This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
As you pull into Southern Pines, NC, you half expect to see Barney Fife on the street corner. This place is Mayberry come to life – from the American flags on the red-brick shopfronts to the historic train station decked out in red, white, and blue bunting.
It’s clearly a town that trades on tradition and nostalgia, so you might be surprised to know that Southern Pines is also on the cutting edge of manufacturing innovation.
That’s not my assessment. It’s what billionaire investor Mark Cuban said four years ago when a local company appeared on Shark Tank. Noting that the company allowed its team to work remotely from anywhere in the country, Cuban told the founders: “You could be the future of manufacturing in some respects.”
His words seem especially prophetic in the age of Covid, when most manufacturing jobs still require workers to be physically present in a factory, while knowledge workers enjoy the relative safety of a home office.
Of course, that wasn’t the reason that Lisa Bradley and Cameron Cruse designed a virtual assembly line for their new handbag line back in 2011. Instead, they launched the R.Riveter brand to offer a paycheck and a sense of worth to military spouses who are often deemed “unemployable” because of their frequent moves – every 2.9 years, on average.
A Recipe for “Shark” Bait
“In this country, so much of your identity is wrapped up in your job,” says Cameron. “The first thing people ask when they meet you is, ‘What do you do for a living?’ If you’re not happy with the answer yourself, that can be devastating.”
It’s a feeling she remembers all too well. After working for years to finish her master’s degree in architecture, Cameron found herself marooned in rural Georgia, where her husband had been stationed in the military.
“I wasn’t going to have an architecture career in Dahlonega, Georgia,” she realized quickly. “It was either a two-hour commute to Atlanta, or a job as a greeter at the local Home Depot.”
Floundering and frustrated, Cameron soon met Lisa, another military spouse looking to channel her talents in a way that seemed rewarding and productive.
“Our friendship started over the difficulty of finding a job in a small town,” Lisa recalls. “Not even a career, just a job. Literally no one would hire us. In job interview after job interview, you could see it in their eyes: ‘You’re a military spouse and you’re just going to move.’”
With no opportunities coming their way, the two friends realized they would have to create their own.
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Lisa had the business outlook and Cameron brought design skills, so together the women began to brainstorm a business model that could offer flexible, steady employment to workers who were constantly on the move.
“The trick was finding something to manufacture,” Lisa says. “Something for the modern military woman who didn’t want to choose between career and family.”
When they finally settled on handbags, the choice was mostly about mission. To create the most jobs with the best pay, they wanted a product with “lots of parts and pieces” that could be made anywhere and shipped off for final assembly. With components like hand-cut leather and hand-stitched liners, bags seemed like the perfect vehicle.
“We knew it would be a virtual assembly line from Day One,” Lisa says. “Even when it was just the two of us sewing in the attic, we knew we wanted to create remote work for military spouses nationally.”
It was that unique, mission-driven model that landed the pair on Shark Tank, where they walked away with a $100,000 investment from Mark Cuban.
Meet Your Makers
Four years later, R.Riveter is a successful niche player in the handbag market with two retail locations, a thriving online store, and a widely recognized brand.
As Cameron sits with me in the back of the Southern Pines flagship store, multiple customers stop by to talk about their own experience in a military family and how much the brand means to them.
She’s clearly heard it a million times before, but Cameron seems energized by these interactions, each one a vindication of the founders’ dream.
“Several people told us in the beginning it would never work, we would never make money. We were completely naïve and headstrong, but also, if we could make a handbag that was high quality and told a story and provided a job, that was what we wanted. It came from a very authentic place.”
Today there are approximately 70 different bags on offer, mostly in a signature combination of leather and canvas. Cameron says they’re going for a look that is “Classic and timeless, like a great pair of jeans or an everyday sidekick.”
Depending on the size and complexity of the bag, anywhere from five to 12 “riveters” had a hand in making it, and each individual component is stamped with that person’s unique ID. On the company website is a Meet Our Riveters page where buyers can see the name and location of every person who helped to make their bag.
“It’s kind of a scavenger hunt to know the makers,” Cameron says.
The website currently lists remote riveters in out-of-the-way spots like Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Great Falls, Montana, while final assembly and distribution happens in North Carolina and Florida. In all, Cameron says, “R.Riveter has provided mobile, flexible income to more than 200 military families.”
The brand’s impact can’t be measured solely in numbers, according to Lisa: “In a military family you’re so incredibly proud of your spouse and invested in their career. But at the same time, you’re floating from place to place, and it can feel like you’re losing your own identity.”
Along with a paycheck, she says, “riveters” often acquire a new sense of independence and self-worth — and it’s that kind of impact that makes the business truly worthwhile.
“The most rewarding thing is being a part of this mission and feeling like you’re affecting the growth of others and something larger than yourself.”
Spend for good: At the R.Riveter online store, you’ll find the company’s full line of handbags and accessories handmade by military spouses around the country. There’s also a Marketplace with home and gift items, and sales support an entrepreneurship program for military spouses.
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