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A fine weave of family, work

Lowell firm’s mission: jobs, day care for single mothers

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By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / February 22, 2011

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LOWELL — On a small factory floor in Lowell, Tameria Lanier is stitching together a new life.

For the first time in three years, Lanier has a full-time job, an apartment, and someone to look after her two young boys when she is at work. The 23-year-old single mother has rekindled dreams of becoming a fashion designer.

Lanier credits her turnaround largely to her new employer, a start-up clothing factory called MoJo. The business pays workers over $10 an hour, provides health care and career training, and — most important for a single mother — covers the entire cost of child care.

MoJo, short for Moms and Jobs, is no big-government spending project or private charity. It’s a for-profit company that sells apparel to campuses, corporations, and consumers with a stated goal to improve the lives of single mothers, who are disproportionately represented among the poor.

MoJo’s business model: Do well by doing good.

MoJo, which has been operating for six months, expects to generate $3.7 million in sales in its first full year of business. The company has already scored contracts to produce jackets for Fortune 500 businesses like Accenture and Morgan Stanley, college fleeces for Big East schools, such as Syracuse, and blankets for the Dave Matthews Band and other musicians under the Red Light Management music label.

These deals mean success for more than just the company.

“It feels good that I can manage it on my own,’’ said Lanier, who last had a job in 2007 and spent several months last year living in a homeless shelter.

By the end of the year, MoJo hopes to open factories in struggling cities beyond Lowell, which was once a thriving textile center. The company plans to bring its model of manufacturing across the country to Detroit, Oakland, and New Orleans, cities where nearly half of single-mother households live below the poverty line. MoJo has already contacted two factories in Fall River. Its main condition is that the operators abide by MoJo’s model, such as paying more than minimum wage and covering child-care expenses, which can cost around $40 a day per child.

“We thought that perhaps we could launch a sustainable, for-profit company to attack the root causes and see if we could be successful at building a really big company,’’ said Tom Aley, who cofounded MoJo with his twin brother, Darr Aley, after selling their Maynard software company.

“If we could deliver child-care coverage plus career services and provide a steppingstone for people on or near the welfare line, perhaps we could help provide a more sustainable livelihood and perhaps a chance at a new career. And a better opportunity for the children.’’

It is an approach to business that some analysts suggest might help redefine capitalism by connecting company success with social progress.

Other entrepreneurs have started businesses in recent years with the aim of generating profits and using the proceeds to address social problems. For every pair of sneakers it sells, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Toms Shoes donates another pair to children in developing countries to combat diseases transmitted by bare feet. Two Degrees, a San Francisco health food company with an office in Boston, sends a nutrition pack to a hungry child abroad for every nutrition bar it sells.

Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter, in his recent front-page report in Harvard Business Review, wrote that a change is clearly needed in the current economic recovery, in which rising corporate profits have done little to offset high unemployment, local business distress, and severe pressures on community services.

MoJo executives are quick to note that although they encourage single mothers to apply for jobs, they do not discriminate in their hiring practices. Cara Aley — Tom and Darr’s sister, and MoJo’s chief operating officer — said men work at all levels of the organization. The company has 21 employees, including 16 women, and the company expects its staff to grow to 160 by the end of the year. In Lowell, MoJo works with social service agencies to recruit prospective employees, offer them sewing training programs, and find them child care.

“We simply think that as a private business with a social conscience, we can go the extra step to ensure that single mothers have an option,’’ Cara Aley said.

Felicia Crawson needed that option. The 25-year-old single mother received an associate’s degree in fashion design but her career plan was derailed after she had two children.

MoJo has allowed Crawson to give up her job working the 4 p.m.-to-10 p.m. shift at UPS, where she made about $11 an hour loading trucks and sorting packages — hours she had taken because she was able to find someone to watch her two daughters for free.

“I couldn’t afford day care,’’ said Crawson, who in just six months has worked her way up to MoJo’s operations supervisor and now earns $14 an hour. “I have a lot of friends who are single parents and they are jealous.’’

The Aleys say the seeds for MoJo were probably planted decades ago, when their mother struggled to raise their younger siblings after a divorce. Tom Aley — a father of three — said the more recent inspiration came from research he did to better understand the causes of homelessness, especially among children.

Aley said he realized single moms who earn minimum wage are often trapped in a cycle of poverty because they do not make enough money to pay for child care. Many barely scrape by or give up jobs to stay at home with their children.

To make MoJo happen, the Aleys have put a lot on the line. The brothers are not taking salaries, and are spending thousands of dollars of their own money each month to help run the company. But they do not intend to make MoJo their personal charity. The brothers, who are using funds from the sale of their software company, are trying to raise more capital from other socially minded investors and plan to hire a chief executive to oversee operations.

By the end of the year, they expect MoJo to break even.

The benefits that MoJo provides its employees come at a cost: Prices for MoJo products are slightly higher in some cases, compared to similar apparel. But Darr Aley said he hopes companies and consumers are willing to pay a little more to support a domestic manufacturer that offers workers fair wages and quality benefits.

“Give America back its mojo, if you will,’’ he said.

MoJo has been embraced on university campuses, where students have protested the use of overseas sweatshops to produce collegiate apparel. The company’s approach also appeals to major corporations that seek to contribute to society — and improve their reputations.

MoJo’s products are made from premium fabrics, like Polartec fleece, and include large tags that promote the brand. On college campuses, the company has displays and posters marketing the mission of MoJo with its merchandise.

Staples Inc., the office-supply giant, is one company that sees the value of MoJo. The Framingham-based retailer sells apparel with corporate logos to companies around the world, including more than 40 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies. The majority of the clothing it sells is produced overseas, but after visiting MoJo’s Lowell factory, Staples decided to offer MoJo products, which are about 20 percent more expensive, compared to the imported apparel.

“It’s a little more money than the other apparel but it’s a more quality product,’’ said Rich Witaszak, general manager for Staples Advantage’s promotional products business.

The MoJo concept has also caught the attention of several leading musicians, who will be featuring MoJo products during their summer tours, said Bruce Flohr, an executive at Red Light Management, which represents over 100 musical acts, including Dave Matthews Band, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and Ben Harper. Some celebrities will design signature products exclusively for MoJo, he said, adding that it is too early to provide details.

“Everyone is out there trying to make tours green and do good things. MoJo digs down to the level of fixing a problem and giving people back their dignity,’’ Flohr said.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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