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How this accessory brand owner empowers refugees through craft

May 5, 2021 | Published by Faire

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Bows Arts owner Liz Pham at the Bows Arts warehouse
All photos courtesy of Liz Pham

At Faire, we’re honored to partner with many inspiring Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) entrepreneurs across the small business ecosystem. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re sharing the work and stories of three AAPI-owned brands in our community. 

This week, we’re highlighting Bows Arts—a children’s hair accessories brand out of Glenview, Illinois. We spoke with owner Liz Pham about growing up with the brand, lessons from her mother, and the company’s work with refugees. 

Two families creating one brand

Bows Arts has been a part of owner Liz Pham’s life for as long as she can remember. Founder Barbara McBride was a sponsor of Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam war, and she sponsored Liz’s family when they first arrived in the United States in 1984.

Liz and her family lived with the McBrides in the suburbs of Chicago, and Barbara employed the women of Liz’s family as some of the brand’s first bow makers. Liz’s mother had an immediate knack for crafting the bows, and she remained with the company for almost 30 years, eventually earning the title of head bow marker.

“Every picture of me as a kid, I have a bow in my hair. My childhood is filled with memories of my mom driving my brothers and I around to practices and classes and making bows while waiting for us in the car.”

As the company grew, Liz’s mother and aunt recruited more members of the Vietnamese community in the area. Bow making soon became a trade that local families could learn from each other and pass on to the next generation. The job was flexible and allowed busy mothers to feel empowered by providing income to their families without sacrificing time with their children. 

“It gave my mom a sense of accomplishment to be able to contribute to the family,” Liz said. “She was able to provide for her family in a foreign country through a craft she excelled at. I didn’t really understand or appreciate that until later in life.”

Liz as a child wearing a bestselling Bows Arts bow

Continuing the family legacy

Bows Arts was eventually passed down to Barbara McBride’s daughter, and Liz’s mother remained head bow maker until she passed away from cancer in 2016. In 2019, when the McBride’s were ready to move on, Liz was the first person they approached to take over. 

“I couldn’t imagine this brand going into someone’s hands who didn’t love it like I did,” Liz said. “When I went in to talk about purchasing the business, I saw my mom’s handwriting on some of the ribbon templates. I knew then that I had to continue the mission of Bows Arts and my mom’s legacy.”

She purchased the company, and through the process was able to feel close to her mother even after her passing. She successfully implemented Bows Arts’ first direct-to-consumer pipeline and created a website for the business to grow online, all the while keeping the mission close to her heart. 

“I strive to lead with the same compassion as Barbara, and to employ people who just need a chance to stand out and excel like my mom,” she said. 

Liz and her mom wearing Bows Arts bows

Empowering refugees

Throughout the company’s evolution, it was important for Liz to remain true to the Bows Arts mission of employing and empowering local refugee women through craft. For the first time, she decided to amplify this mission to the public. “Our story wasn’t as well known because it wasn’t part of our business model or branding,” she said. “In the 1980s, it wasn’t as acceptable to talk about working with refugees. But now, we want to be vocal about how important our mission is.” 

Today, almost all of Bows Arts’ bow makers are Vietnamese refugees, many of whom are referred by word of mouth. The company also aims to grow its work with refugee organizations like RefugeeOne, a Chicago agency that creates opportunities for the new generation of refugees in America. Bows Arts recently teamed up with RefugeeOne to produce scrunchies made in the RefugeeOne Sewing Studio—a production studio staffed entirely by refugees who have learned sewing skills through vocational courses.  

Bows Arts also recently launched the “Diversity Heart Bow.” This giant heart-printed bow comes in a variety of shades to represent the diversity of our global culture. With each purchase, Bows Arts donates $6 to one of four organizations: 

  • The Girls Opportunity Alliance, a program from the Obama Foundation that works to empower adolescent girls from around the world by ensuring their access to education. 
  • Loveland Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing healing to communities of color—particularly Black women and girls—through access to mental health services.
  • RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency that assists refugees fleeing war, terror, and persecution in building new lives and becoming independent members of their communities.  
  • Room to Read, an organization working to improve literacy and gender equality in education in low-income communities.
Liz’s parents at the Philippines refugee camp where they resided before arriving in the United States

Support for minority-owned brands

Above all else, Liz advises fellow business owners to stay authentic to themselves and their company’s mission. “When I’m true to myself, authentic with my customers, and sharing what I’m passionate about, customers notice that and they want to get on board.”

When it comes to supporting other AAPI-owned businesses, Liz’s suggestion is simple—do your research. When shopping for products, see if you can buy the product you’re looking for from a minority-owned business. There are dedicated groups on Instagram and Facebook, like Liz’s personal favorite Asian Hustle Network, that provide resources for finding AAPI-owned brands in a variety of categories. 

“Minority brands aren’t hidden,” Liz says. “They’re out there. You just have to search around for them.”

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