Women of the Year 2021: Kathy Cheng is Using Her Immigrant Journey to Redefine ‘Made in Canada’
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
President, Redwood Classics Apparel
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Kathy Cheng: I am the founder and president of Redwood Classics Apparel, a generational, full-service, premium apparel manufacturer that proudly produces on Canadian soil.
What was the impetus to starting your company or brand?
Kathy Cheng: Redwood Classics Apparel was founded as a means of providing an end-to-end, in-stock, premium apparel solution that is owned and operated by our parent company WS & Co. Ltd. When the 2008 global financial recession devastated the Canadian apparel industry, we were compelled to restructure our business model, and it was then that I decided to become business partners with my father. We ultimately expanded into new facilities and became one of Canada’s leading full-service apparel manufacturers, producing for fashion retailers and designer brands in Canada and around the world.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Kathy Cheng: Our commitment to quality has resulted in growth by way of sales, employee headcount, and physical operational space. As our growth journey continues, we have found ourselves at the forefront of the movement to combat offshoring in the apparel industry. Our core philosophy, which combines enduring quality and craftsmanship with sustainable innovation and a thriving Canadian apparel value chain, has enabled us to successfully support our brand partners in fulfilling their sustainability goals.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Kathy Cheng: Never has our commitment to work collaboratively with local Canadian suppliers been more essential than in 2020, as a global pandemic and widespread social injustice gripped the world. We worked even harder to support our local supply chain, promote supplier diversity and equality in our industry, and lessen our environmental impact. Our ability to deliver on these commitments is a testament to the resilience of the Made-in-Canada supply chain. We were able to rapidly shift our manufacturing focus to deliver urgently needed non-medical Personal Protective Equipment to local health care and community partners, all while shining a spotlight on the need for supplier diversity.
What do you think is unique about your story and trajectory?
Kathy Cheng: I don’t think we are unique. We are your typical North American immigrant story; We came from very humble beginnings. Our family is from Hong Kong, which was, at one point, a textile hub. Many talented, knowledgeable, and skilled textile workers immigrated to Canada in the 1990s and, as we settled into our new lives in Canada, were able to help many immigrants do the same by onboarding them at our Toronto-based factory. Looking back on that, it strikes me how impactful that was. That is a story I am very proud of when I look back at the history of our company.
Why does ‘Made in Canada’ matter today?
Kathy Cheng: Consumers and brands alike are more invested than ever in where their clothing comes from. Knowing that a piece of apparel that you love was made ethically in a factory where the workers are celebrated for their craftsmanship, that is really where fashion is headed. But alongside that, making apparel in Canada is an important economic contributor by way of employment and fueling monetary benefits back into our local communities. It also has a positive environmental impact, reducing carbon footprints by minimizing the import of consumer goods from overseas.
COVID-19 was a wake-up call that supporting local manufacturing and businesses is more important than ever. In order to serve our communities in times of crisis, local businesses and domestic manufacturing need to be supported all year round.
How do you define responsible and ethical manufacturing?
Kathy Cheng: To me, this comes down to building a sustainable business model, which focuses on people, planet, and profit—otherwise referred to as the ‘Triple Bottom Line.’ A sustainable business requires a balance of the three equal and interdependent “Ps”. When they work together, we achieve sustainability, which naturally leads you to make responsible and ethical decisions. A sustainable business model is like a three-legged stool; to stay balanced, all three segments need to be addressed simultaneously.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Kathy Cheng: I don’t know what others are doing, I just know what we are doing, which is building a business that is guided by our ‘Three P’s’. We are committed to sharing as much of our story and journey as we can to show what is possible when you put people and the planet before profits. Here is how we describe our Three P’s:
People: A Commitment to our Diverse Makers
As many of our makers are of Asian immigrant descent, more jobs have been created to further support diversity, equity, and inclusion. By sharing the importance of our family textile legacy, we create a platform for marginalized communities and suppliers to have their voices heard.
Planet: Apparel for a Thriving Planet
We recognize our use of natural resources and the impact it has on our environment, and we take steps to minimize our carbon footprint throughout the manufacturing process. By producing locally, we minimize shipping emissions and material waste. We also focus on circular solutions by using landfill-destined deadstock and turning it into the upcycled fabric. We have been producing for an eco-friendly clothing brand, Preloved, for over 15 years. Together, we have diverted close to one million pieces of clothing out of landfills.
Prosperity: Fostering a Made-in-Canada Apparel Value Chain
Early on, we recognized the importance of developing a sustainable value chain for our business. Over the past twelve years, we have defined and refined the areas that we could have the most impact, including making investments in our factory that will reduce our energy usage and carbon footprint, and fostering partnerships with diverse and environmentally-conscious suppliers. Currently, approximately 70 percent of the raw material we consume is knit within a 100-mile radius of our factory in Toronto, Canada, enhancing our ability to rapidly innovate.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Kathy Cheng: I would say the day I decided to become my father’s business partner. At the time, it was my loyalty to my family’s textile legacy and our family of makers who had been with us for decades, but as we continued to rebuild I realized that I had the opportunity to not only be a voice for our family of makers but for makers globally.
Our society values farmers for their hard work because we ingest our food and it directly affects us, but when was the last time we celebrated our makers? Our clothes are the closest thing to our skin. When was the last time we celebrated “maker to skin?”
