Allen grew up poor and ended up with a good education and career. As a manufacturing engineer and now a business owner, he identifies with the workers on the floor of his factory in China. In fact, he has a vision of a manufacturing community that supports workers. At the same time, Allen believes that work should be joyful. So he named his company JOIGA (a coined word that sounds like “joy” and can be pronounced equally well in English and Chinese) and is building it with the mission of “fostering innovation throughout the US and improving the lives of factory workers in China and across the globe.” JOIGA provides soup-to-nuts high-precision manufacturing, from product design to the actual production of products to helping their clients sell those products into retail outlets. JOIGA is currently expanding their design capabilities, as well as adding a merchandising division so that they are better able to help their customers sell products into large retailers. At the same time, JOIGA is committed to improving the lives of its factory workers, by actively providing housing, counseling, healthy food, and a career track for its employees. If JOIGA’s initial results are any indication, socially responsible manufacturing will sell itself.
Breaking Ground In Manufacturing Allen started out as a process engineer with a medical device company in Europe for about one year, before moving back to his hometown of Boston, where he worked as a process engineer for a pharmaceutical company. After graduating from Stanford’s business school, he was recruited to Las Vegas to help tennis superstars Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf build a lifestyle company that provided healthy living options, through real estate, fitness clubs, and healthy food offerings. “I was hired to help Andre and Stefanie build their business. However, all employees there were required to spend time volunteering within their network of social and philanthropic ventures. That was the most fulfilling, and moving, part of my work. Andre and Stefanie are all about philanthropy; they support a charter school in one of the worst parts of Las Vegas and I got a chance to visit and work there. I love Andre and Stefanie’s mission. They are wonderful people and are doing wonderful things.
However, I still felt that I could be doing more. I wanted to know that I was making the most of all of my skills and education, and at the same time making a significant difference in the world. I guess I was at odds with myself, I was part of a social mission in Vegas, but I was left not feeling complete. So when the economy began to crash, I left Las Vegas, and moved back to my hometown of Boston.”
The work being done in the charter school resonated with Allen. He had grown up in a low income, single mother home in Boston, MA. His family received food assistance and he was the beneficiary of welfare programs on occasion, and GlobeSanta. “There is no question that without government assistance, and without the much-needed guidance that I got from my big brother (Big Brother Association) or from the local YMCA programs, I never would have gotten out.” Allen left home at age 16, made his way to Northeastern 1.5 years later, and eventually, to Stanford Business School. Allen, now himself a parent of 5 year old Shauna, wanted to give back.
The opportunity presented itself two years ago. Allen joined a company that produced biometric locks and safes. Allen and a key executive of the lock and safe company looked at all potential revenue opportunities,and discovered underutilized factory space. There appeared to be an opportunity to build a business larger than just locks and safes.
One of the brothers running the original company, another Northeastern engineer, Sheng Deng, joined Allen to start what was first named Manufacturing Integrity Partners. Sheng is a Chinese-born American that came to the US at 12 years old, and now spends most of his time in China. “After six months, we proved we could make the business work. Then I introduced the idea of a social mission. I look at the factory workers and see myself in them. I want them to be happy people. Sheng is supportive, but I am driving this part of the mission. It is very counter to what is done in China these days, but we love what we do, and our workers are very happy because of it.”
Creating Healthy Factory Communities While JOIGA often utilizes a network of factories to produce various products, the one factory it does own is different. When customers visit China, they are often disappointed in what they find in factories. Typical factories in China are dirty and dark, and there are few smiles. Our factory is a very different place. Our factory has open doors, windows that let in a lot of light, and people are smiling.
We look at ergonomics, a clean work environment, protective equipment, on-the-job training, and culture. It is so important to us that our workers enjoy their work, and our proud of what they do on a daily basis. And as we grow, we want to share our standards and culture with our partner factories.” “People are having fun. We are helping our workers be happy, and productive. They are paid more than a fair wage. There are bonuses based on profit-sharing. We purposely rotate people through various functions for variety and ownership and to move workers up in skills. Some workers take the initiative to learn so many skills, that we promote them to floor managers, in which they also take on a mentoring role for other workers. We want our workers to stay with us. As we grow we’d like to see them grow with us.”
