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S2: Mile High Workshop in Denver, Colorado#43

Social Enterprise manufacturing in Denver, Colorado

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Incredible interview by Romy with Jeremy Katz and Andy Magel of the Mile High Workshop in Denver Colorado.  Listen in on how Jeremy and Andy are provided jobs to those with barriers to employment all while providing critical manufacturing services to the social entrepreneurial community.  The Mile High Workshop has already assisted several businesses with their production and continues to change lives. Be Inspired!



Full transcription of the interview:

Romy: Hey, thanks for tuning in, this is Romy and I’ll be your host for this episode on the Bonfires of Social Enterprise. Today I’m interviewing Andy Magel and Jeremy Katz of the Mile High Workshop in Denver Colorado. Andy and Jeremy started Mile High Workshop to provide two things…manufacturing for social enterprises and create some employment for those with barriers to the employment. They do woodworking, glass etching and sewing all for the social entrepreneurs in their area. You will learn how they’re structured and what they’re working on now. But before we meet our featured guest, we have a little something we call the Fun Facts Fuel.
Jentzen: Hey everyone, this is Jentzen and I have some Fun Fuel to spark this episode. The Mile High Workshop inspired me to look into the history of sewing manufacturing. I found a story of the emergence on sewing machines in Smithsonian magazine, July 14th, 2015 issue. The article is by Alex Palmer and he gives us an inside look at the battle of patents over the sewing machine.
This battle became known as the Sewing Machine War of the mid 1800s. The Singer sewing machine, as we know today, was designed by many different inventors. It was actually Elias Howe who created the original sewing machine concept in 1846. Isaac Merritt Singer came along and made a few changes and the war began. Singer patented his own version in 1951, by then, a bunch of other inventors wanted to join the sewing machine patented war, all laying claim to part of the process. Eventually, a lawyer proposed a unprecedented idea. He proposed that everyone merge their ideas and patents and one license fee mile that they would all share. The very first patented pool was created, ending the sewing machine war of the mid-eighteen hundred.
This is Jentzen and I will be talking to you next time.
Romy: We appreciate you. If you would like to support us on Patreon, please go to our website for the link to great supplemental content and connections. All right, lets listen to my interview with Andy and Jeremy of the Mile High Workshop.
Romy: First guys, welcome to the Bonfires of Social Enterprise. Will you tell us, either Andy or Jeremy, about the Mile High Workshop?
Jeremy: Sure, I’ll go ahead and kick it off. Thanks Romy. This is Jeremy and the Mile High Workshop here in Denver Colorado. As it exists today, is an employment and job training program for people who are recovering from addiction, homelessness or incarceration and we create jobs and give them jobs doing manufacturing and production of handmade goods. So, really anything that you can make with your hands, we have capacity for woodworking, we do sewing, we do laser etching, cutting. We do general assembly of jewelry and other things like that and anything that we can create a job doing, we are happy to do that.
Romy: Well, and Jeremy, before we go further, are you doing it as a manufacturer or are you selling some of those products yourself?
Jeremy: Yeah, we are primarily a contract manufacturers, right now small businesses in Denver who have a product and a brand and marketing and all that will outsource their production to us. So, we do small batch manufacturing and help other small businesses in Denver grow and get off the ground.
Romy: And how small will you go Jeremy? A couple items?
Jeremy: Officially, we had a hundred dollar minimum order size, but we do manufacturing all across the board, anything from a few items to large projects as well.
Romy: Wow, that’s fabulous because that’s probably so hard to find and that’s one of the huge barriers for most entrepreneurs to get in. They can’t find somebody to help them even prototype some items to get launched. Can you take us back through the history of how this idea even came to you, to get right in the middle of the manufacturing space?
Andy: Yeah, this is Andy. I’ll kind of fill the back story. We started up as a operation about a year and a half ago and when we started, we really just had the mission of creating jobs and training opportunities for people. We didn’t necessarily know what that would look like. So we started by just launching several businesses that we owned and operated and were trying to use those to create an impact on our community but we quickly realized that the output we were getting in terms of jobs was very minimal compared to what we were putting into them in terms of time and money. I just felt like, we weren’t doing things as well as we possibly could and so we kind of reevaluated what was working and wasn’t working.
Well what was working was a relationship that we had started in town with a couple of photographers running a business called Artisan Obscura and they make camera accessories and they had been making them in their garage and were hoping to scale the business and grow it and needed to get out of the actual production side of things.
So they partnered with us, brought all their stuff into our space, and taught us how to make their products and we started doing that, we were able to hire somebody to do that, and we kind of became their back-end to their business, which freed them up to be more creative, to develop new products, to sell more, to market more, and they really saw their business grow under that relationship.
