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Workways is a bottom up approach to data gathering facilitated through participatory style workshops centered on workers needs. It was co-designed and in partnership with Fashion that Works, Custom Collaborative’s first incubated women led worker owned manufacturing coop to help identify the founders’ needs and support them in transitioning from workers to coop-owners entering NYC’s garment sector. 

Custom Collaborative is a workforce development program championing women from low income & immigrant communities as entrepreneurs and designers in the fashion industry. 



photo credit

Nathan Kensinger, CURBED NY





 2020 | 1 YEAR









Immigrants make up 40% of NYC’s total population and yet despite their high participation in the labour market, they are more likely to be in poverty than other New Yorkers - with a poverty rate of 25.2% in 2017. 

Immigrants participate in the labor force at higher rates (66 percent) than their native-born counterparts (61 percent), with undocumented immigrants working at even higher rates. 


NYU Furman Center, Focus on Poverty Report, 2016

The New York City Government Poverty Measure, 2017

City of Immigrant workers: Building a workforce Strategy to support All New Yorkers, April 2016.

Center for an Urban Future, Where Immigrants New Yorkers go for Work , 2016 

NYC Comptroller, Economic Update 2017

Who is saying they want to invest in low-skilled workers? 
Why are we building hotels and service jobs if manufacturing jobs pay more and we have the capacity to manufacture in NYC.

- Ngozi Okaro, Executive Director, Custom Collaborative

  • Service Industry

The service industry, such as hospitality & food service, is accessible to immigrants in part because it often does not require a higher education. Someone with limited english proficiency can still get a job. While it may be an appealing option, it funnels an entire class of people into jobs that offer less than a living wage, little job security and very few, if any, health or retirement benefits. 

  • Fashion Manufacturing 

An overwhelmingly high percentage of immigrant workers, most of whom are women, are in the manufacturing garment sector. The top ten occupations with the highest share of immigrant workers (96%) include pressers, textile, and garment workers.


From 2009 to 2015, over half (57 %) of all new jobs created in New York City were in low-wage industries

Naturally I wanted to learn what occupations immigrants hold in NYC. While immigrants form a large part of the city’s workforce, they are clustered in a relatively small number of occupations, dominating jobs that offer low to moderate wages in sectors such as food service, construction, health care, manufacturing, and retail. Lacking opportunity for advancement, many immigrant workers end up trapped in these lower wage jobs. 





What are the current job opportunities for immigrant women without a higher education to enter into the fashion industry?

One on One Interviews & Secondary Research


While the local garment manufacturing industry is steeply decreasing ,yet the Fashion Design Industry as a whole is a prominent and growing field that offers above median wages in NYC.


Fashion production jobs have the potential to employ large numbers of people without requiring high levels of formal education. This as an opportunity for more immigrant women to enter into the fashion industry at a salary that is an entry point into the middle class, however entrepreneurship and design roles provide even more economic mobility.


What are the gaps and challenges organizations have identified in advancing local manufacturing efforts in NYC?

Semi-structured interviews with Stakeholders & Industry Experts 


I wanted to understand how agencies, organizations, & creative hubs were supporting local  manufacturing in the city. Were any of these stakeholders advocating and specifically targeting immigrant workers needs? I began by mapping NYC’s manufacturing ecosystem. 


  • There is a Labor & Skills Gap in the industry.

  • Investment in technology is needed for NYC’s fashion garment industry to thrive. 

  • Land use and industrial spaces is key to building local economies.

  • Private Sector Partnerships are needed.

  • Cost pricing Structure is broken. 

There are many efforts and organizations, but they are fragmented. The scope is either broad, such as “general workforce needs”, or is not focused on the creative industries such as design or garment manufacturing. Even less are dedicated to the needs of immigrants making up the garment industry in NYC. 


How are immigrant women without a higher education navigating into the fashion industry?

One of One Interviews & Journey Mapping 

I wanted to hear from immigrant women themselves that were navigating into the creative field or/into fashion production in order to understand the challenges and barriers and ultimately what resources did they need to do so.

It was difficult getting someone to talk to about their transition. Much of the workforce is undocumented and are fearful of retaliation when speaking about their experiences. 

Luckily, I was able to speak with a few people and  through the use of journey mapping learned of the many nuances about their challenges . 

Her story reflects similar stories about being taken advantage of. These types of exploitative practices run rampant and are unfortunately  fairly common experiences for NYC’s immigrant community.


  • Immigrant women I spoke with have experienced job insecurity and unsafe working conditions at their jobs

Most of the women sought safety and stability at their job. Many were not trusting of their current employer based on the unfair experiences that they had previously.

  • Immigrant women I spoke with have substantial entrepreneurship experience regardless of educational attainment

All of the women I spoke to sought a career in fashion but because of socio economic reasons were not able to pursue or continue design studies.  Regardless of education attainment,  many had substantial entrepreneurship experience in their native country. 

The way the garment industry (and capitalism!) works comes at great cost to immigrant women. 

Immigration status is actually one of the main reasons why 97% of the garment industry is made up of immigrant women. Employers are able to take advantage of this by keeping wages low and using exploitative practices, because immigrant women have no safe way of reporting abuses. They risk being fired or deported. 


Entrepreneurship is key to economic inclusion for immigrant and low-income communities.

