Print It Forward: This Screen-Printing Business Supports Immigrants and Refugees in the Community
Molly Luethi and Kei Tsuzuki are the brains and guardian angels behind Kei & Molly Textiles, a company with a cause. When they met 10 years ago, at the Albuquerque school both of their kids attended, Swiss-born Luethi had run a children's language program for decades, and Tsuzuki, born in Japan and raised in Canada, had worked in immigrant women's economic development. "We call ourselves the family," says Tsuzuki, pictured below with Luethi. "It's important to us to support everyone not just financially, but with whatever else is happening in their lives."
The Spark of an Idea
The pair quickly realized they shared a dream: to support the city's refugee and immigrant communities—10 percent of its population—through a for-profit social enterprise. They began by pooling their talents. Tsuzuki, an MBA with a creative streak, taught Luethi, who speaks four languages, how to screen-print at her kitchen table. They made 135 flour-sack dish towels for the local elementary school's holiday crafts sale, and sold out within an hour. Viable product? Check. (Kei & Molly Textiles' best seller is a supersoft and versatile screen-printed flour-sack towel.)
After honing the production process, Luethi and Tsuzuki connected with area resettlement programs to hire refugees and immigrants for their nascent company. "A paycheck provides stability and opens the door to better health and better education," says Tsuzuki. Today, their staffers hail from Congo, Ukraine, the Philippines, and Cuba; former employees have been from China and Afghanistan. Most arrive speaking little or no English. Interpreters come in when needed, but the team mostly teaches new employees by example, like guiding the angle of the squeegee as it hits the screen. "Over time, you start hearing jokes in other languages," says Tsuzuki. Kei & Molly Textiles' eco-friendly linens, bags, note cards, and compostable sponges are printed with images inspired by southwestern culture and nature, like roadrunners (the state bird of New Mexico) and cherry blossoms. Items are printed with water-based inks on natural fibers in their partly solar-powered studio. Today, the goods are sold in more than 400 stores around the country.
Pictured below, employees Olga Sida and Rainey Nunnally screen-print together, Tsuzuki (left) and staffer Remy Davis fold dish towels, and the screen for their Queen Anne's lace print awaits napkins, dish towels, and reusable cloth bag sets.
A Caring Community
Luethi and Tsuzuki offer thoughtful benefits and job perks, including a massage therapist every six to eight weeks, paid time off for parent-teacher conferences, three weeks of vacation, and holidays that sync up with the school calendar. They provide a full-time volunteer to help with transportation, doctor appointments, and school registration, and give annual college scholarships for three area immigrant students. Once a month, they host a staff potluck, where snippets of English, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Swahili waft over platters of Cuban carnitas, Congolese fufu, Japanese gyoza, and Ukrainian medovik.
The Way Forward
As the company enters its second decade, its founders strive to share their model with other socially conscious entrepreneurs. "We've made choices along the way to be good bosses," says Luethi. "To be kind and respectful, to support our employees, and to make life enjoyable."