Sewing by Day and Learning English by Night at Cut Loose
A good job is about more than pay, it’s also about opportunities to learn and grow. That’s why Rosemarie Ovian partnered with SFMade and City College to offer ESL classes to her employees.
For Rosemarie Ovian, co-owner of San Francisco-based clothing manufacturer Cut Loose, sewing is practically in her DNA. Her grandmother, Rose, after whom she is named, was a seamstress; and her grandfather was a master tailor. When her grandfather retired, he brought all of his equipment home and taught her to sew and cut patterns.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Ovian grew up and got a degree in textiles and apparel manufacturing, and pursued a career making clothes.
“It’s always been a way to kind of keep me close to them,” she said.
Like many people who work in the garment industry, Ovian’s grandparents were immigrants. They both came to the US from Armenia when they were children. Ovian remembers her grandmother telling her about the diversity of the other immigrants with whom she worked in the factory.
“My grandmother talked about the melting pot of women and how they would eat lunch together every day, sharing foods from around the world and telling stories,” she said.
At Cut Loose, where the majority of the 50 employees are immigrants and non-native English speakers from China, Vietnam, South Korean, and Latin America, Ovian sees the same dynamics that her grandparents did. Employees share lunch, extra lemons from their trees, and family stories.
Ovian’s deep appreciation for what immigrants bring to the workplace has informed her management style over the 31 years she has been at Cut Loose. She invests in her employees by paying a living wage and offering retirement benefits and profit sharing.
“Our employees stay with us for a long time — there’s a strong sense of camaraderie and loyalty,” she said.
So it seemed a natural fit when, in 2018, SFMade asked Ovian if she wanted to participate in a new ESL program being offered in partnership with City College of San Francisco. The goal of the program was to provide employees in the manufacturing sector with opportunities to improve their language skills and advance in their jobs.
“At Cut Loose there’s a lot of English as a second language, and sometimes, to really get things communicated, we need to lean on employees who are proficient in both languages to act as interpreters,” said Ovian.
Cut Loose offered the class twice, once in the Fall of 2018 and again in the Spring of 2019, at its production facility in the Bayview. The classes, attended by approximately 30 students each, were held in the evenings for eight weeks. Students could join the advanced class, the beginner class, or both if they wanted extra practice. Upon completion, they celebrated at small graduation ceremonies held in their honor.
Ovian quickly realized the ESL program was doing more than just improving her employees’ job skills. The classes were making a difference in their personal lives, too.
“The employees who took the class had so much more confidence in communicating and making an effort to communicate,” she said. “I think it helped with their self-esteem, their level of confidence, their basic knowledge of English, and how to interact with people who don’t speak the same language.”
“One employee in particular would avoid eye contact with me,” said Ovian. “If we were to pass each other in the warehouse, she would just look the other way. The ESL class gave her the confidence to look at me and say, ‘Hi, Rosemarie’ and smile broadly.”
“Cut Loose’s ESL classes allowed the employees to advance their skills as well as gave them a great sense of personal empowerment,” said Janet Lees, Chief Program Officer of SFMade.
Like sewing, the City College ESL classes were yet another way for Ovian to feel connected with her family. Her mother was a longtime ESL teacher who spoke fondly of her students, often hosting group meals where everyone brought a dish inspired by their native land.
“My mom taught ESL classes when I was growing up and I saw how empowering it was for her students to learn English and be able to communicate in this country and progress in the workplace because of their language skills,” said Ovian. “Being able to offer the ESL classes at Cut Loose felt like a way to continue my mother’s work and carry on her legacy.”