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One-on-One with Susan Matteucci

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of the best pieces of advice Susan Matteucci ever received came from a Nobel Prize winner who told her, “Susan, just go out there and do it.”

Susan Matteucci, Executive Director of Southwest Creations Collaborative in the production room in November. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Those words came from Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist who used microlending as a way to lift people out of poverty by providing them with credit. His model – inspired by his belief that credit is a fundamental human right – relies on lending money to mostly female participants, whose repayment is used to provide loans to others in similar need.

While living in Chicago, Matteucci was among those working with Yunus to apply his vision to the United States – a difficult task because of the huge differences between the two countries, she says.

“As I always say, in Bangladesh, if you have a chicken that lays an egg, you’re an entrepreneur,” Matteucci says. “In the United States, it’s a lot more complicated.”

But Matteucci figured it out and eventually brought the vision to Albuquerque, where she and seven others in 1994 started Southwest Creations Collaborative, an industrial sewing manufacturer.

“We really viewed ourselves as a poverty alleviation project when we got started,” says Matteucci, 60.

Susan Matteucci (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s still that, providing educational programs for employees and their kids and day care that hasn’t budged from its original 25-cents-per-hour price, but Southwest Creations is now very much a business as well, Matteucci says.

In fact, Southwest employees produce everything from kimonos for Ten Thousand Waves spa in Santa Fe to items for the West Elm home-furnishing company using recycled fabrics to container bags for dessicants made by the Clarian factory in Belen.

Revenue has grown from $30,000 in the beginning to more than $1 million now, and Southwest Creations is planning its move from its Downtown area location to much larger quarters in the South Valley.

Matteucci, who admits that she is clueless when it comes to using a needle and thread, says it’s the vision and the community of women that fuel her to keep making the daily drive from Santa Fe to Southwest Creations.

“If this were my business, I would have quit years ago,” says Matteucci, 60. “It’s too hard. But we (employees, board members and stakeholders) are kind of all in this together. … and what I learned from them is the strength and the patience to just keep going, no matter what happens. I think that is just something that makes me want to come to work every day, is those kind of relationships.”

 

How did you get into this kind of work?

“My grandfather, who lived with us, was an Italian immigrant who couldn’t read or write but was able to get a great job in a factory in Chicago. My parents didn’t go to college, but all four of his (grandfather’s) grandkids went to college, so I think I’ve learned to see that it’s about opportunities for people (and) helping to create them. It’s not a boot strap thing. It’s really just what’s the best way to let people come into their full abilities, and that always intrigued me.”

Tell me about a success story you’ve seen.

“What I’m most proud of is (when) I look at Flor Lopez, who started off working in our day-care center and was super-smart, but was pretty shy and didn’t have great English. Over the course of her time here, she has gotten her citizenship, her GED, her oldest daughter is a nuclear engineer at Sandia, her next two daughters just graduated from college and over time, she’s become our leadership development director because she’s the person who really holds the heart and values and the motivation of what matters. She does one-on-one with families. She checks report cards of the kids who are here. I would say to see her come into the leadership that she always has had and really be a vital part of the organization is really incredible.”

Who inspires you?

“Michelle Obama inspires me. She went through a lot herself, and then you know went through law school and thought, ‘that’s great, but I don’t really want to be a Harvard lawyer, I want to go do something in the community.’ Her ability to figure out how to connect (and) to inspire people inspires me. I don’t like to be the center of attention. I like to talk about the work, but I don’t like to talk about myself so much. I really respect people who can do the work, but also be able to show you what they’re doing. And Barack Obama inspired me, and I think about it all the time — just stay calm and keep going. During the recession, we had to lay off half our staff and so that staying calm and carrying on” inspired me.

How do you spend your free time?

“I drive. Also, my two kids are 25 and 27. They’ve been gone quite awhile, and I spend a lot of time figuring out when the next time I can see them is. I have some great friends. I have this bifurcated life because I work in Albuquerque, where I have a lot of professional friends and close friends and then very dear close friends I’ve known all my kids’ lives in Santa Fe. I like to cook a lot of Italian food. I’m not a good baker.”

What’s your specialty?

“I’d say my grandmother’s Bolognese sauce.”

Do you have any regrets?

“I don’t know if ‘regret’ is the right word. …We made a choice as a family to move here, and it was absolutely the right choice. As my parents were really aging, just not being around as much as I needed to be. I was always flying back and forth. I wish there would have been a different way to do that, to be closer to them, but my kids were in high school, and it was one of those impossible situations. That was very hard.”

What do you like to read?

“I like non-fiction. I find, though, I kind of gravitate from reading a book to reading People magazine, depending on how much energy I have. I’m not above being low-brow in my reading.”

What do you find funny7?

“If a person doesn’t have a sense of humor, I have a hard time being friends with them. I think when I’m attracted to a person, their sense of humor is a big part of it. I like self-deprecating humor. My kids, we laugh a lot. Usually at me.”

What makes you sad?

“I think a lot of things that make most people sad. Seeing people struggle and suffer. I think it makes me really sad when I can go get my teeth fixed in a second, when somebody else has to pay it off in 10 years. I don’t mean to sound righteous about this because I have low-brow things that make me sad, too, but the unfairness of the fact of what can happen to some people and not other people by virtue of an accident of birth.”

Pet peeves?

“People who don’t show up either at work or other places and make a lot of excuses for stuff. And I just think personally, just do what you say you’re going to do. The other pet peeve is the Whole Foods parking lot in Santa Fe, where everybody has “namaste” stickers but will smash your car into the wall in a heartbeat.”

If you could sit down and talk with one person, who would that be?

“My dad, who died in 2012. He just personified all the good things. You know, who loves you most in the world? I mean there are so many people who are inspiring, though I think we’re at this time of where the TED talks, you know it’s like infotainment. It’s like ‘let me inspire you.’ That’s great, except then what are you going to do? I find there’s a lot of that out there. It’s inspiration, but it isn’t really about OK, today you have to come in and do it, and tomorrow you have to come in and do it and then you come in and do it again the next day.”

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