Good Business

Joe Bozich, BS’85, provides a thread of hope for hundreds in the Dominican Republic

Bozich at Alta Gracia, his Knights Apparel plant in the Dominican Republic that pays its employees more than three times the country’s minimum wage (Michael Kamber / The New York Times / Redux)

 

As Lolita Olivo carefully feeds the Vanderbilt T-shirt through her sewing machine, she dreams about building a decent house for her elderly father and three small children. Her dream soon may come true, thanks to the efforts of Joseph “Joe” Bozich.

In 2010, Bozich, CEO of Knights Apparel, opened a living-wage factory in the tiny mountain town of Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic, where Olivo lives. The first and only apparel factory of its kind in the world, Alta Gracia Apparel pays its workers a “salario digno” (literally, a wage with dignity), which is the amount of money needed to adequately feed and shelter a family.

“We’re hoping to prove that doing good can be good business,” says Bozich, “that they’re not mutually exclusive.”

A math major and pre-med student at Vanderbilt, Bozich also was a champion bodybuilder. After his professional sports career ended, he went to work for Gold’s Gym, eventually becoming president of its consumer products division. In 2000, Bozich left to form Knights Apparel, the No. 2 supplier of college-logo clothing to American universities today, according to the Collegiate Licensing Co.

That same year a series of family tragedies, including his own diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, made Bozich think about others who face similar calamities, but without hope. “I began thinking, You need to use what you have to provide hope for someone else who might not have it today,” recalls Bozich, whose illness is currently in remission.

Most college-apparel companies contract with factories in developing countries to produce their products. Many are unsafe sweatshops, paying extremely low wages, where accidents happen frequently. One of the worst occurred in April 2013 when a Bangladeshi factory collapsed, killing more than a thousand people.

Unlike those factories, Alta Gracia is wholly owned by Chicago-based Knights Apparel. Its 130 employees make about $2.83 an hour, more than three times the country’s minimum wage. They work in a safe and healthy environment, are free to join the union, manage their own production modules, and are monitored by the Worker Rights Consortium, a respected industry watchdog.

More than 800 college bookstores sell the Alta Gracia brand today, including Barnes & Noble at Vanderbilt. When the plant, which is still being subsidized by Knights Apparel, becomes self-sustaining, Bozich plans to open additional fair-market factories based on the company slogan: “Changing Lives One Shirt at a Time.”

—JOANNE LAMPHERE BECKHAM