In an airy, brightly-lighted warehouse in the Nob Hill area, women from all over the world screen-print cheery folk art designs onto natural-fiber dish towels, T-shirts, and other items. A colorful, bold mural sprawling across the building’s exterior reflects the journeys immigrants and refugees have made to become employees at Kei & Molly Textiles, LLC.
Kei Tsuzuki is from Japan and grew up in Canada. She attended the Anderson Schools of Management's Executive MBA program at The University of New Mexico and graduated as valedictorian in 2005 with a master’s degree.
“The program gave me a strong foundation on how to strategize the long-term health of a business and manage the full spectrum of issues that come with the territory…The EMBA program fosters cohort learning and having a support network during the program was invaluable,” Tsuzuki noted.
She met Molly Luethi, a Swiss-American and English as a Second Language educator, in 2010 when their children attended elementary school together.
“Molly and I were both mothers at Bandelier Elementary School. We both had backgrounds in non-profit work and were interested in supporting the International District. Though our business is a for-profit venture, we knew we wanted to create something that would have a social impact on our community,” Tsuzuki said. “We were looking for a business idea that would sell and potentially support the creation of jobs. I had a background in textile printing, so we developed a small line of kitchen linens for the Bandelier Elementary School holiday bazaar. When our line sold out in an hour, we knew we had a good product idea.”
"The program gave me a strong foundation on how to strategize the long-term health of a business and manage the full spectrum of issues that come with the territory…The EMBA program fosters cohort learning and having a support network during the program was invaluable." – Kei Tsuzuki
The enterprise grew, transitioning from the kitchen table to a warehouse space near the International District, and now employs about a dozen artisans, immigrants, and refugees from around the world. The company website notes that through Kei & Molly Textiles, “they find a secure job paying good wages, with support in health and education, and opportunities for leadership and personal development. Working together, regardless of our nationality, religion, or spoken language, we are reminded daily how we are connected in our humanity.”
There are other Lobos besides Tsuzuki involved in the business or related to the employees. Two staff members have children studying at UNM, one has a daughter who graduated last year, and a fourth is also a UNM alumnae.
Blank white towels are laid out on long tables in the studio, ready to be screened by hand by Tsuzuki, Luethi, or their employees. Piles of the printed flour sack dish towels and other eco-friendly items are stacked in the warehouse, ready for sale in the retail store at the front of the building at 4400 Silver Ave SE.
Designs have a folksy, rustic charm that evokes the international spirit of the business. Tsuzuki and Luethi share artistic duties and add more designs every spring and fall.
“We often start with papercuts when we design, and then finish the designs on computer. Our customers really respond to the handmade nature of our images. Customers also love the bright, cheerful, and refreshing colors we use in our prints,” Tsuzuki commented adding, “We are also encouraged that the majority of our customers support our mission and appreciate the work we do in the community.”
There is a design to appeal to just about everyone, ranging from local themes such as hot air balloons, the VLA, and chile roasting, to barnyard scenes and animals to hobbies like music and fishing. Products include flour sack dish towels, shopping totes, scarves and other useful and gift items. The Silver Avenue store also stocks handmade soap, jewelry, and other items from local artisans.
Sales are booming, Tsuzuki said, boosted by a Better Homes & Gardens magazine blurb about Entrepreneurs Who Do Good last year, and a recent fall travel feature about Albuquerque in the New York Times. Their products can be found at the store at 4400 Silver Avenue SE in Albuquerque, more than 300 stores nationwide, or on the Kei & Molly website, or on Etsy.
“We love spreading some New Mexico cheer across the country,” Tsuzuki enthused.