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Printwear Magazine
Making a Difference
Printing with a
Social Conscience

by K. Schipper
Mirror Image group photo
HOW THE "OTHER HALF" LIVES: Those who work at Mirror Image - informal posed here, outside their shop-don't have to go far to find causes on which to lavish their social concern.

Welcome to our newest monthly feature: "Making a Difference." Here we will endeavor to present the unsung heros, the "little" success stories and the slices of reality to remind us that, amid the dozens-per hour boasts, the case-pricing achievements and the profit-margin triumphs, we're still an industry made up of people. Throughout 1997, here will be the place to find stories like the one below, concerning individuals in our industry-from both the supply and decorator communities-who are giving back in some specific, generous way. If you know of such an individual or if you happen to be one drop us a FAX at (800) 775-0424, or an e-mail to We want to share your story with the apparel-graphics industry.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.-In an age when many screen printers feel pressed just to find time to attend to business, Rick Roth is something of an anomaly.

Over the past six years, the owner of Mirror Image has not only grown his business to 10,000 square feet of shop space, more than two dozen employees and a national reputation as one of the industry's most talented shops, but he's also actively exercised his social conscience-applying his time, talents, concern and resources to causes large and small, from groups such as Amnesty International and Farm Aid, to the local middle school and homeless shelter-while still finding time to be the father of three teenage girls.

And, while he admits to sometimes working 50- and 60 hour weeks, he says the key to fitting everything into his schedule is simple. He's made his various altruistic activities an integral part of his life and of his business. In other words, his socially responsible labors are "not something where I get all my other work done first and then go do," he explains. Nor, he says, are such activities something done apart from his family or that family matters keep him from. "My family does it with me."

In fact, he has smoothly integrated his social concerns into his business relation ships. A recent example was his successful effort to persuade a company that custom dyes T-shirts to donate garments for a group called the Jesus Power League, which works with hardened street youths.

"I really believe that most people want to make the world a better place, " Roth says. "It's very rare that I don't get someone to give a donation when it's presented properly and they think they'll make a difference."

Roth, in fact, has been quite successful at persuading others to pick up the banner of a wide variety of worthy causes. But this matter of proper presentation isn't automatic. Part of convincing a donor that his or her actions will make a difference is to make certain that the request has a clear purpose. And, Roth adds, it also should utilize the donor's time and abilities to best advantage. He cites a friend-a guitar playing lawyer-who's always happy to help out, provided the donation involves either his legal skills or his musical abilities.

"But I wouldn't ask him to lick stamps," observes Roth. "You ask people to do what they're good at, what they can do."

Still another important consideration in getting people to work for good, Roth feels, is the need to be creative. For instance, when he recently visited the homeless shelter across the street from his shop, he learned that one of its pressing needs was for coffee. But, rather than trying to raise money for the java itself, he's working to forge a direct relationship between the people of the shelter and friends of his who run a coffee house.

Roth is continually applying such philosophies to his own life and business, as well. When his local group of Amnesty International won political asylum for Guatemalan trade unionist Jose Sotz and his family, Roth hired Sotz to work in the screen room at Mirror Image. The job is flexible enough that Sotz can leave to attend to his son, who was paralyzed by a gun shot meant for his father before the family left Guatemala.

Says Roth, "He's probably the hardest worker here, so it wasn't too much to give him a job. I didn't do him any favors, but it's convenient for him and it's the kind of thing that's easy to do."

Roth insists that many of his extracurricular activities ultimately benefit his business.

For instance, when students at a Quincy, Mass., middle school decided to try and raise money to build a school in Pakistan to honor child-labor activist and murder victim Iqbal Masih, Roth stepped in to give them guidance on what they could expect to accomplish, and on media and public relations. Additionally, he and some of the other Mirror Image employees-"Many of them are artists or musicians," he explains-helped the students set up a Web site to generate publicity and raise money.

To date, the students have raised $130,000, and Roth expects it to bring legitimate Website-creation work to his company, because of people who see what's already been done.

In much the same way, more recent efforts to forge alliances with companies in other countries-to teach them how to screen print-are being carried out only partly because they're expected to be money makers. Roth also considers it a valuable exercise for certain of his employees whose imaginations and creativity need to be kept active in order to stay razor sharp.

The big picture
To say that Roth is an unconventional entrepreneur is certainly an understatement. It stands to reason, though, given the unconventional route by which he reached his current position.

After majoring in philosophy and religion as an undergraduate, he enrolled in Harvard's divinity school, but left after a year to continue working in a drug clinic counseling heroin addicts. When funding for the position was cut, he and some friends started a construction company. Later, when a rare joint disease left him unable to continue with rigorous physical labor, he started printing T-shirts in his basement.

Roth believes his educational back ground provides him with a certain important asset: the ability to look at what he considers "the big picture."

"Theological thinking is looking at how things fit together and the relatedness of everything," he says. "That helps with planning and it helps to look beyond the day-to-day in life and in business. It's easier to look at what you're really trying to accomplish and how things might fit in."

When it comes to social issues, Roth's goals are clear. He started working with Amnesty International right after his oldest daughter was born. "Part of being a parent is trying to make the world my kids inherit a world worth inheriting."

No surprise, his business goals are equally as clear. He says he would like to see Mirror Image grow to be two or three times the size it is now, without losing any of its high-quality edge.

Roth also appreciates the flexibility owning the business gives him, particularly when it comes to scheduling his time. However, it's fairly obvious that his company isn't the all-consuming passion such enterprises become for so many small-business owners.

"A lot of what I do here isn't very fun," he admits. "It's making cold calls and filing papers and ordering shirts and telling people what they're doing wrong. That's why they call it work."

This is something Roth strives to remember, though, when dealing with his employees, as well as the rest of the world.

"The best you can do is go about your business with a pretty good humor, treat people around you well, and then do work you're proud of." This is how he sums up his philosophy, whether the work in question is printing T-shirts, raising money for displaced farmers or working to free prisoners of political conscience.

"I often think about the line from Thoreau about the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation," he concludes. "I'm sometimes desperate, but I'm never quiet."

Note: Frequent Printwear contributor K. Schipper is a freelance writer with Word Mechanics, Gunnison, Colo.

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