The Military Spouses Behind R. Riveter Entered the Shark Tank. It Paid Off.

By Jeffrey Bonior
Photos courtesy R. Riveter

How a network of remote riveters turned this handbag line into an American-made success story.

Innovation is at the heart of successful American manufacturing.

R. Riveter founders Lisa Bradley and Cameron Cruse.

The five wealthy entrepreneurs who sit in the investor chairs of ABC’s hit series Shark Tank know this as well as anyone. They have made their massive fortunes with innovative ideas about products, manufacturing and distribution.

When Lisa Bradley and Cameron Cruse entered the Shark Tank in February 2016 to pitch their women’s handbag company, R. Riveter, it was their innovative manufacturing model that garnered the rapt attention of the “sharks.”

What makes R. Riveter unique among hundreds of handbag and purse manufacturers is its supply chain model of remote workers across America. The bonding connection between Bradley and Cruse and their workforce is that they all are military spouses.

It all started when Bradley and Cruse met in 2011. Their husbands were stationed at the Camp Merrill Mountain Ranger School in the small town of Dahlonega, Ga., and the women were unable to find meaningful employment despite earning master’s degrees – Bradley’s in business, Cruse’s in architecture.  As military wives, their dilemma was they never stayed in one place for more than two years because their husbands were transferred to various Army duty stations.

On Veteran’s Day in November 2011, they decided to start making women’s handbags in the small attic space of Cruse’s garage. The two women toiled with a World War II-era sewing machine, making and assembling the handbag components one-by-one. They used recycled military materials and began showing the handbags at trade shows.

In 2014, they realized there was interest in their American-made handbags, so they started a Kickstarter campaign that raised $42,000. The funds were used to purchase modern sewing machines, fabric and eventually open a retail store in Southern Pine, N.C., after Cruse’s husband was transferred to nearby Fort Bragg. Assembly of the handbags was done in the basement of the retail store.

“Our sales really started to pick up when we started our Kickstarter campaign,” said Bradley. Sales for 2015 reached $320,000, an increase of 48 percent from the previous year.

But the company soared to new heights after Bradley and Cruse decided to enter the Shark Tank.

Investing in Nation of Riveters

During their appearance on the show, Bradley and Cruse offered the Shark Tank investors $100,000 in exchange for a 20 percent equity stake in R. Riveter. The company's unique business model was a big selling point. 

R. Riveter employs more than 50 military spouses — who are known as riveters, after Rosie the Riveter — throughout America. The riveters cut and sew components of the handbags from their homes and send them to R. Riveter’s headquarters in North Carolina, where they are assembled and made ready for sale. As military spouses, the riveters can continue to work from any location their husbands are transferred for duty.

The sharks loved this unique innovation, and three – Robert Herjavec, “Mr. Wonderful” Kevin O’Leary and Mark Cuban – each offered Bradley the $100,000 they were seeking for a 20 percent stake in the company.

Cuban, the exuberant billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, sweetened the deal by also offering to provide additional assets for equipment and inventory when needed. Daymond John, the fashion guru of the Shark Tank, told Bradley and Cruse they didn’t need his help and should pass on all the offers because he felt they would become successful and grow by just keeping on doing what they were doing.

From the beginning, before we even knew we wanted to make handbags, we knew we wanted to have a national network of military spouses making our product for us. Lisa Bradley, R. Riveter

In a matter of a few seconds, Cruse and Bradley looked at each other and accepted Cuban’s offer. They knew they had not yet significantly tapped into the online sales market, and thought Cuban was the perfect shark to improve their online presence. Cuban’s successful foray into computer and Internet enterprises was responsible for his initial wealth.

“Mark Cuban said one of the pieces that was most interesting to him about R. Riveter was that it is a really complicated business model,” said Bradley. “To have manufacturing being done across the country, he really appreciated the fact that we had a really unique and new business idea and the fact that we were kind of redefining what American manufacturing can be. We are kind of battling a couple of things on the home front which is military spouses’ unemployment and also not sending jobs overseas and keeping them here in America.”

Initially, the partners were hesitant to apply to be on Shark Tank.

“We didn’t know if we wanted to go down that road,” said Cruse. “But what we did realize is that if our mission was truly to better the lives and empower military spouses that we were going to have to take our opportunity to tell our story. We realized no matter how terrified we were of that, we needed to just jump right in and own it.”

“Some advice I got a while back is when you are trying to scale a business the last thing you should ever say is no,” added Bradley. “And so that was kind of my catalyst for doing it.”

