Style Q&A: R. Riveter Pivots to Provide PPE

Sherry Beck Paprocki
Columbus Monthly

When Lisa Bradley, co-founder of R. Riveter, landed in Granville in 2018 it was the 12th time she and her family had moved. In fact, R. Riveter’s business model is built around mobile spouses having productive and flexible careers while following their military mates from one assignment to the next. At the time the company was founded in 2011 Bradley’s husband, Jason, was a ranger instructor in the North Carolina mountains.

Mainly fueled by e-commerce sales, the company took off, eventually opening one of its two retail outlets at Easton.

“R. Riveter grew by 1,475 percent from 2014 to 2016,” explains Bradley. “This growth landed the company #298 on Inc.’s 2017 list of fastest-growing private companies in America. Since 2016 we have continued to sustain or grow every year, and that largely has been in the expansion of our product line. The year of 2019 was also a big one for us, expanding into a different sales channel, with two appearances on QVC in the fall.”

Then COVID-19 struck and the R. Riveter team pivoted. An email from mentor Mark Cuban—who made a deal on “Shark Tank” with Bradley and partner Cameron Cruise in 2016—ignited a volunteer effort to provide PPE to medical facilities.

“Who knew that over the last eight years we were unknowingly building a network capable of responding to this crisis?” asked Bradley in a media release in March. “Just as the women supporting the wartime effort during World War II answered the call to assist with supplies and munitions, we are asking the community to answer the call in this effort against a deadly enemy.” 

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.

Why was it important to you to found a company that strategically was built on people who needed flexibility in their work location, environment and time commitment?

In 2011, a military spouse friend and I, frustrated in our attempts to establish productive careers while following our military husbands from base to base, began the foundation for a new way of production in the United States. Military families move on average every 2.9 years, making it difficult for the spouse to pursue a single career or gain work experience. Military or not, we knew that business today was lacking for those who needed flexibility—that there must be a way to have a different work-from-home opportunity.

Remote riveters, as we affectionately call them, are contractors that work together on a virtual assembly line to produce handmade leather and canvas bags. Each riveter is responsible for individual parts of our products and each has a unique stamp. While our riveters aren’t building planes or have boots on the ground, they’re taking part in a symphony of production that brings them an opportunity to develop manufacturing skills, a way to bring extra income to their families, a sense of purpose—and, most importantly, allows them to provide that backbone of support for their families.

What is the best advice you’ve received from Mark Cuban?

From the beginning of the conversation, Mark just seemed to connect with what we were trying to do with our new business model. He had ideas for expanding and helping our network of riveters, which is the heart of our company. We were always worried about going into the tank that one of the sharks would want us to change our business model with profitability or margins being the largest decision-making factor. Mark has always understood our company values as a community where, most importantly, our business is not only a high quality product but also is providing income to individuals that normally were not given the opportunity to work.

As an entrepreneur, you are likely driven with passion. How much time during the weekend of March 21 did you put into the transition to produce PPE?

When we decided to pivot from full handbag production into mask production, that weekend we were all hands on deck—full throttle!  It was the first weekend we were in quarantine, and we had just got an email from Mark asking if we had shifted production into masks to help with the PPE shortage. That weekend the team was glued to Zoom remote working, and the Florida manufacturing team worked seven days a week in coordination for the launch.

How has the pandemic changed your business plan?

From an operations standpoint, our company remained largely unchanged. Fortunately, given our handbags are American made, we had more control over our situation, and our operations could go on uninterrupted. Through all of this, we’ve been able to continue production, which also means we’ve continued providing mobile, flexible income to support our remote riveters and their families during the pandemic and nationwide shutdowns.  We did have to close our two retail locations in North Carolina and at Easton in Columbus.

Modern day Rosie Riveters Lisa Bradley (right) and Cameron Cruise launched a business in 2011 that pivoted to begin providing PPE to medical facilities in recent months. The original Rosie the Riveter, whose real name was Naomi Parker, was photographed in the 1940s depicting a woman working in a wartime factory.