Garment Manufacturing can provide an entry point into the middle class for many but given the dwindling number of manufacturing firms and lack of support on a citywide level, it remains just that, an entry point. Fashion Design fields and Entrepreneurship prove to be an opportunity for economic mobility. By preparing immigrant women to hone both skill sets within manufacturing and design,  they are better equipped  to access multiple creative career pathways.


Cooperative Models can help make the creative field more diverse. 

The Creative Innovation economy, led by high-skilled, highly educated professionals, has been growing substantially and drives much of the city’s high-wage jobs. We also know the creative field is lacking in diversity.


In contrast, there is a drastic increase in the number of women minority owned local manufacturing businesses in NYC. The Cooperative business model structure can be an opportunity for BIPOC communities to enter the creative field while ensuring all workers are paid fairly. This is particularly important when dealing with immigrant and undocumented women who are more vulnerable to exploitation and unjust working conditions.






01 Prototype 

Skill Setting Workshop

 What type of narrative information would be useful to Custom Collaborative but also beneficial for the graduates & coop members?


To gain an understanding of the graduates’ current skill sets through self assessing and reflecting.


​The founding coop members used a playful card sorting activity to assess their technical, soft skills, digital skills and their level of confidence as well as their career goals. 



02 Prototype

Probe Tool Remote Workshop

Self identification can be used as a tool for empowerment.


To learn how members define themselves creatively during this transitional period in their careers.


In this second workshop, the group was guided by a series of prompts in two different areas of self actualization: How they see themselves as creatives, and How they see themselves as business owners. This was held as an interactive remote workshop.



03 Prototype 

Town Hall Workshop 

Given learnings on cooperative culture and democratic governance, Coop members need a data gathering mechanism that makes it easier to communicate and share their concerns and report back to Custom Collaborative in an anonymous but empowering way. How might this system be made replicable so someone other than myself could facilitate these workshops in the future?


To understand which materials & tools would be necessary to support the data gathering process mechanism so it would be useful and easily accessible by coop members. 


We led the conversation by using several prompts to inspire conversation, moments of share outs and emotional check ins. The learnings were then captured using the feedback report template. Other materials that were designed & tested for replicability during the process were: a facilitation guide, the design of a digital workshop & a digital invite. 




Be Autonomous

A bottom up approach feedback mechanism allows workers, or in this case, coop members’ to define their needs while in transition, anonymously , while also empowering themselves. 

Meet the community where they are at.

Bring the process to the workers. If they can’t attend a live workshop facilitation, then there needs to be a remote option.  Time is crucial for NYC immigrant single mothers that might have unstable home life and several jobs. 

Make the process not only flexible but replicable.

With the option for either remote or live workshop facilitation, the coop lead will be able to gather and host workshops for the next cohort. Thus the toolkit is iterative. 

Design Criteria 








Photo credit

Custom Collaborate


For my Partner

Custom Collaborative is hoping to incubate more immigrant women owned coops.  By using the experiences from its’  first ever formed coop, who’s members have completed the programming, Workways establishes a data gathering system that  informs Custom Collaborative on what training or other services could be of use for future coop businesses.


For Incubators and other Social Enterprises

Workways can help other incubators or social enterprises that are supporting immigrant women into creative careers.  Incubators like the one fostered by my partner propell low income POC into co-owning their own creative businesses. It’s proven that businesses led by or owned by POC will hire more POC. The same applies to immigrants. 

This ushers in more people of color from economically disadvantaged communities into the creative industry who have been traditionally left out. Ultimately breaking down barriers that create a class divide.

Photo credit: Photo

 Aditi Mayer for Fashionista


Using equitable processes to amplify voices

The data collected by Workways for existing social enterprises and from their workers and coop members, provide insights on barriers and needs to be addressed. The advantage of workways is that the data itself comes from a workers perspective which centers the needs of underserved immigrant communities. In a city with the most immigrants in the world, we need to make sure we use equitable processes in our methods of data collection gathering in order to better suit the most marginalized communities. Making sure their voice is heard and elevated. 

Using the cooperative model for workforce development 

There has been a rise in minority-owned coops in NYC. Because of the newfound interest in funding cooperative models , Workways hopes to connect with other city initaitives to support a pipeline program specfically for immigrant women to enter the higher paying careers in the fashion and creative sector.




In the summer months of 2020, I and the Coop Lead at Fashion That Works enrolled in the Platform Co-ops Now course, an emergency online course that introduces and incubates platform cooperatives, at New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium. 

Using human centered design and solidarity principles, we co-created a pitch deck for a potential cooperative-based training platform for Fashion That Works. 


In August 2020, I co-authored and submitted a proposal for the Early-Stage Arts, Creative, and Cultural Cooperatives grant from AmbitoUS an initiative of the Center for Cultural Innovation(CCI).


Out of 107 applicants, the grant was awarded to Fashion That Works in the amount of $25,000 along with technical assistance. 


In March 2020, Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, I was not able to officially pilot Workways. 


As we now know the pandemic hit immigrants, low income and people of color hardest. The coop members’ efforts and time were being used to work remotely producing masks to our front line responders. 


Workways would have been launched by holding a series of workshops similar to the last round of prototyping. The Coop Lead would host and facilitate the workshops with the coop members utilizing all the designed materials along with the feedback report. 

In this time of global pause, what exploitative and extractive models do we choose to leave behind? 
What models do we put in place that are life giving and bring us into a just future? 

- May 2020 , Covid -19 pandemic

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