How do we live and work in ways that address systemic economic inequalities

Conversation with Brenna Schneider, CEO- 99Degrees


How has the crisis affected your market? 

99Degree is a leading US technical activewear manufacturer. Our model is built to deliver unprecedented speed and agility while ensuring the highest quality production and service levels in the US. We’ve seen that the tenets of our model are more important to our brand partners now than ever before. Our direct-to-consumer (DTC) focused brand partners are outperforming initial projections. We enable them to respond to unpredictable shifts in demand, hold less inventory, and quickly pivot to create new styles with existing raw materials so they are not forced to deeply discount last season’s inventory. E-commerce and DTC sales rely on responding to consumer demand rather than forecasting demand. Our model is therefore positioning us for continued growth.

The current crisis has underscored the value of US manufacturing. We see, in the critical nationwide shortage of PPE, the importance of domestic production. In response to the crisis, we immediately pivoted to PPE production and put our team and machines to work producing isolation gowns for the medical community. By August, we will have produced 2.5M gowns, including 1M gowns for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 

There is no question that COVID has also presented challenges to retail. As a result, we have seen a delay in some purchase orders and projects. Overall, we feel optimistic about the future of US manufacturing and are again hyper-focused on continuing to build our state-of-the-art speed model. 

Would you say we will try to go back to normal as quickly as possible or do you think we will need to rethink the world post COVID-19?  

Our response and pivot to PPE production shows the strength of our team. Our team works with shared values, a clear mission, and deep respect for each of our diverse and unique strengths. This enabled us to quickly move forward together despite uncertainty, fear, and the almost instantaneous evaporation of communication norms and in-person collaboration. I expect many of these facets of human interaction and collaboration to return when a vaccine is found. I also expect a renewed appreciation for things that are priceless like family, friends, and health.

My hope is that with this new appreciation comes a rethinking, not just in the way we work but in the way that our families, teams, and communities envision our future. At 99Degrees, we set out to make our future. This future is founded in our core values of collaboration, inclusivity, wellness, problem solving, and authenticity. From my point of view, the moment to pause allows us to envision how to make a future that is more aligned with our values. 

We value wellness. We have therefore made our team’s health and safety our first priority by strictly following local, state and federal guidelines and best practices. And we also shape our company policies to ensure wellness. This means unlimited time off for salaried employees, policies that support families and new parents, and evolving our policies and benefits to promote wellness in its many forms. We must all ask- how do we live and work in a way that demonstrates a commitment to the wellness of our families, employees, and communities? 

We value inclusivity, equality, and the strength that comes from diversity. We pride ourselves on the diversity of our management team and our Board. We make it easy for non-English speakers to succeed and grow at 99Degrees. We are proud to be a Spanglish-speaking company. And we have set goals and initiated programs that help us to ensure economic opportunity at every level of the company. As an example, we set out this year to promote 25% of our team into higher paying, higher-skilled jobs. To date, we have promoted 45 people (20% of our team) and are on track to exceed our goal. This is just one effort. We all must ask - how do we live and work in ways that address systemic economic inequalities and racism and celebrate diversity.

While I embrace a return to the human connections of the past, I truly hope that we use this moment to put forward our values and do our part to make a more just, fair, and equitable future for all.

What has the crisis changed for you or what have you learned personally?

When I realized that COVID-19 was going to impact the country, I felt the responsibility to our team to chart a path forward. In March, we made countless financial models, contingency plans, and best and worst case scenarios. I was afraid of our ability to keep our team safe and to keep our doors open. Over the last few months, I have learned the power of team and community and collaboration. In three weeks that spanned March and April, we shifted from activewear production to PPE production. Collaboration is a powerful force. 

I had a first row seat to our industry’s pivot to PPE production and it was nothing short of awe inspiring. Our pivot started with 24/7 calls with my Board, investors, team, suppliers, brand partners, and political leaders, even competitors.  Lectra sold us their own demo machine from Atlanta to enable us to quickly grow our cutting capacity. The American Apparel Producers Network (AAPN) began quarterbacking industry collaboration. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts created a Manufacturing Emergency Response Team to help companies like mine understand demand for PPE and navigate the complexities of FDA compliance. Our innovation team began the development of isolation gowns. Our operations and engineering team started redesigning our factory to ensure social distancing. We learned a supply chain and lined up FDA compliant raw materials. This is no small feat and requires collaboration and trust. 

I also learned the importance of our values. I launched 99Degrees over 7 years ago because I believed that US apparel manufacturing could scale and could provide economic mobility and career trajectories in regions plagued by dead-end low-wage and part-time work. As the company founder, I feel the weight of the responsibility to my team and to their jobs. The crisis has only strengthened my commitment to using our company as a collective voice, a resource, and a platform to elevate our industry, community and economy. I am actively engaged in listening to employees, understanding what issues are currently most pressing for them, and finding ways to use our internal policies and operations and our public voice to make a future that benefits us all.



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