In 2015, Elena Carné, moved to Americus, a small town in South Georgia, with her three daughters. Her idea was two-fold: Be in a slower-paced environment where she could focus on her family and launch an athletic apparel company.
Today, the already successful company, T31 (formerly Tepuy Activewear), a small, minority- and woman-owned manufacturer, has switched gears entirely to produce sought-after face masks and head caps to local hospitals in a part of the state hit hard with coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forty-five minutes away in Albany, Georgia, one of the hospitals there was trying to sew its own masks. Knowing that it couldn’t produce nearly enough to keep up with the demand, hospital administrators reached out to Carné and requested her help. Carné and her team took over the process and in the first seven days of production were able to deliver 4,000 masks to the hospital and are currently manufacturing another 4,000.
“I modified their design to work in a mass production environment and through the help of donations from the local community, we have been able to purchase all of the materials to provide these masks at no cost,” Carné said.
The T31 team now operates seven days a week and produces head coverings for hospital staff and 100 percent cotton, washable face masks that feature slits to slide in disposable filters or as a cover to improve the life span of the N95 masks. In addition, she hired two new full-time employees, and is utilizing volunteers from the area, including high school seniors excited to learn a new skill. These individuals are helping to support the local hospital efforts as well as working on urgent request orders that are now coming in from across the country, turning this small-town manufacturer into an essential business that is creating big impact in a time of need.
“When I came to Americus five years ago, I instantly knew this was home,” she said. “The people here made it special and through this opportunity, I can give back in a different way to a community that has supported me and my business.”
Prior to shifting to face mask production to help those on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak, T31 was a four-person shop focused on small order activewear. In December 2017, the company won a grant from the Latin American Chamber of Commerce Georgia and the Latino Community Fund Georgia.
It was during this time that Carné connected with Maria Mar Hill, a project manager with the Southeastern Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (SETAAC) at Georgia Tech.
A federally funded program supported by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, SETAAC provides matching assistance funds to firms experiencing declines due to import competition.
Mar Hill reached out to Carné and recommended that she apply for assistance.
“Maria was amazing,” Carné said. “She walked me through the entire process and was there to answer any questions I had.” After receiving the matching funds, T31 worked with SETAAC vendors to create graphics that represent the company, elevate the photography of its products, and design a new website.
Said Carné: “The funding was a blessing. It allowed me the chance to grow my business while also focusing on areas I needed to improve upon. Without it, I would have had to make a choice of which was more important.”
Today, in addition to staying on top of activewear orders and manufacturing face masks and head coverings for the hospital, Carné is exploring contract opportunities to continue manufacturing critical supplies.
“This is a different time and as a business owner it’s important to be flexible and look for opportunities that are available,” Carné explained. “For me, I’m exactly where I need to be — producing items that are helping people in my community.”
Just like the GaMEP is, the SETAAC program is also based out of the Enterprise Innovation Institute at Georgia Tech. To learn more about the SETAAC program, which helps manufacturers in GA, FL, MS, AL, TN, KY, NC, and SC, when sales are impacted by import competition, click here.
By Katie Takacs, with the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership