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Entrepreneur Manufactures a Haitian Recovery

3 minute read
Sean Gregory/Port-Au-Prince

Mesh Gelman, a scarily enthusiastic, in-your-face entrepreneur, is standing in a Port-au-Prince factory whose machines are idled as he examines a newly printed T-shirt. The slogan is supposed to read “Choose Haiti,” but the letters e and H are piled on top of each other. To Gelman, a textile whiz in New York City whose main business is importing home linens for retail chains, the goof is not surprising. “I can’t tell you how many times something comes in on a box from Asia and I have to ship it back and start over again,” he says. He fiddles with fonts on a laptop, and the 15 or so Haitian workers who have been waiting around are soon given the go-ahead to resume production.

(See TIME’s special report on the Haiti earthquake.)

Gelman believes that commerce, not charity, is the most sustainable way to fight poverty. That’s why in mid-April, three months after the earthquake in Haiti, he and his business partner, branding expert Elizabeth Brown, started a Facebook page to promote a fledgling made-in-Haiti movement; within a week, the Choose Haiti group attracted more than 22,000 fans. He and Brown are producing 50,000 T-shirts in Port-au-Prince, which they plan to sell at $9.99 a pop. The initial order is creating more than 200 jobs, and by May, Gelman and Brown will hire an additional 240 people when they shift production from China to Haiti for their linen brand, Blanket America.

Jobs will ultimately determine Haiti’s long-term fate. The country’s once thriving textile industry had been losing work to Asia since long before the Jan. 12 quake. To help reverse that trend, in 2006, U.S. trade law started giving duty-free treatment to garments made in Haiti, where the textile sector currently employs some 25,000 people. Port-au-Prince wants to up that total to 150,000. “I wish Bill Clinton would come down here with the CEO of Walmart, the CEO of Target,” says John Park, a factory owner in Haiti. “We need work.”

(Watch a video about Bill Clinton and Haiti.)

According to Haitian officials, Blanket America will be the first U.S. textile business to move its factories to Haiti since the quake. Apparel brands Beverly Hills Polo and Pony are also scoping out the country. And Gelman and Brown are pitching other retailers to join their cause. As we ride through the rubble of Port-au-Prince, Gelman e-mails longtime friend Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, to see if he’ll start selling Haitian coffee in his shops. (Schultz has yet to make a commitment, but his company is working with Haiti to improve the country’s beans.)

Apart from Gelman’s efforts, Gap is planning to roll out its own made-in-Haiti line. The company, which owns Old Navy and is already responsible for more than 4,000 Haitian textile jobs, may even set up special Haiti sections in some stores. “Customers generally don’t care about country of origin,” says Art Peck, a senior Gap executive. “We think they will with Haiti.”

With the spacing issue corrected on Gelman’s “Choose Haiti” shirts and the first consumer-worthy items starting to roll off the assembly line, we witness an event all too rare since the devastating quake: a group of Haitians smile.

See videos about Haiti.

See TIME’s photo-essay “Children’s Messages of Hope for Haiti.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com