison Flitch, Pryor’s new sewing business, called Madison Stitch, is female-driven.
When their first collection launched over the summer, the bag designers included a local high school math teacher, a pregnant immigrant mother from Myanmar and a refugee from Afghanistan.
As the mask business transformed into a bag business, Jaroi was eager to learn how to work with leather. And when Pryor approached the employees about designing handbags, hers was one of the first selected. Jaroi now works as one of two on-site employees making handbags and receives a commission on bags sold.
“There’s a lot it meant to me,” she said Wednesday as she worked on her next bag prototype, which is inspired by the petals on a flower. “Opportunity is at any corner, any corner, you can’t tell.”
Pryor said it’s been humbling and inspiring to watch something so beautiful come from a crisis so painful.
While there is sometimes a language barrier between Pryor and the women, he said he gets to watch them speak creatively through their work.
The artisans at Madison Stitch are now in the process of submitting designs for their second and third collection of bags made from locally-sourced wood, leather and linen. Pryor said the sales have been able to keep them afloat, but he hopes sales pick up around the holidays so that they make enough to hire more women full-time into the shop.
“(The bags) are a true reflection of and celebration of Kansas City and what we are,” he said. “It’s like farm to table, but handbags.”
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