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Founder and CEO Rebecca Smith talks about her mission to create custom bags and bring jobs to women in Hamtramck. Stephanie Steinberg, The Detroit News

Rebecca Smith started selling her custom-made bags on Etsy. Her expanding business now employs 15 women who face job barriers

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K.M. used to sew in Afghanistan, but what she sewed didn’t look anything like the high-quality leather bags, vintage floral totes and striped backpacks she now makes by hand each day.

Draped in a green sari, the tiny woman in her early 40s says the money she earns working at Better Life Bags supports her eight children living with her husband in Afghanistan. She said she hopes her family can join her in Hamtramck soon, but for the past seven months, the 14 other seamstresses have become her surrogate relatives.

“I enjoy working here because we are all like a family, and we support each other,” says K.M., who requested to use her initials to protect her privacy. “It’s a really nice and friendly environment.”

Rebecca Smith, 32, founded Better Life Bags originally as an Etsy shop in 2009. She was pregnant with her first child and posted a diaper bag she made on Facebook. Friends encouraged her to make more to sell, so she launched the Etsy shop for customized bags and gave 10 percent of sales as microloans to third-world entrepreneurs.

Six months later, her family moved to Hamtramck from Savannah, Georgia, where her husband, Neil Smith, was stationed in the military. Neil developed a love for the Muslim culture while in Iraq and wanted to live there after deployment, but Smith had no exposure to the culture.

“We were given the advice to move somewhere in America first that was more diverse than Savannah, Georgia,” she says.“We never visited Hamtramck before we came. We were just like, ‘Hamtramck. That’s the most diverse city in Michigan. Let’s go!’ ”

The plan was to stay two years, experience different cultures, maybe learn a new language and then head overseas. But a few bloggers and Pinterest users who discovered Smith’s Etsy shop changed that.

“My hobby got out of control,” Smith says. “I couldn’t keep up with orders myself. I had two kids then. I was trying to do this all during nap times and bedtimes.”

In need of extra sewing hands, Smith hired Nadia Alakil — a Yemeni woman she befriended in Hamtramck — to sew the bag interiors. Once a week, she dropped off fabric at Nadia’s house and returned the next to pick it up. Caring for four kids at home, it was the perfect arrangement for Nadia.

One day, Nadia showed Smith bunk beds she bought for her girls. Before, they slept on the floor. A few weeks later, she showed off her new kitchen table, chairs and couches.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, are you doing that with the money I’m giving you to make bags?’ ” Smith says. “That’s when the lightbulb went off ... It was a huge need that her family had for a second income and a way to buy things that I consider necessities, but they were just barely making it by.”

With increasing online orders, Smith switched gears in 2012. Instead of helping women internationally, she’d hire women in the community with barriers to traditional employment. For instance, they might not be fluent in English or have a driver’s license. Others might not be able to work next to men due to cultural beliefs.

“In the Muslim culture, women are rarely allowed to leave their homes or get a job where there’s mixed genders,” Smith says.

At Better Life Bags, the employees — who are from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Yemen, Detroit and Hamtramck — are all women. They can also work from home, if their husbands aren’t comfortable with them working at the shop. Most receive at least 10 hours of work a week. Depending on their pace and the bag’s price, seamstresses could make $12 to $26 per hour. The only requirement is having basic sewing skills.

“We’ll teach them our skills, what American quality is and what the American consumer is expecting to receive, which is different than what quality looks like in their various countries,” Smith says.

Hamtramck resident Elise Kirby, 55, quit her job teaching Madison Heights high-schoolers to become the operations manager about three years ago.

“There’s opportunity to do more than just work at a job and crank out a product. That’s what I enjoy the most,” she says. “We’re involved in each other’s lives.”

She rattles off examples such as giving driving and English lessons, transporting kids to day care and taking each other grocery shopping. The business is built on Smith’s “community-mindedness and generous heart,” Kirby says.

The workshop, at 9405 Joseph Campau Ave., ships about 500 bags a month to all 50 states and worldwide. Each bag comes with a decorative card stating the seamstress’s name and message: “Because of your purchase, she is able to have work, provide for her family and feel honor.”

University of Michigan graduate student Aleida Higginson, 26, designed a green leaf patterned bag for a friend who graduated. She then got one for Christmas, which she uses to carry her laptop and books.

Originally from Maryland, Higginson she says she likes supporting Detroit-made products that help women gain jobs.

“(The company) has a mission that’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re made in the USA,’ ” she says. “It’s more like, ‘Detroit has a problem, and we’re working to build business in Detroit to fix that.’ ”

The bags can be purchased and customized at BetterLifeBags.com, but Smith plans to move to a larger space next door this month and sell merchandise — ranging from $17 for keychains to $250 for backpacks — in-store. Of the 45 styles (typically named after the first customer who bought the bag), the black and white stripe pattern is most popular, though new Detroit and Chicago building prints are going fast.

Sitting in front of fake tree branches wrapped in colorful yarn, Smith says she intentionally made her business a for-profit, not nonprofit.

“We could be nonprofit, but we really wanted to be self-sustaining and show that a for-profit can make money and still do good,” she says.

Smith has long passed the two-year target for moving overseas, but she has no plans to pack up her bags or take her business out of Hamtramck.

“If it grows bigger, that’s wonderful and we will grow with it,” she says, “but if we also only made an impact in these 15 women, then I’d be very happy.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Better Life Bags Warehouse Sale

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: 9405 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck

What: Better Life Bags made from scraps and imperfect leather will be 25- to 80-percent off.

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