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Hayley Besheer Santell: Threads for Change

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Captain Underpants is a superhero who rights wrongs wearing a red cape with black polka dots and white underwear. He’s an immensely popular good guy, and kids, especially boys, love reading about his adventures of helping others in times of trouble.

While Hayley Besheer Santell doesn’t fight crime in her underwear, she knows the importance of having clean undergarments for women in shelters and domestic abuse centers. The Kansas City, Missouri, native is a Captain Underpants to many at-risk women by donating new, clean panties through her company, MADI, Make A Difference Intimate Apparel.

“Around 2012, a friend and I stumbled on a blog promoting a shocking statistic that underwear was the most needed and under-donated item of clothing. Just by chance, around the same time, a family member told me that 30 years ago she had been a victim of domestic abuse. I was shocked; I had no idea. It turns out underwear tops the most urgent needs list at domestic violence shelters nationwide. I wanted to fulfill that urgent essential,” revealed Hayley. “That’s the mission of MADI. You buy any item of intimate apparel, and we’ll donate a pair of underwear to someone in crisis to bring dignity and meet a global, urgent need. At MADI, we empower women to empower themselves.”

Needs-Based Goal
Hayley had her goal in mind and started MADI with a friend in Florida in 2012. The pair was keen on creating local jobs and fulfilling the global underwear need. The idea was to use sustainable fabric, and her friend, a textile major, suggested bamboo, an environmentally friendly product. It was a bit risky, an untested idea. At that time, bamboo was a new thing, not the hot topic it is now. But they persevered. They decided on a manufacturer in the U.S. Every area of their business plan would be positively impacted.

“But then my friend decided this wasn’t for her and pulled out of the project. It was a scary moment, and then I couldn’t find any U.S. manufacturers because so many jobs went offshore. I really wanted to keep it local and keep local jobs,” recalled Hayley. “Finally, in 2013, I found a company that was sewing in the U.S., and he gave me a shot with our initial run. We sold our line at concerts and other ventures, and it was successful. At the end of 2014, I decided I wanted to move back to Kansas City for more opportunities. I found a cut-and-sew team here and got started.”

Hayley designs the entire line of intimate apparel and sleepwear, from underwear, such as briefs, bikinis, boy shorts, thongs and bralettes, to robes, dresses, tanks and more. She pushes out new products every six months, and she’s very excited about a tie-back tank that’s just been launched. But no matter the item, MADI garments are high quality and wearable for multiple occasions. And any item that’s purchased means a donated pair of underwear to women at risk.

Staying Local
“Anything we sell in Kansas City we give back to Kansas City. Right now we’re supporting 13 organizations, from homeless shelters to rape crisis centers. Anything sold in retail stores carrying MADI apparel is donated back to those local cities. With MADI, we strive to keep it local and give our retailers a shelter organization to donate to,” she noted. “On the website, we distribute as requested, many times on a global basis. Many pieces of underwear have gone to Haiti for a birth clinic, remote villages and deportee camp. Organizations in Ecuador, Panama and Cuba, to name a few, have also received our undergarments.”

Not only is MADI focused on using sustainable products, Hayley and her team concentrate on using fabrics and trims that will stay the course of time. Bamboo is the fastest-growing fiber in the world, and the process uses no or low levels of pesticides. It’s a very eco-friendly fiber and lasts a long time. Other materials used in the garments are selected by evaluating how they’re made. Low end-waste in the production process is highly valued. Trims and laces made in the U.S.A. are sought after because they endure multiple washings and usage. Because of the high standards MADI employs, Hayley promises these garments can be worn for years.

“I’ve never had a pair of underwear that’s lasted over a year or two. But MADI products are more resilient, and we donate the same underwear that we sell, the exact same high quality. You simply wash and hang to dry overnight. We’re about empowering women through a small gift and training women for jobs. We care about each woman’s journey.”

Making an Impact
Hayley cares so much she actually stood in an intersection of the Country Club Plaza in December in her underwear to help the MADI cause. “I had just read the book Rejection Proof. The author is a corporate executive who wanted to start his own business but was scared. So he created challenges for himself, such as asking a neighbor to play soccer in their backyard. The idea was to set himself up to hear people say ‘No,’ and then grow so he wasn’t afraid to hear ‘No,’” she recalled. “I put myself on the Plaza to call attention to how women feel, the vulnerability a woman experiences in a certain situation without underwear. It certainly was scary for me, but it worked and people understood the concept, the symbolism, I was trying to share. The policemen on the scene even asked if they could get underwear for their wives.”

Not only is MADI about supplying at-risk women with underwear, but Hayley’s business model is to employ local, women-owned businesses to create her products. Now, she’s taken that a step further by giving jobs to at-risk women through a program called MADI Makes that launched in May 2018, established under her nonprofit 501(c) 3, MADI Donations.

“For the three years I’ve been in Kansas City, I’ve focused on contracting local, women-owned businesses. But I thought I could employ at-risk women who are experiencing cycles of poverty and other obstacles. Hope Faith Ministries, with a sewing center already on its campus, actually reached out to us wondering if we could create a jobs training program and employment opportunity for its clients with already intermediate sewing skills. 

“We raised funds to pay for sewing machines and other items to train and employ women,” commented Hayley. “Together, we formed a partnership to train clients of Hope Faith to make our underwear. Our first trainee, Andrescia, even has a studio arts degree from UMKC. Her trainer is the owner of one of our contracted cut-and-sew businesses. Once Andrescia’s trained, for-profit MADI Apparel will have the opportunity to hire her as a contract employee, too.”

Check the Label
The garment industry in our country had a rich history, with many pieces of clothing sporting the Made in the U.S.A. label. But low-cost manufacturing facilities in other countries chipped away at the business until most of it has been lost to overseas companies. While many of us wear garments constructed overseas, Hayley warns of the cost to mankind, especially the women who run the sewing machines to make our clothing.

“Don’t settle on the things that you buy in women’s apparel. If it’s cheap, then it’s cheapening someone’s life. Think of the people who make those products,” she shared. “With our garments, we want people to feel beautiful and inspired about what they’re wearing. We want you to think about the greater picture. How can you positively impact the world with our underwear? We want other women to feel beautiful, safe and clean with our products, no matter if they’re bought or donated. I say that you should think about the people you’re surrounded by, and what is the one thing you can do to make them feel better.”

Hayley has certainly ventured into a challenging business world. Not only is she striving to make a profit, but she gives away a large portion of those dollars. She offers these insights into building a successful business. “I’m just a real person and don’t have lots of money, but I do my best to make a difference. Listen to your intuition and use your strengths; my greatest one is empathy. If you’re at a job that’s not using your strengths appropriately, you might be better somewhere else,” shared Hayley. “I’ve received so much support from Kansas Citians. They’ve helped me create an excellent standard for my products. Also, I say put positivity into the world because people will soak it up and bring it back to others.”

The Needle Moves
As for the future, Hayley is focused on scaling up MADI to reach more women by selling more products through boutiques and outlets, which will enable her company to donate even more underwear. She’s keenly aware of launching more products and perfecting them. She even dreams of initiating a men’s line. “MADI is all about empowering women, from our sales and donations to the woman-owned contractors we use,” she remarked. “We want women to feel special, important and worthy of everything they want to be. That’s the purpose of our business.”

Tonight, if you read a Captain Underpants adventure to your children, you have an addendum to share. Tell them the story of another champion, living right here in Kansas City, whose powers don’t revolve around chasing bad guys or possessing super strength. Hayley Besheer Santell is a superhero simply because she gives dignity and respect to women in need, one set of underwear at a time.

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