In BU Shop, there’s More to Job Than Just Stamping Out T-Shirts

Martha Shirk
July 1, 1997

As a Gap Man tape blares in the background, a half-dozen youth go about the business of stamping custom silk-screened designs on t-shirts and tote bags.

The site is BU Productions, a full-service silkscreen printing facility operated here by Barrios Unidos. It's not your typical t-shirt shop.

Started in 1994 with a $73,000 grant from the Cowell Foundation in San Francisco, the business is aiming for $250,000 in sales this year and $1 million in 2000.

Right now, many of BU Productions' costs are being subsidized by grants from the Roberts Foundation's Enterprise Development Fund — $95.000 last year, and $100,000 this year.

But within five years, BU Productions hopes to be both self-supporting and profitable. Profits, so goes the plan. Will be used to support Barrios Unidos' ongoing programs.

"If we can't do it in that time, then we probably can't do it." says Amy Parkhurst, 32, the group's economic development director.

As a consultant. Parkhurst prepared a business plan for BU Productions in early 1995. She was hired to run the business in July 1995. She had been an account manager for a national silk-screening company on the East Coast, so she brought a wealth of information about the highly competitive silk-screening business.

Why Silk-screening?

One reason is purely sentimental. For years, Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez ran a silkscreen operation out of his living room to support his one-man violence prevention program in Santa Cruz's Hispanic neighborhoods.

"Compared to this, my equipment was really primitive." Alejandrez recalls with a laugh, as he surveys BU Productions' 2,200-square feet, state-of-the-art shop. "I used to put a t-shirt over a piece of cardboard, screen it, and then iron it to set the ink."

Today's customers include other nonprofits, corporations, and colleges, not just in California, but all over the country. Often, the orders are large. "We just got an order for 17,000 t-shirts for a Lutheran camp," said Parkhurst. "That's the kind of business we want."

Three-quarters of the business is custom work, with designs submitted by customers or created by Salvador Cortez, the staff designer. Twenty-five percent of revenues come from sales of BU Wear to Barrios Unidos affiliates around the country.

"We've been planting seeds for three years, and now we're starting to see a lot of repeat business," Parkhurst said. "We wouldn't be getting it if we weren't doing a good job."

BU Productions came in $36,000 short of its target sales of $150,000 last year. But along with the shortfall came an important lesson. The target had assumed the award of a $30,000 contract from the city of Santa Cruz. But the city contract went to a for-profit company in San Jose, which was the low bidder. BU Productions learned that in the competitive business world, it can't count either on a hometown, advantage or admiration for its mission.

"Research shows that businesses operated for a cause don't get any business unless they deliver a good-quality product quickly and keep their costs competitive," Parkhurst said.

Because of the nature of its work force, BU Productions' costs are necessarily higher than those of for-profits.

The Workforce

"They aren't also trying to train the least employable people," Parkhurst said. "The youth that we put to work here are living on the margin. They are the ones slipping through the cracks. They've just come out of Juvenile Hall, or they're living in foster care group homes or raising a child by themselves."

Because of funding limitations, the silkscreen shop usually employs only five youths at a time, although about 15 others come on board during the summer, when the county's summer youth program starts up. Workers receive minimum wage ($4.75) or just above.

Among the current employees is Frank Valencia, 19, who began doing, maintenance work about a year ago as a volunteer. He advanced to running the silk-screening equipment. Now, he's in charge when Manual Martinez, the production manager, isn't there.

Valencia came to BU Productions from a boys' camp in Santa Barbara. “They've really given me a chance here to prove myself," said Valencia, who graduated from high school last June. "They give me a lot of responsibility supervising the other youth."

Carla San Jose, 16, mother of a 2-year-old boy, has been working part-time at BU Productions since last summer. She works a second part-time job, too, and attends the eleventh grade at an alternative high school in Santa Cruz. In September, she hopes to start cosmetology school.

San Jose is active in Barrios Unidos' violence prevention programs. Last November, she helped organize the Youth Leadership Development conference in Santa Cruz.

A couple days a week, Jeremy Gibson, 15, a ninth grader, comes into the shop to help out. Gibson, who lives in a group home and has a record for breaking into cars, hopes to work his way into a paying job. "I'm waiting for one of these guys to get fired so I can take their job," he said jokingly.

Among the other employees is Alejandrez's 15-year-old son, Joaquin, lOth-grader at an alternative school.

Besides production work, youth have opportunities to create designs for t-shirts. Tryrone Diaz of San Mateo was paid $100 for a Raza design for a t-shirt featured in BU Production's spring catalogue.

"The silk screening skills are really secondary," said Martinez, the production supervisor. "The important thing is to teach them responsibility, the importance of reporting for work on time and taking pride in a job well done."

"A lot of the kids come in with an attitude and a chip on their shoulder. I give them responsibility. I look them in the eye and treat them with respect. After working with them a few months, I see the attitudes melt away." '

Shirk, Martha. " In BU Shop, there’s More to Job Than Just Stamping Out T-Shirts." Youth Today, July/August 1997, p. 36 - 37.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.