Rick Roth illustrates that it's possible to run a labor-friendly, community minded, politically active business and do well finalcially. For two decades, the Green Street resident has used his screen printing business, Mirror Image, to mirror his personal values and political beliefs. Through it all, business has boomed.
Roth, a Quaker who grew up in Connecticut, started making custom T-shirts in his basement in 1982 after abandoning his studies at Harvard Divinity School. The self-described "unrepentant hippie" was as committed to social causes as to making money, and from the start he offered his business as a resource for Amnesty International, Farm Aid, The Albany Street Shelter in Cambridge, and other nonprofit organizations with which he was involved.
Fast forward 20 years. Today, Mirror Image has offices in Harvard Square and makes T-shirts at a 27,000-square foot factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Last year, the company printed more than 1-1/2 million T-shirts, and made approximately $2-1/2 million. Through the years, Roth and Mirror Image have constantly contributed to social causes - typically by donating T-shirts and by soliciting donations from suppliers.
Recently, Mirror Image was named 'Decorator of the Year' by Impressions, a trade magazine serving the decorated apparel and imprinted products industry. It is arguably the highest award in the business. On Tuesday, Roth boarded a plane to Long Beach, California to accept the award.
"Ir's really an honor because this is the first time they've given this award, and they gave it to us," said Roth. "We're arguably one of the best printers in the world, but they recognized us more for the charitable stuff."
Despite his obvious business accomplishments, Roth maintains he's more proud of the way he uses his business as a vehicle to do social good.
"You use what you have in the world - some people have time on their hands, some people have creative ability. I have a business, so I want to use it to express the values that I have," says Roth. "I haven't always have cash, but even when business hasn't gone well, there's things you can do - donate space or consulting, and try to encourage other business people to do the same.
In more ways than one, Roth, 48, is not your typical millionaire entrepreneur. In his early 20's, Roth worked at a furniture factory in Norway, on a farm on an island in a Norwegian fjord, and as a landscaper and professional basketball player in Switzerland. Returning to New Enland, he worked as a counselor at a heroin treatment center in Boston during a one-year stint at Harvard Divinity School. The clinic lost government funding and closed, but Roth had already begun making T-shirts. He began the business when he made 12 shirts that read "Fed on Zinke's corn" for a farmer friend in Konkapot, Mass.
Roth incorporated Mirror Image six years later, eventually moving to a factory on Albany Street in Cambridge. Beginning with his first employee he ran a union shop. He has always given three-day weekends, and many of his employees are high school students and artists. One of his current employees, Jose Sotz, is a former trade unionist in his native Guatemala whose son was shot and paralyzed. Roth's Amnesty International chapter helped Sotz gain political asylum. When Sotz arrived in the Boston area, Roth made him a Mirror Image employee.
"Rick sort of lives the life of an actifvist day to day, year to year. He takes it to work every day," said Carl Williams, a volunteer leader with the local chapter of Amnesty International. "He's always asking, 'What are the things we can do - we can give advice to organizations that can help them in their work, we can print shirts really cheaply for them."
In the future, Roth hopes to double his sales to $5 million and increase staff size to as many as 40 employees. But he insists that, as when he started making T-shirts 20 years ago, the bottom line is not only about dollars.
"I really don't need to be rich," Roth said. "I know a lot of unhappy rich people. I need to feel like I'm doing something positive for my community and for the world."