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve built your company?
Kathy Cheng: That I am a leader. I still recall when I received my first major recognition as a business leader through the EY Winning Women Program™. I was in total shock and extremely uneasy being in the limelight and being recognized for simply acting on my beliefs.
Through the many development programs I’ve had the opportunity to participate in, I slowly found my voice. With a voice comes a sense of responsibility to uplift others alongside you. It’s important to pay it forward and empower others to discover, train, and use their voices, too.
Learning how to do more with less is an extremely empowering exercise as well. This is why I am a big supporter of Supplier Diversity programs; through the generosity of many corporate development programs, I have been able to learn from others and access market intelligence and trends that I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to. Often, as an entrepreneur, we are working in our business versus on our business.
What has been the most challenging part of building your business?
Kathy Cheng: Humanizing, educating, and knowledge-sharing. Our core philosophy, which combines enduring quality and craftsmanship with sustainable innovation and a thriving North American apparel value chain, requires continuous education which oftentimes can get lost. I believe every business has the potential to be a force for good, and by humanizing our business and showcasing the people who power it, I hope this will lead to conscious consumption.
What has been the most rewarding part of building your business?
Kathy Cheng: As an SME, it’s been an extremely personal journey rebuilding our family business. The most rewarding part has definitely been the people I’ve had the privilege of developing relationships with. From being part of a team members’ personal and professional growth journeys to being an active player in our brand partners’ business successes, being able to be part of the roller coaster rides has been extremely rewarding.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?
Kathy Cheng: “What is your why?”
Fulfillment does not always come from money. To build an impactful business, we need to create cultures in which trust and cooperation are present, and in order to do that, we need to identify why our business exists. Strength is found in purpose.
What is the biggest lesson you learned in the past two years as the world navigated a global pandemic, social justice movements, and more? How will it inform how you move forward?
Kathy Cheng: 2020 and 2021 will be remembered for what we did with the challenges, and what we can build in the years ahead. No matter the size of the business, when values align we can make meaningful change together.
How did you support your team and/or community during this time?
Kathy Cheng: Since the middle of March 2020, we have produced and donated thousands of masks to local healthcare facilities and organizations through our #MadeForGoodChallenge. By pivoting our business during a very difficult time to focus on helping our community, it quantified and brought to life what and how our business can be a force for good. I am extremely proud that our philanthropic program expanded across the country, supporting highly vulnerable citizens during unprecedented times.
What is the mission of your brand? The bigger picture?
Kathy Cheng: We have all worked extremely hard to address the health, social, and economic challenges that the pandemic has brought with it, and our industry has had to rewrite the rule book to survive in a strange new world. However, these challenges have not deterred us from being at the forefront of the movement to combat offshoring in the apparel industry. Our core philosophy, which combines enduring quality and craftsmanship with sustainable innovation and a thriving North American apparel value chain, has enabled us to support our stakeholders in fulfilling their sustainability goals.
Prior to the pandemic, we set out to implement several UN Sustainable Development Goals within our business strategy, and we will continue to work towards advancing those goals over the next 12 months. We’ll specifically be focusing on five main areas:
Good Health and Well-Being
We will continue our philanthropic program by donating ready-to-wear reusable masks packs and ready-to-assemble DIY mask kits to vulnerable communities.
Gender Equality and Reduced Inequalities
We’ll continue to actively contribute to social progress by moving gender equality and women’s empowerment into the spotlight and placing them at the centre of our efforts within the promotional products industry. Personally, I will continue to volunteer my time with the PPAI DEI Task Force and serve on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for CAMSC.
Decent Work and Economic Growth
In addition to expanding our commitment to the growth of North America’s promotional products and textile industries, we’ll continue to serve in an advisory capacity with educational institutions and non-profit organizations and provide internship opportunities to develop the next generation of leaders. We will also continue to invest in product solutions and services that will democratize entrepreneurship for small to medium-sized promotional products and retail distributors.
Responsible Consumption and Production
We are committed to preventing print fabric waste and minimizing water use as we grow our Sustainable All-Over-Print™ offering and will expand our commitment to circular product design and manufacturing practices.
We will continue to explore options for reducing or offsetting our greenhouse gas emissions by supporting the transition to renewable energy. We’re also committed to growing our Textile Waste Diversion Program, establishing partnerships with businesses in industries that are outside of fashion to find new ways to prevent textiles from hitting landfills.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with when engaging with your brand or from your work?
Kathy Cheng: Every person or business has the potential to be a force for good in our world by aiming high, owning their expertise, collaborating effectively, engaging with empathy, and embracing change.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Kathy Cheng: Phyllis Newhouse. She is a dear friend, mentor, and a remarkable business person. I still remember when we first met at an entrepreneurial event. I was feeling out of place in a sea of extremely accomplished female entrepreneurs, and she came up to me, took me by the shoulders and told me that, as women of colour, we may look different but we earned our place and we belonged there. Until this day, I replay that scene in my head whenever I feel like I don’t belong. It’s never easy being a minority in a room, but that fear now fuels my determination to represent and open the pathways for future generations.
Through Phyllis, I have learned that I want to be a positive collaborator, not a quiet bystander. I want to contribute and help to build bridges for allies. I want to encourage more diverse voices to participate, to engage, and elevate our business world together.