A decade ago, when Lisa Dobbs Bradley graduated from Columbus High School, the thought of marrying a man in the military hadn’t crossed her mind. Nor did the challenges associated with being a military spouse.
But fast forward to 2013. Six years married to a military man, Bradley made six cross-country moves during that time. Frustrated at the limited career opportunities for someone so mobile, she and business partner Cameron Cruse, another military wife, decided to turn their challenging lifestyle into an opportunity. Not only did they decide to employ themselves, but they launched an online business that would offer employment for others in their situation.
“Knowing that thousands of capable, inspiring spouses were in our shoes, we wanted to create an outlet for others,” Bradley said. “We wanted to somehow provide the security and self-reliance of a full-time income opportunity that would be as mobile and flexible as the military lifestyle demands we be.”
Their business, R.RIVETER, takes its name from the iconic female worker who inspired pride and patriotism during World War II. Today’s twist on that theme is a business that “enlists” military spouses to fabricate and sell handcrafted handbags made from upcycled military materials.
“R. RIVETER was born out of a sense of military community,” Bradley said. “As military spouses, there is a pride and passion that gives our community a unique identity. Our handbags are inspired by a lifestyle that brings both challenges and opportunities.”
Entrepreneurship is hardly new to Bradley, whose parents operated their own computer-based business from their home in Columbus. Bradley, herself, patented a feminine-hygiene product while an undergrad at the University of Mary in North Dakota.
But the enterprising young woman was forced to rethink career opportunities when she married Jason Bradley in 2007 and made the first of her cross-country moves.
“There’s not much you can do in that point,” Bradley said. “Either you don’t work or you were looking for a part-time job to keep yourself busy.”
Ultimately, Bradley opted for another path, earning an MBA while her husband, Jason, was deployed.
She met Cruse when the Bradleys’ marching orders sent them to Camp Merrill in Georgia. While both husbands trained as Army Rangers, Bradley and Cruse shared their
own ambitions and aggravations.
Both women had heard of Rosie the Riveter and wanted their company to replicate that same “can do” attitude. As they brainstormed options, they realized that their blend of talents complemented one another.
“I’m a PC, she’s a Mac,” Bradley said.
With Bradley’s business acumen and Cruse’s craftsmanship and graphic arts skills, the two made their first prototype in Cruse’s attic in the fall of 2011. Through trial and error, they have since refined their products into the one-of-a-kind handbags featured on their website www.rriveter.com.
“We picked handbags because they are such a personal product that you carry with you every day,” Bradley said.
Bradley credits her Montana background for the quality and purpose behind their product.
“They are more rugged,” she said. “And Montanans care more about the utility of our product.”
The styles of handbags are named after famous military spouses, from Mrs. Grant to Mrs. Abrams. Each is pieced together from surplus government materials such as army blankets, duffel bags and shelter halves, with leather details and accents. The one-of-a-kind bags are hand-editioned and dated by the military spouse who made it.
Handbags can also be made to order, Bradley added. Her most memorable order came from the daughter of a West Point colonel.
“He had passed away and one of the daughters contacted us,” Bradley said. “She wanted us to make handbags for her sister, her mother and herself from his yellow-and-gray striped blanket (indicative of West Point).”
In the 6 months since the company hired its first independent contractor, R.RIVETER has added 18 more. The contractors that are referred to as “Riveters” are the spouses who make purse parts in satellite locations wherever they are stationed. The pieces are shipped to the company’s centralized fabrication shop in Dahlonega, Ga., where they are assembled. From there, contractors referred to as “Rosies” promote and sell the bags as independent sales representatives.
“Some have large roles and some just work at it when they have time,” Bradley said. “We understand that spouses need flexibility when their partners are deployed and they are independently running a household. And with this, you can take the job with you wherever you go.”
Though no male military spouses have yet signed on, Bradley and Cruse welcome the diversity. Anyone can be involved as long as they support the company’s mission.
“Each R.RIVETER purchase goes towards supporting those who support and stand behind our brave men and women fighting for the freedoms of this great nation,” Bradley said.
Cruse oversees the fabrication end of the business from Georgia, where her husband is still stationed. Meanwhile, Bradley manages the business end of R.RIVETER from upstate New York, while Jason pursues his MBA at Cornell.
In fact, a connection through a classmate at Cornell landed Bradley and Cruse a spot on MSNBC’s “The Cycle,” interviewed by S.E. Cupp.
“It gave us national exposure,” Bradley said. “It helped us reach the consumer that really cared about American-made products.”
The guest slot also offered the fledgling business a chance to test its ability to meet a sudden uptick in orders.
“There was definitely an immediate surge,” Bradley said. “But our Riveters came together. They really did rise to the occasion.”
With only two years under their belts, and only one year officially in business, Bradley and Cruse have fresh memories of their struggles. They struggled to finance the company on their own —“We wanted to make sure we made the right decisions versus making the big bucks,” Bradley said — and like any entrepreneurs, they struggle still with long hours and the wide-ranging demands of owning a business.
“It’s really rewarding and I love it, but I didn’t realize how hard my parents worked until I started my own company,” Bradley said.
Already, R.RIVETER has expanded to include men’s leather bags and wallets, as well as stamped collars for dogs.
Ultimately, Bradley and Cruse would like to spread their presence into the western states and they’ve envisioned opening retail outlets sometime in the future.
But, for now, both are looking at double duty. Cruse gave birth to her second child in September and Bradley is due with her first in October.
“We’ve started on our own little army to help while we both have newborns,” Bradley said with a chuckle.
Both realize they’ll be busier than ever, but take pride in what they’ve accomplished.
“The moves that once prevented us from having a sustainable career have now opened up the doors to our business venture,” Bradley said. “Although we still have to deal with the many military moves, we have created a business around these challenges.”