Chardonnay and laughter flowed in the lobby of the swanky hotel.
It was Saturday evening in the Muehlebach Tower of the Marriott Downtown. Women in formal gowns and men in tuxedos and fine suits mingled at the cocktail hour for a gala to honor businesses. A video crew did interviews on a red carpet near a grand piano.
Then down the escalator into this sea of grandeur came a line of women who were new to this sort of thing. They had spent the past few hours upstairs in the hotel’s executive lounge getting hair and makeup done by professionals. Their long dresses — lace, chiffon, brocade and taffeta — had been donated.
Same for perfume, eyelashes and shoes.
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Days earlier, when the women tried on the apparel, one questioned another’s choice of footwear, pointing out they were going to be on their feet a long time at this thing. Those shoes didn’t look all that comfortable.
No worry, the woman told her friend.
“I used to work the streets. I could run in these.”
These are the women of Weave Gotcha Covered, a company that makes custom window and furniture coverings. In an old brick building on a corner near midtown, owner Kelly Wilson has fused entrepreneurship with social advocacy, not a terribly popular business model.
Most of her employees are single moms, women of poverty and addiction. High school dropouts. They’ve lived on the streets and been in trouble. But they found a home, and redemption, at Wilson’s business.
And business is booming. Thus the reason for that grand entry into Saturday’s gala sponsored by Thinking Bigger Business Media.
Weave Gotcha Covered, which saw sales double in 2015, was honored as one of the winners of the 25 Under 25 Awards to recognize businesses with fewer than 25 employees.
Wilson and her partner, Lonnie Vanderslice, could have gone to this event alone. After all, tickets were $160 a pop.
Wilson shook her head at the thought.
“We’re all going — it’s all for one here,” she said two days before the event. “These are amazing women. This business works because of the magic that happens here.”
So she put out the word for help. And it poured in. Dresses and shoes and jewelry from customers and friends. People pitched in for tickets. In that hotel lounge on the big day, a representative from Mary Kay showed up with 10 workers to do makeup. Volunteer stylists did hair.
The women, bonded by pasts and hopes, acted as if they were getting ready for the prom they never had.
“I was a mess back then, in my addiction,” seamstress Teresa Taylor said, then added: “But now I get to go to this thing with my best friends.”
When they were all ready to go downstairs, Wilson gathered them outside the elevators and checked out the whole bunch like a proud mom. She knew some were nervous about walking into this fancy thing. More than one had asked when to use what fork.
She looked them point blank in the eye and told them they belonged.
“Weave Gotcha Covered is every one of you. Have an amazing time tonight.”
Not much gets in the way of work inside the brick building at 27th and Charlotte streets.
OK, maybe recently when a donated formal gown came through the door. The workers had to run over and check it out.
Wilson had no problem with the diversion of the approaching gala.
“If you can’t dream it, you can’t aspire to it,” she said.
She’s a bit of a dreamer herself. A year ago, she moved the business from a strip center in the Northland to the midtown corner to better suit her employees, mostly single moms from the inner city who had hour-and-a-half bus rides to work, complete with cold waits at stops and cold walks to the finish.
Wilson started hiring these women after hearing a pitch for a program called Sister Berta’s 100 Jobs for 100 Moms. Sister Berta Sailer saw these women every day when they dropped children off at Operation Breakthrough, the childcare center she operated. They were poor and struggling against the streets and often themselves.
The Moms program kicked off in May 2013 with two moms and one employer. Today it’s at 22 moms with six employers: Grapevine Designs, Weave Gotcha Covered, Worldwide Innovations and Technologies, Dex Media, Swope Health Centers and KC Needlepoint.
Average tenure is two years, and most employers hire more than one mom, spokeswoman Julie Carmichael said. The jobs have child-friendly hours Monday through Friday.
Many of the women live at Amethyst Place, which provides transitional housing for women in recovery, and their children go to Operation Breakthrough.
Wilson’s business is just a few blocks from both.
A year ago, she had eight employees. Now she’s up to 18. Business doubled in 2015 and is up a third so far this year.
“We’ve already outgrown this place,” she said last week.
The plan now is to expand to the rest of the building for a nonprofit sewing lab to teach other women marketable skills.
“We know we can’t hire everybody,” she said. “But we can teach skills, so if anybody is cleaning our grandma’s closet and finds a box of quilting pieces, we’ll take it.”
Ask her about running a business and she’ll throw in a social studies lesson: Make a profit, yes, but it can’t all be about money. Something has to come from the heart.
“I’m in the business of providing jobs,” Wilson said. “That’s what we do here.”
She loves this story about employee Angie Smith, 38, who had been a meth addict for 20 years. She’s now five years clean and has earned a GED. If anybody has questions abut Roman shades, she’s the one they go to.
Not long ago, Wilson sent Smith to a customer’s house in Johnson County to check on an order. The woman was moving to San Francisco and told Smith she wished Weave Gotcha Covered was out there.
Smith told her that “well, as a matter of fact, we do jobs all over the country,” and gave her a card.
“I got to call Kelly and tell her maybe I got us a job,” Smith said with a big smile.
“That was pretty cool.”
Two years ago, Christina Hubbard, 25, was drug-addicted, bouncing couch to couch and close to losing her kids.
Now she’s 18 months clean, working and going to college at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.
“Without this place, I wouldn’t be doing any of that,” she said.
Saturday’s gala, she said, was like getting a second chance at a dream you thought would never come back.
“I’m going to feel worthwhile, and I might cry.”
The view out the 20th floor window of the Marriott goes forever — or about as far as the women of Weave Gotcha Covered might feel they traveled to get up there.
They have stories and scars from the streets, and now in this executive lounge they were getting their hair and makeup done, putting on fancy dresses and snacking on cheese and crackers.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this and now — wow!” Jeanetta Lindsey said, checking herself out in a mirror in her lavender satiny lace gown.
Then she got serious.
“I’m so proud to be here and to represent Weave Gotcha Covered. Kelly means so much to all of us. Her passion, we see it every day. We’re a bunch of single moms that she reached out to and now, here, look at us.”
Mary Kay rep Janet Hargarden, besides bringing the cosmetic crew, gave each woman a loaded compact. She’s a former Kansas City police sergeant who worked Central Patrol. She used to drop women like these off at shelters.
“But I never knew what happened to them after that,” she said.
As the women primped, they hugged and laughed and took pictures.
“You look like a movie star!”
“My feet hurt, but I’m not about to take these off.”
They sniffed perfume bottles.
Wilson’s daughters, Alli and Stephanie Wilson, who came in for the event from San Diego, watched it all with pride.
“Her business is all about them,” Alli said. “My mom’s a superhero.”
Then they all rode the escalator down and walked into the gala like it was old hat. A grand entry. Except for the woman who quickly found a place to sit to take her shoes off.
Later they were all ushered to their tables inside the large, packed, darkened ballroom. It was there in the glow of low light that waiters in bow ties catered to the women of Weave Gotcha Covered.
It wasn’t prom, but this night was theirs.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182