When Molly Hemstreet graduated from Duke and returned to her hometown of Morganton, North Carolina, she was distressed to see high unemployment and many in need. Molly knew the big textile companies were gone, but that many skilled workers and other resources remained. Using her background in international development, community activism and education, she developed a vision for a different kind of textile business.
Today Molly is the founder and a worker-owner of Opportunity Threads, a thriving business in Morganton. Unlike the textile giants of days past, Opportunity Threads serves other small businesses to make custom apparel and sewn goods. And in a very different twist, the business is owned and operated by the men and women who work there, the majority of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants from Guatemala.
“It’s rewarding to help people move into a more secure livelihood,” Molly says. “Since there’s no middle person, everyone gets a fair share of profits. And because each owner has a real stake, we all work incredibly hard and make the business flourish.”
Since Self-Help has a branch office in Morganton, it seemed destined that Self-Help and Opportunity Threads would meet. After all, Self-Help originally started 35 years ago with an interest in forming worker-owned businesses. Our branch manager Sylvia Ross and other staff* in the area got to know Molly and brainstormed on how to help workers build savings and qualify for loans. The problem wasn’t that Opportunity Threads workers had bad credit; the bigger obstacle was they didn’t have any credit at all.
To overcome these challenges, Self-Help worked closely with Opportunity Threads to create a financial services program designed specifically for the workers. Although the workers may start out with limited savings, over time they earn equity in the business. Self-Help helped the business pool that equity so that it can be used to support loans for the workers--for example, as a down payment for buying a home.
All of the worker-owners are now building savings through Self-Help accounts, and one worker recently bought her first home with Self-Help financing.
“Banking is a new to many on our staff,” Molly said. “It makes sense to approach it one step at a time, beginning with saving. Self-Help has been beside us every step of the way, and we’re grateful to have a credit union that’s also a partner.”
*A team of Self-Helpers have worked with Opportunity Threads, including Jane Hatley, Jessica Phelan, Jojo Story, Robbin Cassida, Vicki Rodriguez, John Herrera, Esteve Coll-Larrosa and Kristen Cox.