We also realized that we got to hire somebody and work with them and train them without having to sell anything or market anything and it just really seemed to be a win-win relationship. So we just kind of sought out to replicate that, and so we had a laser etching machine as a part of that relationship and we just started by trying to bring in business for that etching machine and as that grew we added on a wood shop and a sewing shop and didn’t necessarily intend to become what we are today but just kind of followed the opportunities.
Romy: It seems like some things just sort of organically popped up at the need and the resources that you had. It seems like you were doing a little bit of organic matching, I would call it there.
Andy: Yeah, no that’s absolutely true. I think our first fifteen to twenty customers all happened through a referral and so naturally we found ourselves with a small customer base and demand and so we decided it would be worth pursuing. I think we really operate in this space of mutual need where a small business, if they want to grow, a common bottleneck is capacity in the ability to produce goods. If you’re one or two people, you’re limited in growth just in terms of how much you can physically make and so we can step into that equation and allow a small business to grow and make more than they can produce themselves, and so that’s a win for the small business, but also allows us to hire people through that activity and we don’t have to sell or market that product or be experts in that industry, but we still get access to the employment opportunities they’re generating.
Romy: Now in the state of Colorado, are there sort of funding sources or grants from your state to encourage employment?
Andy: I think the state of Colorado is an excellent climate to be operating a social enterprise and I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm. There’s a lot of people who are onboard with the concept who are trying new things, who are supporting it in various ways. Financially, in terms of what the state is offering, we, being relatively new are kind of new to that landscape and are just figuring that out for ourselves. So I think, the department of corrections out here is really looking into some unique things and exploring some new ideas, which I’m really excited about, in terms of training and transitional opportunities. Looking at ways to reduce recidivism, and so I think there’s some exciting stuff on the horizon and there’s some access to funding that could become available through those avenues, but right now were a combination of kind of earned revenue and then individual donors that support our cause.
Romy: Do you guys have any goals identified about what you’re trying to do in terms of how much comes in through earned revenue and donations, any targets on your mind?
Jeremy: Yeah I would say our goal is definitely a hundred percent sustainable revenue stream and we believe we can hit that in the next two to three years. We have already had eight employees that are either currently with us or have gone through and have already graduated from the program. We have about twenty to twenty five clients that our revenue is derived from right now, so things are looking strong.
Romy: Wow, that’s really exciting, two or three years? That’s powerful. Are you finding that the fact that you’re creating this employment is helping to make you perhaps a priority in a potential clients mind?
Andy: Yeah absolutely.
Jeremy: Yeah definitely. I mean, one of the great benefits I think that we can offer to our clients, other than the fact that they are able to manufacture in the United States, which is adventitious and looks good for their customer base, is that they have this whole other branding aspect where they can brand their products as being made at the Mile High Workshop, and we’re working toward branding that name so that its known throughout Colorado that the Mile High Workshop exists to meet the needs of people facing various unemployment, and products coming out of Mile High Workshop are helping to create those jobs. So it’s a win for us and it’s a win for our clients and it’s a win for their customers ultimately.
Romy: Yeah and honing in on that, I think often when we are social enterprises, that are, what I call that doing the social staffing where we are typical going after those folks, that as you said have barriers to employment. Are you working with any partner agencies on life skills training or, for example, a lot of times when we’re working with social enterprises that hire folks from homelessness. There’s a certain set of issues that people group experiences like they might have to get their drivers licenses restored, they might need legal aid, they might need financial education. How are you guys handling the issues that come with some of those barrier to employment?
Andy: I think there are other variables that come, it’s not a traditional business model, in a sense that were trying to find the best qualified people, we actually want people who aren’t qualified. We want to help them become qualified. So we take time out of our schedule every week to do group meetings and training’s and check-ins. We meet with everyone individually on the clock just as a part of the job, to try and set goals and provide supports. Everyone is an individual and has different needs and so we really try to custom tailor the work that we do to the people that we work with.
Jeremy: And as like an add on to that, we have as part of our staff, we have a program director, who’s working on building out, sort of what you could call the life skills curriculum, so, our employees meet with her one-on-one, once a week while they’re on the clock and additionally we have group training sessions where each week there’s a different topic, maybe we cover budgeting, the next time we cover conflict book resolution. How to go out and seek other employment opportunities. Things like that, we really encourage our employees to be looking towards their next step, you know, what is the next opportunity after you’re done working here at the Mile High Workshop, to help with that transition.
Romy: Powerful. Empowering as they say. Instead of enabling, right?
Andy: That’s it.
