DURHAM, N.C. ( MainStreet) -- Rachel Weeks, founder of collegiate fashion company School House, became an entrepreneur before she even finished college.
As a student at Duke University, she got a grant to build a socially responsible clothing company and traveled to Sri Lanka to do it. There she started making fashion-forward T-shirts for the collegiate customer in a small, "living-wage" garment factory she says she supported for two years. The first order was shipped in April 2009 -- to Duke University, of course.
School House does about $1 million in sales in a $4 billion market, but that just means it has room to grow, founder Rachel Weeks says.
Since then, School House has expanded its roster of clients to 100 colleges across the U.S. and one in Canada, with five full-time employees. School House has since manufacturing back to the U.S., during a time it's needed "more than ever," Weeks says. "The success of our brand has been a testament to two things -- our take on collegiate design and tailoring each collection by honoring campus-specific trends and cultural idiosyncrasies of each school," she says. Commingling the words "fashion," "feminism" and "social responsibility" into her interview with TheStreet, Weeks and School House are an obvious choice for winner of this year's SCORE Outstanding Woman-owned Small Business. How did you get into this line of work?Weeks: When I was at Duke, I just really felt like there was a lack of good design and lifestyle apparel. It was really dominated by Nike ( NIKE) and unisex clothing, boxy T-shirts and sweatshirts. The fashion product that was there was covered in rhinestones -- it was "Pink it and shrink it." I just observed that the college market really seemed to be 10 years behind in general retail fashion trends. And the retailers in the space were just not in tune with their customers, and I think that a lot of that had to do with the fact that they're textbook stores. They were going through painful transitions from selling textbooks to becoming spirit shops. I just observed that there was a need and imagined a product that was still traditional collegiate apparel, but that was more trend-driven and more modern. I had that idea and simultaneously was doing this research about the apparel industry. And it was like, "What a perfect market to have a fashion-driven, socially responsible brand." Our main emphasis was on the concept of a living wage, as opposed to minimum wage, which may or may not be enough for workers to live on. In Sri Lanka, the factory that we were working with we immediately required them to pay from 50 rupees up to 170 rupees an hour. We're bringing that concept to American factories as well. It's been a little bit more challenging -- we're not big enough as a brand to convert factories overnight, and so we have made an effort to select out factories that are already paying above-average salary. I'm interested in everything from eco-friendly fabrics to sourcing local -- buying components that were manufactured here in North Carolina rather than buying zippers from China.