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Connecting two continents with T-shirts

Teens printing Forgotten tees on "the wheel."
Photo by Bill Kelley
Teens printing Forgotten tees on "the wheel."

What do you get when you combine African cotton farmers and textile workers with at-risk Minneapolis teens? A fair-trade T-shirt company called Forgotten.
    
Founder Steve Conrad founded Forgotten in 2009 after spending time working in Africa with an organization that helps women in Congo recover from sexual violence. The organization, HEAL Africa, also taught the women to sew so they could work after recovery. Conrad was involved with a church group that tried to market the wraps and purses these women produced, but it wasn’t easy.

“There were so many complexities and logistical issues with exporting things out of Congo,” Conrad said. “For a variety of reasons we couldn't build or expand that particular program.”

Undaunted, the musician-turned IT guy (he works part-time at French computer software company Dassault Systemes in Eagan) continued working with his church, The Upper Room in St. Louis Park, on mission work in Africa.

“Out of those experiences in Congo, I really started to think a lot of about how to help empower people who are living in poverty,” said Conrad, a southwest Minneapolis resident who is married and a father of two. “One of the missing pieces was simply to create really good jobs for people in that part of the world [so] they can pay to send their children to school. They can pay for health care when they need it. Hopefully, the need for charity is reduced.”

An Answer in Uganda

Conrad’s mission work took him to Uganda, where he found farmers growing organic cotton on tiny plots of land, and a cotton ginnery willing to buy the cotton and employ people to spin it into fabric and sew it into clothing.

One farmer told him that neighbors warned her she couldn’t eat cotton, so she’d better continue to plant vegetables. The woman ignored them and tripled her income by planting and selling cotton.

Conrad and fellow church member Patricia Kelley started brainstorming about how they could support the Ugandan farmers and textile workers. Kelley heads Youth Enterprise, a Christian-based nonprofit that employs and tutors at-risk teens in Minneapolis. Youth Enterprise already had a well-established T-shirt screen-printing operation and last year began importing T-shirts made by the Ugandan company.

From Church Fairs to Rock Tour

Forgotten has sold about 1,000 shirts through its website and at fair-trade and church events. It will have a booth at Vans Warped Tour concerts in Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis this summer, selling shirts to benefit Youth Enterprise. (The Minneapolis concert, which concert organizers expect to attract 18,000, is scheduled for Sunday, July 8, at Canterbury Park in Shakopee.)

Conrad is also working on getting the shirts into retail stores in Minneapolis and on agreements with rock bands to market them.

Patricia Kelley
Photo by Bill KelleyPatricia Kelley, head of Youth Enterprise and cofounder of Forgotten.

Conrad and Kelley tout the shirts’ quality because Ugandan cotton produces long fibers that lend softness to the fabric. Forgotten sells four styles each for men and women in short- and long-sleeved crewneck tees as well as V-neck and scoop-neck styles. Printed shirts retail for $29 and blank shirts for $19.

A Heart and the Number Three

One of the company’s signature styles features a heart printed with the number three, representing the Ugandan farmers, the textile workers, and the Minneapolis teens who screen-printed the shirts. These are the “forgotten” people Conrad and Kelley want customers to think about as they consider buying a shirt and telling the story behind it.

“We love the idea of this sort of global impact/local impact all kind of tied together,” Conrad said.

“I thought it was a great idea to give our students a global perspective, and it gives our buyers a way to support local happenings also and help our kids,” added Kelley.

The Ugandan company has been easy to work with, taking specifications and turning shirts around in 36 hours. “They want to export and they need to do a good job if we continue to do business with them,” Kelley said.

Building the Forgotten brand and getting the story out have been more of a challenge. “There are days when you’re very encouraged and there are days when you feel like, ‘I’m pushing this rock and I don’t know if I’m making progress or not,’” Conrad said. “When you think about the impact that you make in the lives of the cotton farmers and the textile workers and the teenagers here in Minneapolis, I think that’s what motivates me to keep working, keep pushing.”

What the Kids Say

Working on and selling the Forgotten shirts has been an eye-opener for employees at Youth Enterprise. Levi Beals, 16, and Burdina Whiteside, 17, both students at Minneapolis’ South High School, were intrigued when they learned the story behind Forgotten.

Beals, a sophomore, has worked on decorating the shirts. He was a junior camp counselor and child-care worker before joining Youth Enterprise more than a year ago. Hands-on work was a different skill and it took him about four months to gain the confidence to work “the wheel,” which can hold up to six shirts at a time for printing.

The Line“I think that’s quite interesting,” Beals said of learning about Forgotten’s mission. “I never knew what Forgotten shirts meant.”

Whiteside, a senior, said she fell in love with the idea behind Forgotten as soon as she learned about it. She has sold the shirts at area churches, and found that people were intrigued by the shirts decorated with the heart and number 3.

“They assumed that it meant the Trinity, but when you actually got into the story, they were touched by the story and they were more compelled to buy the shirt,” she said. “I’m really happy to be part of it.”

Forgotten is Conrad’s first business, funded so far by family and friends. He wants to raise more money this year from individuals and foundations and hopes to make a profit in 2013.

“We think the product is good,” he said. “The story is compelling. It just takes time and effort and eventually things start to develop momentum and build and grow.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Nancy Crotti writes  for a variety of Twin Cities publications; she lives in St. Paul with her husband and daughters.

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