The young have sprung

Posted August 20, 2020

 

If you had any doubts about the next generation of leaders in the U.S. textile and apparel industry, have no fear ­– the Millennials and Gen Z’ers are here.

 

And some of them are kicking up quite a dust storm as it relates to energy, excitement and entrepreneurship.

 

Whether we realize it or not, there’s a youth movement materializing in our midst, and they’re already making noise – joyous noise, resounding noise, dulcet noise, all of which are ringing in a sense of optimism for our industry’s destiny.

 

That’s the impression I’ve gotten in recent years, especially in the last few weeks while engaging with and listening to the young guns via virtual conferences. Just this week, two coming-of-age superstars made remarkable cases that the future is in good hands.

 

Today, for instance, I was blown over by a presentation by 22-year-old Emily Neville, founder of Reborn Clothing Co., during the Southern Textile Association’s (STA’s) Summer Marketing Forum in cyberspace. Also today, Nufabrx, the brainchild of 29-year-old Jordan Schindler, unveiled the latest technology in its PPE repertoire – a face mask infused with moisturizing shea butter for comfort and skin rejuvenation. On Monday, Schindler also told his pioneering, beyond-his-years story during the daily STA event, no doubt impressing a number of us graying or gray heads on the screen.

 

And last week, I tremendously skewed the age curve when I attended (by invitation!) a Dean's Young Alumni Leadership Council's (DYALC) webinar, “Textiles on the Front Lines of COVID-19,” catered to young alumni of the N.C. State Wilson College of Textiles. At that event, three extremely poised “newbies” spoke confidently, eloquently and knowledgably about the efforts their companies have taken to address the PPE shortage during this pandemic. They include Rachel Bradley, brand sales manager at Unifi; Julia Logan, materials specialist at Parkdale; and Shane O’Toole, director of raw materials at Tegra Global.

 

So whatever stereotypes you may hold about generations behind you, toss those out the window – at least in the case of these best and brightest greenhorns in our ranks. Many of these 20-somethings already have a toehold on the door of our leadership offices, and are bringing a wealth of ideas that we’ve probably never even considered.

 

We already know that these connected, technologically advanced digital natives hold such concepts as sustainability, transparency, responsibility, et al, to the utmost importance. And they’re bringing their perspectives of these once-snubbed, grandiose ideas to our businesses and the marketplace – and that’s a good thing. Different, perhaps, but good.

 

Those issues were the driving force behind Neville’s creating Reborn when she was a sophomore in college, she said. “There is a growing demand for eco-conscious, sustainable products with a more transparent supply chain, so I decided to do something about that with a business solution,” she said during today’s STA event.

 

She grew up with a working understanding of the “old” textile industry. Her dad was a plant manager at Burlington Industries before much of the U.S. textile industry was decimated and forced offshore. But whatever (mis)conceptions she had of the industry didn’t stop her from entering the Wilson College of Textiles and looking at the industry through youthful eyes – and learning early on that a niche existed that needed to be filled. That is, that the industry was extremely wasteful. So she launched her company to transform surplus branded apparel and premium textile waste into new products through upcycling. Today, Reborn Clothing employs 15 people and works with more than 60 universities and numerous corporate partners to make those products from their excess fabrics or seconds.

 

Oh, and did I mentioned that she established the company while simultaneously spearheading an effort to bring the first Boys & Girls Club to her hometown? So much for the notion that all Gen Z’ers/Milennials are lazy and feel entitled.

 

And Schindler? Wow. His idea to found a company – when he was 19 – was borne out of a common teenage problem: acne. After a trip to the dermatologist, he learned that pillowcases are one of the leading causes of various skin conditions. So he launched Nufabrx and worked with MIT scientists, secured funding from the Department of Defense and developed a bamboo pillowcase embedded with tea tree oil and lavender that release while you sleep.

 

That first product led to a number of new innovations, including such items as knee and elbow sleeves and fabrics infused with ingredients such as as capsaicin for pain relief, CBD oil for numerous medicinal benefits, as well as vitamins and supplements. Nufabrx also was one of the first companies to answer the call to address the PPE shortage, developing copper-infused masks for healthcare workers and others on the front lines. In May, the District of Columbia National Guard ordered Black Hawk helicopters to an airport in North Carolina to pick up 250,000 masks for these heroes.

 

So I ask: As we hire and teach the next generation, why don’t we also seriously listen to their ideas? Many likely offer enthusiasm and out-of-the-box thinking that may help bring differentiation to your company and our industry, and may take us to another dimension – new and different. Some, such as Neville and Schindler, already are establishing distinct footprints in the industry’s history and might make good partners or collaborators for some of you.

 

Youth must be served.

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