Pressure to Help the World: A Founder’s Journey from Fashion to PPE

Samantha Schleese

by Samantha Schleese

Published: March 3, 2021

City MOGULS: Founder Profiles Series

Stories of strength, growth, and resilience. A spotlight series featuring founders and leaders from across Canada and the US whose stories and experiences will inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

A conversation with Esther Vlessing, President of Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers (CEMM), a company that specializes in organizing rapid response initiatives that deliver emergency solutions to regions in need.

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Rewind to mid-March 2020. Esther Vlessing, like many people, found herself tucked away in her West-Toronto home, adjusting to the first real days of mandated isolation due to COVID-related shutdowns across the province.

Vlessing remembers watching Ontario Premier Doug Ford on TV, as he addressed the province live and called for domestic factories to “step-up to the plate and manufacture PPE.” Hospital wards and long-term care homes (LTCH) were in dire need of protective equipment as outbreaks were hitting their floors and ICUs were maxing out.

Then the phone rang. It was Vlessing’s father, Robert Vlessing, a furniture manufacturing veteran.

“Who do you know in the government?”

A call for a hero

Together, they quickly drafted a plan to create a network of manufacturers who could effectively mobilize and retool domestic furniture, apparel and automotive factories across the country.

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It should be noted that at this point, Vlessing knew no-one in government, but after a few email introductions, she was soon looped into calls with the Premier's Office, Deputy Minister's office, Ontario Health and Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Before she knew it, a $13.8 million dollar purchase order landed on her desk.

This was the first of many purchase orders as government bodies and hospital networks from across the province turned to Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers (CEMM) for reusable isolation gowns made in Canada. CEMM built a robust domestic supply chain to produce and deliver isolation gowns to healthcare facilities in need. CEMM swiftly retooled and mobilized furniture, apparel and automotive factories, tapping into the domestic manufacturing power of hundreds of sewing machines, cutting machines, and skilled labour. By the end of the first quarter, CEMM had received over $30 million worth of purchase orders.

How a biotechnology student jumped into the fashion industry

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Vlessing's success with CEMM could be traced back to her dorm days as an undergraduate biotechnology student at the University of Toronto, when she first discovered the opportunity to solve a problem. Vlessing purchased a new parka that she loved, though the trim became matted easily and lost its appeal.

After some quick thinking, Vlessing discovered that the fur trim also came with a zipper for laundering purposes, which meant that new, colorful and fuller fur trims could be zipped onto the hood easily.

“With a $3,000 investment, I founded a nationwide accessory brand that manufactured Made-In-Canada replaceable fur and faux fur trims for winter coats,” Vlessing said.

Arctic Trim ended up on the shelves of big-box retailers across the country including Sporting Life Inc. And eventually, after discussions with the Canada Goose executive leadership team, Vlessing ended up on their design team, focusing on materials research and product innovation.

Advice for young entrepreneurs trying to help the world

Looking back on her career thus far, Vlessing says great inspiration and motivation is required for a company to succeed. Vlessing describes her great motivator to be the pressure of working in a life-or-death, high-stakes environment. According to her, everyone from Ontario’s Premier to “your next-door neighbour’s grandmother” was counting on CEMM to succeed, so the pressure was definitely on.

Vlessing doesn’t like to believe that individuals need to pursue a linear career path, and in her experience, the best companies, entrepreneurs and inventions are the results of interdisciplinary crossover. From her studies in science at U of T to running Arctic Trim and working on Canada Goose’s design team, Vlessing became well versed in product development, material sciences and supply chain management. By merging her experience in fashion manufacturing with her science background, Vlessing was prepared to meet the challenges of running CEMM.

“I recognized that if you build your company with a mission to be of service to others and improve society’s well-being, things flow much more easily,” Vlessing said.

Vlessing's advice to all young aspiring entrepreneurs is to take the focus off of yourself and onto what needs to get done. Her hope for all young aspiring entrepreneurs is to build companies that will help this world.

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