Piece & Co. looks to make a social impact by helping find a broader market — from Tory Burch to Nike to Banana Republic — for female artisans making textiles in developing nations.
And private equity giant KKR is looking to make its own impact by doing what it does best. In the case of socially minded for-profit Piece & Co., that means helping the company and its founder Kathleen Wright understand how to best scale the business. Helping the helpers makes sense for KKR, which is more practiced at the deal and developing big returns than big social gestures.
The two got together last year as part of KKR’s program of Technical Assistance Projects, which has worked with six companies — three in Asia, three in the U.S. — over the past four years.
Ali Hartman, head of global citizenship at KKR, said groups of employees at the investment firm dedicate 10 hours a month for up to a year to add their expertise. But the companies need to be ready for the help.
“We bring a lot of horsepower,” Hartman said. “It certainly takes a fair amount of oversight and leadership from the organization in order to best direct those resources. We’re really good at building value and managing businesses and think that if we want to talk about where our team can be most useful to the world, it’s in talking about how we can shape the impact of purposeful, mission-driven companies.”
Piece & Co. clearly fit the bill. Over five years, the mission-driven for-profit company has built a base of 5,000 artisans, mostly women, who focus on producing textiles in a socially and environmentally conscious manner.
Wright said: “Our commitment to every group is that we are going to focus on bringing you more work every year. We don’t want it be wham, bam, we’re using all your capacity and next year we’re using none of your capacity.”
That in turn helps support the communities where the artisans live. But taking the longer-term view was hard.
“One of the biggest, if not the biggest challenge of being a start-up in a very established industry is just resourcing: too much to do and not enough people to do it,” Wright said. “Everyone on this team is working on something where the impact is so immediate and it’s so necessary in the day-to-day tactical view of things.”
KKR helped Wright step back and make some big decisions, in particular how to expand beyond the fashion industry.
“Fashion will always be the heart of what we do and we’re there for that industry as they’re ready to be a more sustainable industry,” she said. “This is a really struggling industry and it’s really slow to make change, so it was unrealistic for us to really grow our business at the rate we wanted to.”
Aaron Katarya, an associate at KKR Capstone, who helped on the project, said Piece & Co. had built a proven model, but wasn’t sure where to focus.
“We realized that Piece & Co.’s addressable market is actually bigger than we thought,” Katarya said. “There are actually a couple of other business segments — lifestyle and home — that could also be very interesting avenues for growth for the company and ones that ought to be prioritized.”
The extra brainpower helped push Piece & Co. to beauty firm Lush and Whole Foods and projections for fourfold revenue growth over the next couple of years.