R.Riveter, an American-made handbag company that supports military families by providing military spouses with flexible employment, recently pivoted its business to focus on sewing face mask covers in an effort to provide much-needed supplies to front-line workers fighting against COVID-19. In the interview below, R.Riveter’s founder Lisa Bradley discusses how the initiative began, how it’s working, the challenges of being a leader during a crisis, and more. (Note: We met Lisa and her co-founder, Cameron Cruse, at the NRF Big Show in 2019, and wrote about them here.)

Inner Circle: Can you tell us about how R.Riveter has pivoted since COVID-19 has spread?
Lisa Bradley: We’ve pivoted in a couple ways at R.Riveter since the pandemic was announced; both of them in support of the mask cover initiative we announced on March 21. We’ve opened up our manufacturing facility in Florida to assemble our handbags and also produce mask covers. To increase the impact of the mask cover efforts, we’ve also mobilized 500 volunteers across the country to produce the mask covers per a prototype that R.Riveter developed and shared. These mask covers have been donated to healthcare facilities, nursing homes, hospice centers, first responders and essential military personnel, as well as community members across the country.

IC: What are some other ways your company has changed? Are you still creating bags? How has that part of your operation changed?
LB: From a businesses and operations standpoint, R.Riveter’s operations remain largely unchanged. Fortunately, since 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. However, we did have to close down our two retail locations in North Carolina and Ohio, which has been really difficult for us.

Thankfully our customers have responded really well to two planned e-commerce launches, and our online sales have remained really strong through this trying time. We’ve also experienced some growth at our Florida manufacturing facility to maintain production on our handbags and also ramp up on the mask initiative. Being able to hire in Florida right now at a time when so many are in need of employment has been really rewarding.

IC: Do you have any plans for reopening your business when the COVID-19 pandemic is over? And do you think you will continue with any of the initiatives you have instituted during this time going forward?
LB: Since we’ve pioneered the remote manufacturing model and have been working remotely and from home for nine years now, our daily operations and ability to provide mobile and flexible income to our remote employees has remained largely unchanged and therefore “open.”

When it comes to the actual physical retail locations, we’re at the mercy of the state of Ohio and the state of North Carolina for what happens next. Both states have stay-at-home orders that are expected to lift in early May and phased approaches to reopening will begin. In Columbus, OH, our store is within a large shopping mall, so as a tenant there we will wait to hear the plan for reopening the shop based on what Easton Town Center plans to do.

Also, our mask efforts will continue. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to be wearing protective masks in public. People will need comfortable and effective masks in order to keep themselves safe. In support of this, we’ve partnered with O2TODAY, a leading U.S. maker of protective masks, and are currently working to begin production with its design of a customizable respiratory mask combined with an interchangeable filter. This American-made R.Riveter mask collaboration will be offered for sale via both O2TODAY and R.Riveter sales channels.

IC: While the current pandemic has been devastating to much of retail, some are viewing this time as a positive change agent. Because retail has been upended, we have the opportunity to rethink everything we’ve done before and perhaps restart with fresher ideas, such as producing and fulfilling orders more sustainably, hiring more female leaders, among others. What are your thoughts here?
LB: I’m hoping we see a pendulum switch back to American sourcing and manufacturing. This unfortunate time reminds us that supporting American businesses and creating jobs in America is really beneficial for the entire country. And now, at a time when we really need those jobs here, it’s more important than ever. Not only that, but in the event of a global crisis, brands that do choose to source stateside will experience less interruption to their supply chain.

When considering the question about female leaders, it hit me that all the managers and admins at R.Riveter — every single one of them — are females with a family at home. They’re juggling all aspects of work and family life. While there has been more mental, financial and personal stress and pressure on our employees given outside factors, our workforce is made up largely of primary parents who are used to juggling work and family life. Therefore, the business didn’t suffer much. Allowing leaders the space, flexibility and support to balance these aspects of their lives was already part of our remote business model pre-COVID. As retail leaders looking at and for the people who are going to be leading our companies and teams, we have to stop assuming that someone being a primary parent or head of household in certain “traditional” aspects makes them unable to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of retail.

IC: I’m sure being a leader during this time has been tough. Can you talk about any strategies you’ve used to lead your team and to keep them motivated?
LB: Being a human right now has been really tough! But yes, leading people through a crisis isn’t an easy task, but again, expressing gratitude for the manufacturing model we set up years back, our team mostly consists of working parents who are used to working from home, potentially with dependents present. We’re a pretty close-knit group and keep in touch and know what is going on with each other personally. As a leader in the company though, I’ve definitely seen a surge in anxiety and personal juggling. Not just from family being home, but from the standpoint of people being affected by coronavirus and the unknowns associated with that — e.g., the financial impact of a spouse’s job. It really has an avalanche effect.

We also try very hard to stay connected and support each other even though we are working from home all across the country. We’ve always been big Zoom users and continue to rely on this resource to stay connected and check in on each other. When it comes to working from home, I encourage my team to have a dedicated office where you conduct your work from, and when you are there you work; and when you leave, the work stays behind. It can be really tempting to work from wherever is most comfortable when you’re working remotely, but I find this technique helps with productivity. We also require all employees to be on video on Zoom meetings. This really helps us stay connected and aware if someone may be having a hard time, but also increases productivity and attention on the call so that we can be more present in our home life later.

The mask initiative has also been a pretty big morale booster. Our manufacturing facility is plugging away knowing that they have to do double-duty: keeping hand bag assembly going to keep providing income for themselves and our remote riveters, but they also have this mask initiative that’s helping to keep people safe. When we pivoted we went from feeling as if the only thing we could do to help stop this thing was stay home to jumping into action to create mask covers to physically help others. This gave us a sense of purpose.

IC: Can you talk about how you’re managing work-life now, and do you have any tips you can share with our readers?
LB: For me, I’m now teaching kindergarten and providing daycare for a three-year-old! Along with an increased workload of 50 percent — just from trying to manage the more short-term decision-making processes for R.Riveter. Planning and communication has been much more reactive than the typical long-term planning that previously made up my day-to-day. For me, I’ve never really touted work-life balance. My life and work are so intertwined that “balance” isn’t really something that I strive for. What I do try to do is be present in whatever I’m doing at the moment.

IC: Let’s discuss some positive news: When the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, what are you most excited about in the world of retail going forward?
LB: I’m really excited about returning to this idea of supporting knowing where your product comes from. We hear this a lot when we talk about food (e.g., the farm-to-table movement), but I think from a retail perspective there will be a bigger and exciting conversation surrounding this idea going forward. I know for us, this entire crisis has made the R.Riveter team rethink what we’re buying and how our purchasing power affects our communities.