With the help of Cuban and the publicity generated by the Shark Tank episode, R. Riveter has expanded its number of remote riveters from 12 to 35 military spouses. They also have an additional 24 employees, mostly based in North Carolina, who also sew and handle administrative duties. Handbag assembly and inventory storage is now in a 5,000 square-foot warehouse near Fort Bragg.

“From the beginning, before we even knew we wanted to make handbags, we knew we wanted to have a national network of military spouses making our product for us,” said Bradley. “We’ve created a flexible manufacturing network for our military spouses. They are able to be at home, making their own schedules, creating as many parts and pieces as fits their schedule. That flexible network allows us to provide income to military spouses even when they are moving with the military as often as they do.”

Jocelyn Velazquez is a riveter based in Colorado Springs, Colo., where her husband is in the Army infantry at Fort Carson. She works with the leather pieces used in making the handbags and has been working for R. Riveter ever since she met Cruse three years ago when her husband was also stationed in Georgia with Cruse’s husband. She is able to juggle her workload and manage a family of five children without the undue stress of a traditional job.

“I absolutely love it. I was surprised I could make this money while working from home,” said Velazquez. “I think the best part about it is that I always felt guilty if I wanted to work and leave the kids with a babysitter or take them to daycare because they do miss out on their dad so much just because of the Army. Even though there are times when they get to see him, I don’t want them to miss out on both of their parents. So being able to be home and work and take care of the kids and make sure they have everything they need is a blessing.”

Velazquez has a bachelor’s degree in accounting, but prefers the flexible schedule afforded the riveters and also the camaraderie between her colleagues.

“We form relationships with women we’ve never even met,” she said. “One of the other leather girls lives in Oklahoma and we talk almost every day. We talk about work but also about life and our kids and we’ve never met. We’re close because we all understand the military lifestyle. A lot of women in the company will tell you it’s not so much about the money. It keeps your mind busy. My husband just got back from deployment in October and I was pregnant the whole time. I was bored and going a bit crazy but the work I do with R. Riveter made the days fly by. It took my mind off of worrying all the time.”

As one of three R. Riveter leather workers, Velazquez receives an entire hide of leather shipped directly to her from Weaver Leather Supply in Mt. Hope, Ohio. She makes several pieces of the handbags from one large leather hide, including measuring, cutting and punching holes in the handbag straps. Being right-handed, she has begun to emulate the historic posters of Rosie the Riveter which show her flexing the muscle in her right arm.

“It’s all hand-made and from all that hole punching, my right arm is bigger than my left arm,” she said. “I haven’t figured out the left hand yet.”

Judging by the increase in Velazquez’ workload, the Shark Tank appearance provided its usual increase in business for those inventors that at least get to make their pitch before a national TV audience. Even if company founders fail to secure an investment by a shark, there is still typically an increase in sales.

“I used to send in a shipment to be assembled every two months and now I send in a shipment every week,” said Velazquez.

Looking to the Future

R. Riveter’s sales did indeed spike after the initial airing of the episode, and again after a rerun of the episode was broadcast on cable channel CNBC. 

“Our company, in general, is almost 600 percent larger than we were before Shark Tank,” said Bradley.

But as far as more specific details of sales and expansion, that will have to wait until tonight’s episode of Shark Tank, which will feature an update segment on R. Riveter. Shark Tank prefers the principals refrain from elaborating on a company’s success and future plans until it is featured on the ABC program.

What can be revealed is that R. Riveter is now offering a Signature Collection along with its original Limited Edition Collection. The Limited Edition collection are handbags made of original, recycled military material such as wool blankets, canvas tents, uniforms and leather. They sell from between $45 to $320. The Signature Collection features all new, water-resistant canvas that has the look of the old recycled military materials. There is only so much original military material that R. Riveter can acquire through donations or purchases, so Cruse and Bradley are sourcing fabric from American-made companies.

R. Riveter is now procuring wool from Faribault Woolen Mill in Minnesota, a company that provided the U.S. Army with blankets through both World Wars; denim from the White Oak Denim plant in North Carolina which is owned by Cone Denim, America’s finest denim textile manufacturer; and other fabrics from Fairfield Textile in Bridgeton, New Jersey. These new members of R. Riveter’s supply chain are providing made-in-America textiles allowing R. Riveter to continue expansion of its Signature Collection.

The majority of R. Riveter’s sales are from its online website but products can also be purchased at the flagship store in Southern Pine, North Carolina, and at a limited number of Navy Exchange retail locations. R. Riveter is also featuring an ongoing moveable pop-up store that has been serving the Washington, D.C. area for the past six months. The current pop-up location is at the Periwinkle Boutique in Alexandria, Va.

To learn more about R. Riveter, watch the Feb. 10 episode of Shark Tank on ABC at 9 p.m. ET and shop the website.