By Steve Moran
This is a story I meant to write months ago; though, in retrospect, maybe now is as good a time as any . . .
Last fall, I attended the Aging2.0 event in San Francisco where one of the presenters was Sarah Oliver, the founder of Sarah Oliver Handbags. After her presentation I interviewed her. You can see that interview below. It is a story with a very painful, unhappy ending as you will see.
The Happy Story
Sarah was a knitter and used her knitting skills to create handbags for her friends, and they loved them. She got this idea to turn her hobby into a business. She connected with two senior living communities in the San Francisco Bay Area to see if the seniors would be interested in knitting for her new company.
A group of about 30 in two communities were interested and she had her initial workforce. The residents dubbed themselves “The Purlettes” or more accurately “The Purlettes + One”. Production increased and she had a real company. She paid the seniors on a per piece basis with some producing a lot of handbags and others just a few.
Shark Tank -- The Best and Worst Thing to Ever Happen
She needed capital to expand production and distribution and her story was compelling enough to land her a spot on Shark Tank Season 7 (December, 2015). She ended up giving up 30% of the company for a $250,000 investment from “The Sharks.”
In the moment it looked like she was on her way to having a significant enterprise. It turned out that was the moment her company was killed by the government, though neither she or the sharks had any way of knowing at that moment.
While the capital meant rapid growth, her company also caught the attention of both state and federal labor regulators. They determined that she could not pay the Purlettes as independent contractors but rather had to categorize them as employees. This would have meant setting all kinds of work rules and forcing production standards.
We have labor laws largely because employers abused employees in all kinds of ways. They have expanded in many cases because attorneys found fruitful ways to exploit those laws, often primarily in an effort to enrich themselves than to right a wrong. The problem is that we seem to have completely lost the middle ground.
These residents were knitting for the joy of knitting; it gave them purpose and pride, being part of something big and cool. They were not forced to work, they did not particularly need the money (though it was a nice extra). Some would have done fine meeting a production schedule but others went at their own pace.
Sarah and her team looked at a number of ways to get around the problem, but at the end of the day, it was an impossible task. So today, you might still find a few bags for sale on the Sarah Oliver Handbag site, but the company is dead.
We need more ways to create meaningful work opportunities for seniors. It is a terrible tragedy when the government is the one stealing those opportunities and those dreams from our seniors.