We are excited to feature this interview with the founder of Neococo, Amrita Thadani. We will be featuring more sustainable and women-powered companies here in the upcoming months.
Neococo is a mission first company with 100% of it's revenue directed back to the company to hire and assist refugee women. This clothing line creates job opportunities for women and trains and hires women via refugee resettlement agencies such as I.R.C and the Catholic Charities.
The t-shirts from Neococo feature hand embroidered designs and the company works with local factories in downtown Los Angeles.
Here is our interview with Amrita!
Kaila: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the fashion industry?
Amrita: I grew up in India and ever since I started working I was in the fashion industry. I was assisting a photographer with a little bit of styling and soon I was doing commercials and print, working with magazines on features and eventually I started working on films.
While I was working on films I started working with a lot of smaller NGOs, who worked with artisans and designers using a lot of hand-embroidery techniques. It was amazing working with them because I learned so much about hand-embroidery, and then I continued working in films and then eventually ended up coming to the United States where I studied at Parsons in New York. I completed a program in fashion and I continued working in New York for a few years before I ended up in California.
Kaila: So how did you go about starting Neococo?
Amrita: So Neococo came about a couple of years ago when I was still working at that time with a stylist. While I was working with her, on the weekends I was volunteering my time with different resettlement agencies, where I would meet up with displaced women and speak to them at length. I learned what were the things that were important to them, and how I could best help them get resettled.
We were often able to find them a place to stay but the most pressing issue that often remained was that they didn't have a job. And while we were talking, hand embroidering came up, because culturally I realized that all of the women that I met from Syria or Iran or from Goa they just knew how to hand embroider it was something they just grew up doing.
Also, the age group of most of the women trying to resettle were of the age groups of 45 to 65. They would share with me about how it's not easy for them to get a job at this point in their life, it's not easy for them to start all over again.
Also, you had to factor in that they speak the language here, which was a barrier and also that they didn't drive. So at that point I came up with the idea of Neococo, because I already had a background in fashion, I knew how to hand embroider.
Ultimately we decided that we would design artwork and to be hand embroidered on t-shirts. So we came up with a few samples. We wanted it to be different from other t-shirts and we started distributing t-shirts to friends and just getting the word out there. It was really well received so we decided to go ahead with it.
Kaila: Amazing! Everything is made in Los Angeles?
Amrita: Yes, we work with the factory in downtown Los Angeles, sourcing their excess fabrics. It's a really small factory but it's amazing the way they function. It's owned by Carlos and he has seven women that work with him. It feels really good because in the two years that I have been working with them I've seen such growth in the women that work there.
It's truly become this community that he's building and I feel like so fortunate to have these two groups of women that I work with, at the factory being one of them and the women refugees that we are working with. It's really empowering to see how collectively and locally we are making a difference.
Kaila: How long does it take to hand embroider a t-shirt?
Amrita: We trained the women for two to three weeks before we hired them and we get them used to the artwork. The stitch that we do is really simple, it's either a running stitch or a loop stitch which is really easy to do once you get the hang of it. So it really varies on how much time the t-shirts take, like the simpler ones that you see on our website it can take anywhere between five minutes, and the more complicated ones can take up to an hour and a half.
Kaila: What are some of the challenges that you faced with starting the company?
Amrita: Like any other start-up, marketing and getting people to know what we do is a huge challenge. Once people see us, we always get such positive feedback about the product that we are selling, but it's such a mission-driven company and it can be difficult to get the message out there. Also the market is so saturated, there are so many brands right now, for example, if I search online for t-shirt companies there are over 20,000 t-Shirt companies.
The second challenge that we face is that we have two focuses, one being the building of the lives and welfare of the women refugees and the second is selling of the product. So it's almost like two companies in one, so that is another challenge for us.
We are not a company asking for charitable donations or with proceeds going to charity. It's difficult to educate people on the fact that these women are being hired by us, and they work with us full-time and we pay them per t-shirt. So that's another challenge that we face, because often people ask ,what percentage of sales goes to the refugee women but we have to explain that we actually hire these women, they are part of our company.
And this for me is a huge difference in the traditional charity model because we actually work with these women, we get to know them and build a relationship with them. We're working with them every day, forming this community where we see these women and we learn about them, we get to know them and we see the progress that they are making.
So it's very different from me just giving a percentage to an organization where we have no idea where the money is going exactly. It's very important that we are able to observe the progress that is happening in the lives of these women that are working with us.
Kaila: Are there any standout stories from the women on the team?
Amrita: Yes, we also work with homeless women, one of our employees had been on the street for four to five years. She was on the streets living close to the Women's Downtown Center and at some point they offered her a room to stay. So she started getting her life back on track and she started working with me full-time.
I met her at the start of 2018 and I she shared that she hadn't seen her kids in many years. Her kids live in Sacramento, she had a really bad relationship with her husband, and the kids now live with him so she's not met her kids or her husband in many years.
Later on that year, we asked her what she wanted to do for Christmas, and she said that she would want to see her kids. So we helped her save some money and make a plan with her, we worked with her closely.
Sometimes all people need is the motivation that someone is there to help you and guide you towards your goals. It's not just about handing them the money to do it, it's about joining them in the process and cheering them along the sidelines.
So ultimately she made it to Sacramento for Christmas and she did meet her kids , so that was really success story. Another one that happened at the start of this year, was a woman from Iraq who had been working with us during the summer. She had moved from Iraq to Turkey and from Turkey to Los Angeles.
During that move, her kids lost three years of education while they were in transition. When she got to Los Angeles they were living in a studio apartment, three of them, her older son now works fulltime and the younger son is studying to be a doctor, so they both have very different schedule in terms of work.
It was very hard for them to live under one roof, the older son would come back from work and he probably just wanted to relax and watch TV. But the younger son would come back from work and want to spend a quiet evening studying. What she was able to do while working with us is to make enough extra money so that she could move into to an apartment right next to her older son so that she and her younger son had that extra space to do their thing, and the older son has his own space. So small things like that, it just makes such a big difference in their lives.
Also when we are working with them, they are so appreciative of everything, but at the same time they are just so humble about the entire whole experience.
Kaila: What's next for Neococo?
Amrita: We want to continue doing the work that we are doing, we have a small team - we want to build and grow on the number of women that are joining us. Another thing that I would really like is to have is have a space where all of these women can come together and work under one roof, so it's not just everyone is working individually on their own.
It would nice to have them all come to work Monday to Friday. Ultimately I would love to have a storefront where we could sell products that are made by these woman, and at the same time I can train them to sell the products that they are making.
Kaila: I love that. Where can everyone find you?
Amrita: We have an online store at Neococo.com, you can find all of our merchandise in our shop section, and Instagram @neococo, also we are at a store in downtown LA, it's called Gallerie La, we are there as well.