Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Colorado Springs native founds garment manufacturing firm in Nepal

Katherine blunt katherine.blunt@gazette.com - Published: June 13, 2014

The goal was $7,000. Within a week, however, Corban Bryant realized he had set the bar too low.

Bryant, a Colorado Springs native who founded an ethical garment manufacturing company in Nepal, launched a Kickstarter campaign late last month to promote the company's first fashion line and expand employee benefits. Five days later, online backers had donated more than $11,000 to Bryant's company, Purnaa, and its efforts to employ survivors of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

Now, nearly three weeks into the campaign, Purnaa has pulled in about $16,000 from 165 online supporters , a testament to the wide reach of the online funding platform and the growing demand for ethically produced apparel.

"Kickstarter is a great, low-risk way to gauge interest," said Bryant, who grew up in Monument, where his parents still live, and attended Lewis-Palmer High School "I think we were insecure about our goal and set it too low in the beginning. We exceeded it in two days."

He started Purnaa last year out of a deep-seated desire to promote the welfare of those who had fallen victim to corrupt and exploitative practices common in Nepal and the surrounding area. In its 2013 Trafficking in Persons report, the U.S. State Department noted that Nepal struggles to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking because of political instability and a lack of resources to identify victims and their exploiters. Nepal ranked fifth worldwide in the 2013 Global Slavery Index, compiled by the Walk Free Foundation.

Purnaa offers its workers a living wage (about $120 per month), payment for health care costs and literacy training. It may soon provide child care and scholarships for its employees' children if its Kickstarter campaign generates enough money to launch programs.

"We're seeing people slowly become healthier," Bryant said. "When they learn a new skill, they feel that they now can do something of worth to support their family. Many of our employees are single moms, and they feel so proud when they have a way to generate income for their kids."

While working in India, Bryant and his wife met a man who operated an ethical garment manufacturing company. He urged the two to begin a similar effort in Nepal, and in early 2012, they asked another couple to join them in getting it started. They arrived in Nepal in January 2013, and, for the first six months of the year, they studied Nepali and examined the political and economic challenges of conducting business in the capital, Kathmandu.

"There had been a lot of corruption, and a lot of manufacturing had left Nepal during the last decade," he said. "There were a lot of big challenges, but we thought it was worth giving it a try."

After registering the business in July, , Bryant and his team tasked two groups of students at Colorado College and the Air Force Academy with a mission to conduct market research to gauge consumer interest in ethically produced goods.

"We wanted to find further-reaching evidence of who would be potential buyers of Purnaa products," said McCall Sears, an academy researcher who graduated in May.

The academy students summarized the findings of a 2012 experiment conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that placed jeans touting "sustainable" labels in more than 400 Gap retail stores. The labels increased jeans sales among women by 8 percent . The same researchers also found that a Fair Trade label increased grocery store sales of two popular coffee brands by about 10 percent, even when those brands cost up to 8 percent more than the nonlabeled brands. .

Both MIT studies acknowledge that products sourced using sustainable and ethical methods claim only a small share of the U.S. market, but demand is increasing.

Bryant and his team hired five employees and a master tailor in late November and began manufacturing the day after Christmas. Since then, the number of employees has grown to 18, and Bryant said he plans to hire five to 10 new trainees every quarter .

Purnaa now produces garments for five boutique designers in the United States and Europe. The company's 162 online backers helped fund the Purnaa Collection of scarves, T-shirts and bags, which will likely be complete by the end of the year.

Purnaa isn't profitable yet, but Bryant said the company is close to breaking even on a month-to-month basis. Purnaa employees are paid with company revenue, and Bryant and his team fundraise their salaries through Youth with a Mission, a nondenominational Christian organization that sponsors humanitarian and missionary efforts throughout the world.

Though Purnaa met the baseline goal of its Kickstarter campaign weeks ago, it has earned less than half of its highest goal: $50,000 to launch the company's online store and establish child care and scholarship programs for its employees. The campaign will continue until July 21.

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