“There are other companies that have built nets to prevent workers from committing suicide, we do coaching instead. Sheng spends part of every day on the factory floor. He consciously provides counseling on the factory floor. He asks, ‘How are you doing? How is your wife, your family?’ Our workers have many daily stresses in their lives. We’re trying to be very respectful and caring. If people need time off, we give them time off and plan for it. It’s communication. It’s family.” JOIGA improves a worker’s typical living conditions by paying for their rent, and bringing in a chef for lunch and dinner. “You’ve heard of how hard it is for workers to get home more than once a year during Chinese New Year, so we’re looking at how to make it possible to go home more often. If we can make it work for us, why not?”
“It makes business sense. Our retention is way up. We make deadlines, our workers rally together, it is incredible. Our workers stayed until past midnight one time to make a deadline. So we take people out for karaoke and drinks. I bring them chocolate from the U.S. When I am in China, I spend time on the factory floor. I don’t mind getting dirty or tired. I like the fact that I can work side-by-side with these guys, as long as I don’t get in their way”, Allen says with a laugh. “The first thing I do when I get there, is go around and say hi to every worker, shaking their hands – no matter how dirty those hands might be. I want our workers to know that we really are one big family.”
“I envision growing JOIGA into a much larger organization than we are today. I am looking into building a healthy and vibrant community of workers by leasing, purchasing, or building additional factories in China, and potentially around the world. There is a brand new factory that is being built right now that is literally next door to our current site that we are looking at expanding into. We would like to offer our workers a lifestyle that keeps them and their families happy and healthy. I am committed to improving the lives of our workers and of their families in both the short-term and the long-term. We are also expanding the services that we offer our clients by adding additional design services, as well as building relationships with retail outlets around the country.
Young Customers Value Social Mission and Sell the Company JOIGA has a somewhat different business model, which initially attracted a younger clientele who appreciated the socially responsible mission, and were excited about the ability to simply manufacture in China – an opportunity normally available only to established retailers. However, JOIGA’s clientele has since expanded to include entrepreneurs both young and old, as well as larger retailers, who are enthusiastic about the social mission and excited by the ease of manufacturing well in China. Traditionally, manufacturing in China has been an inaccessible option to many entrepreneurs and companies alike because of communication issues, and quality and intellectual property concerns. JOIGA has not only created a model that has minimized risk in working with factories in China, but has also bundled services that will ultimately help its clients be more successful in the long-run. “In fostering innovation, we want our customers to feel they can in fact innovate. They don’t have to be paralyzed by the fear of failure; we are here to help them every step of the way.”
“Our customers love our social mission. They want to talk about it. Our customers then advertise us because they want to talk about us and our mission. It’s a huge market differentiator. We’ve done minimal marketing, most of our business has come from word of mouth.”
Social Mission Drives Higher Quality Allen is clear: there must be no sacrifice on quality for the social mission. JOIGA can only succeed if it continues to place a high value on quality. Not surprisingly, Allen and Sheng have found that the more they put into their workers, the higher and more dependable the quality. “It makes business sense to do what we are doing. Manufacturing must be efficient. We are proving we can make manufacturing socially responsible and fun. Initially it cost us more money, but our retention went up and our labor costs went down. We do this without passing along the cost of our social mission to our customers – our customers benefit because our turnover is low, quality is high and consistent, and prices are competitive. JOIGA has proved to me that SR can be profitable.”
Changing Conditions through Manufacturing (rather than boycott) Diana Hudak, who lives and works with Allen, told a story that summed up the work JOIGA is setting out to do. “I spent a year not buying products from China because of how workers are treated. But I realized that I was just one consumer. When I joined Allen, I saw that we could actually change the lives of workers overseas. We could make a difference in an individual’s and a family’s life. I couldn’t do this by not buying things from China. There are a lot of ways in your work life that you can leverage changes that impact the whole world. That is what I am doing here.”
Allen ended our interview with these words “I am living my dream. I get to help people right here in the US build competitive companies that will grow and eventually hire more people, and at the same time, I am improving the lives of our workers in China. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. I have high hopes for JOIGA. We really do make dreams come true.”
Partners Allen and Sheng http://www.joiga.com
Ellen Meyer Shorb