Romy: How do you guys decide who you’re going to hire. I think we both know you’ve been doing it long enough that there is the group that we want to hire, we see some challenges there, but then there’s also some vetting that we have to do within that category. How have you started to put together a vetting process of who you decide within a certain group?
Andy: I think when you’re looking at bringing somebody on board, to me at least, it’s always this combination of, of who’s ready, who can help us? There definitely is, I guess I would say, maybe a minimum in terms of who are able to help for sure. So who can us, who’s ready and then who needs us? It’s definitely not our mission to just hire someone just for the, because they need the opportunity and that were fulfilling our mission that way, so.
Jeremy: We look to be intentional about who we are hiring because we know especially, you’re coming out of incarceration, not everybody is ready for a full time job right out, so, we actually partnered to work with transitional housing programs and halfway houses to help pinpoint and refer to us the people that they believe are ready and willing to work hard, and show up to work everyday because we are a traditional business and our employees need to be here everyday, on time and work hard and they do, for sure.
Romy: I think for the listeners out there too, it’s important to know that to look around to other agencies like that, because you do need, sort of that expertise interface don’t you find?
Andy: Yeah, I think our success rate is dramatically higher when you can partner with another organization and so when an individual is kind of book-ended by good support at work, and that they can go home to a good environment or at least have other positive influences and healthy people in their lives, the likelihood of their success is dramatically higher.
Romy: Yeah what a good point, I like that term, book-ended with support, what a great word there. So while we are still on sort of this social mission, do you guys have specific goals in your heads or formally written down that you, man wouldn’t it be great if this is how much employment we created over time. Is that part of your dialogue at all?
Andy: Oh yeah absolutely, yeah, me and Jeremy are sitting in our office with a blow chart on the wall, talking about exactly that.
Jeremy: Yeah, it’s our roadmap goals. We’ve talked informally about a hundred jobs within three years.
Romy: Well that’s a systemic change right there.
Andy: Yeah, yeah absolutely.
Romy: Out of one business. Could you describe as best you could, because some of the folks don’t have access to maybe get on your website and see some samples of some of the types of products you make for your clients.
Jeremy: Yeah, I’ll start in the sewing department. One of our biggest clients is a brand called mission wear, they have some really cool products actually, they take recycled vinyl banners and up-cycle them into handbags, and apparel and things like that so if you ever go to a big festival or event or a one time kind of a show that’s coming to town. Well they always do marketing advertising on these vinyl banners but what are they gonna do with those banners after the festival or event or the show ends. Well this company here in Denver, they collect them all, and they get them donated, and then they bring them to us, all the raw material, along with their handbag design, and then we do all the production for them. They’re pretty successful so, it’s a really cool product that not only is it creating a job but it’s also being environmentally friendly and sustainable with up-cycling.
Romy: Wow. What else?
Andy: One of our oldest customers is Artisan Obscura, where like I mentioned earlier, they make camera accessories. so, shutter buttons and hot shoot covers and all kinds of just amazing woods and different designs and so we’re able to do those on our laser etching machine and a cool part of that relationship is we not only make their product but we also fulfill their orders. So we ship everything and distribute stuff all around the world for them, so they’ve been a great customer of ours. A big part of the inspiration to even do what we are doing right now.
Jeremy: I’ll just talk about one more. In our wood shop for example, we do a lot of smaller wood working projects and one of our first clients in the wood shop was a local brand called Purpose and Pine. They specialize in large furniture and using reclaimed woods and things like that, but they also have a product that’s a high seller for them where they take old Colorado blue sting beetle kill pine and then attach a bottle opener to it, and then on the back we route out some space and put some magnets so that when you pop your bottle cap for your soda pop for example, and the bottle caps falls, attaches right to it, so you can hang it at your bar or in your kitchen and have a bottle opener right there with a magnetic back.
Romy: Cool and then I saw some really super cool business cards made out of wood. That was really interesting.
Andy: Yeah that’s another great partner of ours. His name is, Whiskey and Wood is the name of his business. It was all of his idea and that’s the really cool thing i think about our models, you know, we kind of outsourced the creativity and just asked people to bring your designs to us and we’ll make it, so Matt just said, “Hey I do wood working and I want a wooden business card, do you think you could do it?” And he saw and we did and they’re pretty cool.
Romy: So let’s just re-go over that, so its wood, sewing and there was one more?
Andy: Laser etching machine and some kind of general assembly type work as well.
Romy: Okay, general assembly because, I was just thinking, you would likely take on a client outside of Denver as well as long they came to you right?
Andy: Yes absolutely, we would love it.
Romy: Okay so wood, general assembly, sewing and laser etching, for now and I have a feeling you guys are going to end up just sort of keeping, expanding as your client base expands.
Jeremy: Right, you know anyone with a C and C machine or screen printing or anything like that, send them our way, we would love to.
