By Jill Tham

Three words best describe Shannon Passero: empowerment, drive, and heart. At the age of 25, Passero was working as a sales representative when she met Sebastien Sirois, sharing a common idealistic view of the world, the pair decided to tackle social justice. Armed with only an idea to begin a company that produces handmade sweaters and a local contact in Thailand, the two hopped on a plane and set out to see their dream become a reality. “We didn’t have a business plan or structure for the company. It was more organic than that,” states Passero.

A short time later in 1998, the company Pure Handknit was founded. Pure Handknit consists of a collection of individually hand knit sweaters that are famous for their buttons which are made from recycled coconut shells. The factory in Thailand that manufactures this brand employs 4,500 women knitters. Passero didn’t stop there, in 2006, she launched Neon Buddha, a lifestyle clothing line perfect for all occasions. “These clothes are intended not only for work, but for travel, home, yoga and all of life’s adventures,” states Passero. “Neon Buddha is designed with a conscience and employs 800 staff members.”

Ethical work standards are at the forefront of Passero’s business practices: making the philosophy behind her company original. “All of our staff, who are primarily women, have paid health care and maternity leave,” says Passero. She also makes it possible for women in a third world country to achieve some of the basic rights that North Americans take for granted.  “Education is our corporate mandate. We offer free continuing education, English and Thai classes,” says Passero. Her dedication to creating equality for women in the workplace has led to long term working relationships with her staff.  “Many of them, directly with our support, have finished a higher level of education, including their master’s degree and still work for us,” says Passero, adding “Many of these women were formerly rice farmers.”

Passero has witnessed a great deal of growth in Thailand over the years she has spent travelling back and forth to the factories. “Fifteen years ago we were faxing the patterns because there wasn’t the internet or email. We purchased the fax machine and it became a party line because no one in Thailand could afford to have their own telephone,” says Passero. “The women I work with are open to change. At first they thought our button idea was crazy, but they were able to see the vision,” says Passero.

While spending a great deal of time travelling around the world, Passero finds inspiration for her designs from all walks of life. “Our designs have great artistic features and are highly functional. Most of the jackets have pockets to carry life’s essentials,” says Passero.
Passero has found inspiration for her clothing line right here in the Niagara Region. “The Hillcrest Jacket is inspired by the women in Niagara. “Having the retail store directly in the same building as our design office has opened up a wonderful can of worms – the designs have gotten better because of it,” states Passero. “For sure Niagara has had an impact on the fashions over the last 5 years.”
Neon Buddha and Pure Handknit are the epitome of high quality fashion. “We spin the yarn, spin the fabric, die the yarn, cut and sew. We have the ability to have great quality from the very beginning,” states Passero. Her products are handcrafted with North American style. “We are not fast fashion we are slow fashion. We want you to be able to wear the pieces for a long time,” says Passero.  Her products are ideal for women as they embody a classic and timeless look. The hand knit sweaters and her most popular item, the Three Button Wrap, will easily become your favourite go-to item.

When Passero was only 14 years of age, she was drawn to fashion and sales. Her love of retail originated as she worked in a small clothing store located in Fonthill, “Country Spirit was the best training on how to start a boutique in a small town. It’s funny I’ve come full circle and I hope to have that customer service here in my retail environment,” states Passero.

Along with the milestone of turning 40, having her first child, and opening up the storefront in Thorold, Ont., Passero celebrated 15 years in the business, making 2013 an enormous year – one that she calls “auspicious.” In that same year, she also founded the Shannon Passero Women’s Business Grant Program. Her inspiration for the grant came from reading the novel Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. In Sandberg’s book, she challenges women to ask themselves what they would do with their career if they weren’t afraid? The book not only validates the working mom, but also inspires others to reach out and achieve their goals. “I feel so grateful to work in a field I love, doing what I love. I have a soft spot for Niagara and there is a need to support entrepreneurs and mentor them,” says Passero.

In Passero’s first year of the grant, she had 30 applicants and selected two winners. Recipients were awarded with a grant of $12,500.00. “Funny enough, I have gotten much more out of the phenomenal women who won the grants. They are now fellow entrepreneurs and I have this relationship with them,” she says. Passero has recently finished closing the 2014 grant applications and will be selecting this year’s winners in the near future.  “We don’t get to see everything in Niagara and the grant has opened my eyes to what is happening in business in the Region,” says Passero.

Passero offers this advice to new entrepreneurs. “Figure out something you love to do. Work hard and don’t take no for an answer. If you make it…give back,” she says. “There are a lot of business people that have done well and we have to make sure we nurture the entrepreneurs that are coming up,” says Passero.

Being a mother of two small girls hasn’t slowed Passero down. Her future goals include expanding the grant program and possibly a second store. “We want to grow organically and expand mindfully in the fashion industry,” says Passero.

Passero is truly humbled by the support from the Niagara Region. “I am amazed, but not surprised at the support from Niagara. Not only from the women that shop in the store, but also the business community. They have embraced us. We could have our business anywhere. I am here because I grew up here and I want my family to be raised here,” she says.

Niagara is blessed to have Passero back in the community. Not only are her products practical, comfortable, and entirely different from the competition, but she is a strong powerful voice for women in business, and her company mandate that is grounded in social justice should serve as a beacon to others. Passero has proven that you can make a difference and a successful business at the same time. For more information visit shannonpassero.com