The Local Look: ishi vest

Ishi vest Co-Founders Harishi Patel and Jackie Mahendra are up front about the question they most often hear: Hey, what’s up with the vests? The answer starts simple enough, with fielding questions on where to purchase a vest he had picked up on a recent trip to India. But ishi vest has grown into something much deeper. The vest company hopes to start a conversation about fair trade practices and the labor that goes into the clothes we all wear. We talked to Patel and Mahendra about the power they see in a simple vest.

Ishi vest Co-Founder Harishi Patel

Ishi vest Co-Founder Harishi Patel

Why did you choose Chicago?  Tell us about what it means to be a nonprofit in Chicago.  

Both of us have deep roots here and actually met in Chicago in 2007. We love that Chicago is full of young solutions-oriented, community-minded business owners, and we’ve joined with other values-driven organizations in Chicago to support everything from World Fair Trade Day to sweatshop-free ordinances. Chicago has a vibrant history of manufacturing and is becoming a hub for technology, philanthropy and social enterprise . At the end of the day, however, our community is what most inspires us, and we are thrilled to partner with amazing companies like Mata Traders, Chicago Fair Trade Association and Ten Thousand Villages Evanston, institutions that share our passion for sustainable fashion.

Ishi vest Co-Founder Jackie Mahendra

Ishi vest Co-Founder Jackie Mahendra

If you could go back in time before you became involved in running the business and share one piece of advice with yourself, what would you tell yourself?

As any social entrepreneur can tell you, launching a business is a roller coaster. We’d tell ourselves something like, “Trust your vision and community to guide you through the dips and swerves.” We’re always blown away by what happens when we bring our community with us into every aspect of the business.

Also, it’s important to talk with people who are on the same journey as you, so you can create a rising tide that lifts all boats.

What are your next steps?  

We are excited to continue building partnerships with Chicago-area retail locations, as well as with stores across the country. Chicagoland can already find us at Ten Thousand Villages in Evanston, for those who prefer an in-store experience. Finally, we are developing a new program, ishi | connect, that links U.S. businesses with the fair trade companies we work with in India. This is something that owners and designers reach out to us about constantly. Working to connect the dots and help people feel good about their clothes (and how they’re made) is what motivates ishi vest to practice radical supply chain transparency and support other businesses to do the same.

We want to be in the know!  Name one person, place or thing that you think is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets—a secret until now, of course.  

Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood! Harishi lives there and knows many Chicagoans who have never visited. Why we love it: Albany Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the U.S., with residents speaking more than 40 languages. With so much condensed culture, you get affordable and fantastic food from around the world. You can try authentic shawarma, sushi, or pupusa, all on the same block!

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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