Romy: Okay very cool, So staying with this theme of if they’re coming from outside of the state, they might not now what mile high means, you’re called the Mile High Workshop.
Andy: Right, right and we used to go by fifty two eighty workshop some as well and it all became very confusing for people who don’t know what that means.
Jeremy: The reference.
Andy: So fifty two eighty, that’s how many feet above sea level we are, which is a mile, you know, Denver is called the mile high city, and we are the workshop, so were the Mile High Workshop.
Jeremy: That’s right.
Romy: What would be sort of you’re grand plans if you would let yourself dream really really big, right now with what I say you’re truth of the moment. The fact you have the moment and you really let yourself dream big, what could Mile High Workshop look like in the future?
Jeremy: I think we truly believe that manufacturing is coming back to America, but for the longest time manufacturing was going overseas and we believe it’s time to come back and it’s time to start rebuilding the manufacturing in the United States and we want to be the go to manufacture here in, not only in Denver Colorado, but in the western region. That could lead to creating thousands of jobs over the course of the next decade or two, really changing the landscape.
Andy: Absolutely and I think I’ll add on to that. We’re not just trying to start a business, were trying to start a model and my hope would be that it’s a model that could be replicated and that you see, not just the Mile High Workshop but eventually you would see a workshop in every major city or around the world for that matter.
Jeremy: The Detroit workshop.
Andy: Exactly.
Romy: We’d love that.
Jeremy: Yes. Me too.
Romy: All right, before I kind of end it, I know you guys probably have a word of advice or maybe some tips for some folks either in the U.S. or just for our global audience. There’s a lot of folks trying to think about how to address this employment, and you guys are sort of freshly launched. It would be so great if you could just maybe share some thoughts of encouragement to others that are thinking about starting something that would create employment if you would.
Jeremy: Yeah, Andy and I went through a social enterprise accelerator program back in May with a organization called the unreasonable institute, which I encourage anyone interested in this realm to check out, but the biggest thing I took away from that was just do it, just go and try something. Just try to create something, try and create one job and like you mentioned earlier in the podcast, the Mile High Workshop grew organically and it came from one relationship, one job, now we have multiple relationships and multiple jobs.
Andy: Yeah, yeah and I think to piggyback on that, not only do something but do something quickly and just try it. My other thing I would say, a lesson that we’ve learned would be to collaborate. Think outside the box in terms of how can you create impact, not only what can you do personally, or what can your one organization do but what are the resources that are in your area that collectively can create good works, because the workshop doesn’t exist without our customers or our partners and without those relationships, our impact is extremely minimal. Who can you reach out to make your dream or whatever it is that you’re thinking about a reality.
Romy: That’s powerful. One of the things I want to highlight that you guys are doing that you have tackled, is you have kind of come against this myth that you have to actually be the store front, you don’t have to be the front line retail operation or the front line service provider. You can become a part of the system that enables others and its one of the reasons I was really excited to do this interview with you guys because you guys kind of jumped right in and did the all proverbial, rising the tide for everyone by setting up as this version of a service provider, but I want to encourage others that are thinking about it, you don’t have to have the front line store front. There’s so many places that you can get in and all different versions of service provision to the industry where you’re really making a difference. How do they reach you guys, Andy and Jeremy? Social media maybe?
Andy: Yeah absolutely, I mean we are on all the major social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and then our website is just and that’s spelled out M-I-L-E-H-I-G-H
Jeremy: Yeah and I encourage anyone if they want to learn more to go to the website also, if you want to support us today in the social enterprise fashion, we actually created our own product line recently. It’s some Colorado themed drink coasters and tumbler glasses that have been etched with some cool designs and you can purchase those on our shop. Each one we sell helps sustain and create jobs.
Romy: Well thank you so much. We want to come back with you and keep walking with you while you’re doing your lifecycle of your business. Thanks so much Jeremy and Andy. It’s been fun.
Destanee: It’s time to reveal the mystery sound. Here is the sound we gave you last week of the Mile High Workshop. This is the sound of sewing machines at the Mile High Workshop. Visit our Facebook page where we will announce the winners. Now, here is the sound for the next episode on hopeful harvest. Go to and hit the mystery sound link to enter a guess at the sound. This is Destanee and I will talk to you next week on our episode with guests from hopeful harvest.
Romy: Time to close out our episode with another great Detroit artist, curated by a simple sound. Please meet artist JR JR. The name of this song is Gone.

End of Transcription.


For more on the Mile High Workshop please visit their website at or find them on Facebook or Twitter @MH_WorkShop


To hear more from artist JR JR and their great song ‘Gone,’ please visit them on Soundcloud.

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Guess the mystery sound for the upcoming episode in the link on that site or give us a question to the mailbag!

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