Jessica Hemmer of Hemmer Design became passionate about helping in the COVID-19 crisis long before the rest of the Cincinnati. Her brother lived in Japan and was a Type I diabetic. Protecting those in similar circumstances was of great concern.
Hemmer began our conversation by apologizing for missing my call by mere minutes. That’s how dedicated she is to advocating for small-batch design and manufacturing firms.
A University of Cincinnati DAAP graduate, she is an apparel designer and consultant who worked in materials and product development for the likes of Nike and Under Armour. After stints living elsewhere, she returned to Cincinnati to start her own business.
When the COVID-19 crisis began, Hemmer knew the biggest challenge to making protective gear was, she says, “in funding, in finding someone to make the purchases.” She needed to locate someone who held the purse strings. “I was pulled into the PPE response by the Urban Manufacturers Alliance (UMA), which supports U.S. manufacturing.” She then connected with another organization in New York City looking to help source materials to make protective apparel.
Hemmer excelled at connecting materials to manufacturers. However, challenges mounted. Once she sourced the materials, no one wanted to pay for the product. Governmental agencies sought out donated materials. So did hospitals. And that funding model wasn’t feasible for smaller manufacturers.
The efforts in NYC took shape quickly, and the state and several large economic development groups began purchasing large quantities of material, enabling the domestic production of PPE in the greater NYC region.
Locally, Hemmer started working with DAAP to design PPE and reconnected with Sew Valley co-founders Rosie Kovacs and Shailah Maynard. Sew Valley is the West End-based nonprofit that focuses on helping the design entrepreneur, providing resources for prototyping and small-batch manufacturing. “Sew Valley has manufacturing capabilities, industrial sewing machines, machines you can rent, classes,” Hemmer says. They started making PPE together, following all the necessary safety protocols for them and whatever other products were being manufactured.
Hemmer’s focus remains on sourcing, prototype development, and some marketing and sales. Through the coordinated effort with Sew Valley, she’s producing urban-grade masks, the kind for everyday use by restaurants or retailers.
Currently, they’re making masks for the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition (GCMC), a contingent at risk, and also senior care facilities. While they typically wouldn’t donate their services, they have set up a GoFundMe campaign for GCHC and a second campaign for Sew Valley.
“We just don’t have the capacity with staff and services to donate,” Hemmer says. “That’s why it’s so important to invest locally and strategically. We need others in the business community to validate our work and value it. It takes a certain skill level to produce these products.”
In the pause before concluding, I confess to Hemmer how we had met before. I mention, “I’m glad you’re here. Glad you’ve stayed. We need more of you.”
“It’s good to be here,” she says. “To be a part of growing something. On the East Coast, the markets were already set. Here, I can be a part of the leadership.”
Through the Port Authority, Hemmer and a few others are looking to eventually develop a larger format building to expand operations and add newer manufacturing studies. And in the future, there will be more options for community training programs.
In the interim, she’s also made hundreds of masks at home for family (her mother is one of 11 children). “I’ve just rallied and really seen my purpose, and it’s energizing,” she says. “I’m a 2 on the Enneagram. I’m a helper.”
Before we conclude, Hemmer weighs in again. “I really can’t stress enough the importance of fair wages, of putting people to work.”
In times of crisis, communities need individuals with energy and passion who understand the needs of the neighborhood and surrounding entities. Jessica Hemmer no longer worries about not knowing how to help or who to connect with. She solved her own problems and is prepared to tackle the larger societal ones with her vision together with that of Sew Valley.
OTR in Action: Donate to the campaign to produce masks for the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.
Annette Januzzi Wick (annettejwick.com) is a writer and walker connecting with the citizens and curiosities in her neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine and beyond.
OTR in Action is a series of stories from local creative writers with strong ties to Over-the-Rhine. The OTR Chamber paired them with neighborhood businesses to share the wisdom and passion of small business owners who have planted themselves in Over-the-Rhine.