Chicago Innovator Pam Daniels Wants to Kickstart More Women-Led Manufacturing

MEASURE cups are billed as “the first measuring cups where the shape itself indicates the unit of measure.” The cups are slated to be made in Chicago of BPA-free plastic. A Kickstarter to raise funding for the project is set to run until May 18. | Photos courtesy Pam Daniels

Her latest American-made project could be a measure of success.

As manufacturers increasingly open their doors to makers looking to enter the marketplace and crowdfunding platforms offer new avenues for financing, makers are supporting a more robust and diverse manufacturing ecosystem in the United States.

Brandon Williams and Pam Daniels of Welcome Industries.

It’s Pam Daniels’ mission to continue to support that ecosystem’s growth.

Daniels, a veteran Kickstarter project leader and professor at Northwestern University’s Segal Design Institute, launched her latest Kickstarter venture this past month with the objective of raising $65,000 by May 18 to fund the production of MEASURE, visual measuring cups manufactured in the United States using high-quality BPA-free plastic.

Daniels and Brandon Williams, co-founders of Welcome Industries, designed MEASURE measuring cups to represent the cups’ units of measurement through their actual shape rather than their size.

Their design has notably earned high praise from online design magazine Core77 and the support of NPR’s Peter Sagal.

Previously, Daniels successfully funded the production of Urbanite mini-messenger bag and REVEAL photo frame. Both projects were manufactured in the United States – a critical motivation behind Daniels’ work.

Daniels attributes part of her success as a designer to her dialogue with local manufacturers, crediting their willingness to share their expertise as she learned the production process.

“Part of what drove me to start working with local manufacturers … was that I was aware of my status as a novice designer, and I wanted people who would talk back to me,” Daniels said. “I wanted people who would argue. Who would say, ‘Why did you do it like that? That doesn’t make any sense.’ And maybe I had a good reason, or maybe I just didn’t know what I was doing. I was wildly open to the notion that I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t want to stay in that place.”

“I wanted to move to the place of ‘Well, tell me how do I make it better? How do I make it smarter?’ … And, what I suspected was that if I worked with manufacturers overseas, they would just do my bidding, no matter how perhaps poorly conceived it might have been. I wanted to work with people who could be in dialogue with me, who could be really informed in the design process.”

Daniels and Williams participated in this manufacturer-maker dialogue for MEASURE, perfecting the measuring cups by working with female-owned Matrix 4, a plastics manufacturing company that has been in operation for more than 40 years but has adopted new technologies.

“I’m not against manufacturing in China. There’s a role for everybody, but I am personally interested in using my energy to help nurture and grow U.S. manufacturing, in particular, by bringing people with a more creative bent to the practice and as collaborators with manufacturers.” Pam Daniels

Daniels hopes other designers will seek out local manufacturers and engage in similar conversations. Choosing to fundraise MEASURE through Kickstarter was in part a decision to share the power of female entrepreneurs and to ensure that Welcome Industries could keep the production process local.

“We could have privately raised funds. We could have just approached investors,” Daniels said. “But it wouldn’t be shining a light on the fact this was designed by a real person, and we wanted this story to get out there.”

Daniels and Williams are in good company when it comes to seeking funding on Kickstarter.

Since its inception, investors have pledged more than $3.66 billion to Kickstarter projects, presenting tremendous opportunity for makers to launch new projects and grow alongside local manufacturers.

However, as much as Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have enabled entrepreneurs to enter manufacturing, it has yet to fully break down barriers for women. 

According to a study that examined Kickstarter data from when the platform was founded in April 2009 to March 2012, 44.3 percent of Kickstarter investors are female and account for just over one third of successful project leaders – something Daniels wants to change. 

In looking through Kickstarter’s most successful projects, Daniels was disappointed to see very few female project leaders.

“I think I was 16 pages down and past 100 projects, and I was like, ‘Wow. Still not a single female face.’ So, my goal was really to be a female face in that lineup of people who were able to really be successful in the Kickstarter campaign,” Daniels said.

For this reason, Daniels and Williams elected to showcase a photo of themselves in the image associated with the MEASURE Kickstarter project rather than Welcome Industries’ company logo.

The various prototypes of the MEASURE cups.

Additionally, in their instructional practice as professors at Northwestern, Daniels and Williams encourage newcomers, particularly women, to enter the manufacturing space by working hands-on with manufacturing equipment.

The Welcome Industries partners launched The Corner Makery in the Segal Design Institute to give makers the opportunity to learn about manufacturing tools and procedures through self-directed and peer-to-peer learning.

“We're really passionate about making everyone feel that they can access these technologies, that they can play with them, that they can break them,” Daniels said. “We're very clear about telling the students, ‘You're not in trouble if you break it. You're really, really not. We know that you don't know what you're doing. We know that you're going to make mistakes, and it's really O.K.’” 

By allowing her students to experiment with the manufacturing process, Daniels hopes to support collaboration between designers and manufacturers, preparing new makers to come to manufacturers with a prototype reflective of actual manufacturing capabilities.

The credibility that comes with a realistic prototype is especially valuable in establishing the authority of female makers in manufacturing, a historically underrepresented demographic in the field.

In 2017, women represented only 29 percent of the manufacturing industry workforce in the America, according to a U.S. Census report.

“I sort of enjoy approaching manufacturers with an existing prototype because a lot of times in my experience working with manufacturers, they’re a little skeptical, like, ‘Uhhhh… I don’t know if we can do that,’ said Daniels.

“But, when a woman shows up with an actual prototype that she created using a water jet, for instance, and says, ‘I really think this is doable. Could you take a look at it?’ It really gets taken a lot more seriously.”

As the maker movement continues to grow, it has the potential to disrupt the gender disparity of manufacturing and entrepreneurship, revitalizing local factories.

“I think getting more people engaged in the maker movement has a lot of potential to see a broader range of people entering into design and then getting excited about the fabrication and more capable of actually talking to manufacturers about the considerations that come into play when you're actually physically fabricating something instead of just on a sketch,” Daniels said.

Should MEASURE be fully funded on Kickstarter, Daniels and Williams aim to offer the measuring cups in national retail stores along with other products from Welcome Industries, such as measuring spoons. However, they plan to continue to manufacture locally. 

“We want USA manufacturing to be robust,” said Daniels. “I’m not against manufacturing in China. There’s a role for everybody, but I am personally interested in using my energy to help nurture and grow U.S. manufacturing, in particular, by bringing people with a more creative bent to the practice and as collaborators with manufacturers.”

“I think that manufacturers are deeply knowledgeable,” she added. “I think they are creative problem-solvers. I think they’re willing to be adaptable and flexible, and I think we need to celebrate them and create partnerships with them.”

Check out the MEASURE Kickstarter page.