Making their Mark: Shannon Passero

Niagara Life Magazine – March 5, 2015 – By Tiffany Mayer / Photography by Steve Henschel

Making their Mark: Four women in business reflect on their paths to success

Artist Pablo Picasso once said action is the foundational key to all success. Bend the ear of anyone who has accomplished something remarkable and they’ll likely confirm Picasso’s assertion.

It’s certainly a common theme in the stories of these Niagara businesswomen:

    • Shannon Passero
    • Jessica Friesen
    • Deborah Rosati
    • Betty Ann Baker

Throughout their careers they’ve demonstrated there are other keys to success: kindness toward others, for one. They’ve learned the importance of the work-life balance and taking time away from the office to stay grounded and focused.

They’re determined and never believed in the word “can’t”. And they are all grateful for what they’ve achieved. They’re the dictionary definition of success, and nothing short of inspirational, either.

Shannon Passero might just have found the fountain of youth in her career.

The passion Passero brings to creating her two clothing lines, Pure Handknit and Neon Buddha, translates into a youthful energy that makes her appear more fresh-faced whiz kid than 41-year-old veteran fashion designer whose business rings up $75 million in annual sales.

OK, there are shades of prodigy in that synopsis of her success, which Passero started charting in 1998 when she and business partner Sebastien Sirois travelled to Thailand in search of their entrepreneurial raison d’etre.

They were looking for a place to establish a hand-knit sweater company they would go on to call Pure & Co. Ltd. What resulted were long-standing relationships with artisans that have been life-changing for everyone involved. For the knitters, working with Passero has provided sustainable careers with opportunities for advancement and a comfortable quality of life. For Passero herself, it was attaining enviable professional stature that enables her to continue helping anyone with the good fortune of crossing her path.

Her namesake store and design studio in a restored century-old fire hall in downtown Thorold have become a destination for women who value distinctive clothing with social conscience woven into the very fabric of every chunky sweater bearing one of Passero’s labels. Everything she puts her name on eschews the here today-passé tomorrow looks churned out in sweat shops in the name of “fast fashion.”

Yes, her designs are manufactured in a factory that employs hundreds of women on the outskirts of Chiang Mai in Thailand. But she provides opportunities for workers to make more than twice the Thai minimum wage of $260 a month. Employees also have access to language classes during work hours, transportation to get to and from work, and lunch, all gratis. Should workers choose to start a family, they can enjoy paid maternity leave that’s twice as long as the standard 90 days. If pursuing an education is in the cards, so is having their tuition covered.

Treating people well trumps making a buck, so it’s “weird” to Passero when others seem to eschew ethics while doing business overseas. “Ethical treatment of workers is how we do things here in Canada so it doesn’t mean we can go over to Southeast Asia and drop our management values,” she says. “A $9 T-shirt is a problem. More and more, people want the accountability.”

Passero’s clothing is sold around the world at upscale boutiques and department stores, including Anthropologie, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. But it’s their presence — and hers — in Thorold that have helped turn a tired downtown into a vibrant model for other city centres.

In a sense, it’s coming back to where it began for Passero, who fulfilled her artistic tendencies while growing up in Welland by making crafts she sold at the Thorold Craft Show. Passero could have picked the other T-Dot — Toronto — to spend her career and surround herself with big city fashionistas. She chose Niagara, though, to provide the kind of childhood to her two daughters, Victoria, 2, and Elizabeth, 10 months, that she enjoyed.

Thorold was a deliberate choice for her business after she fell for the inspiring workspaces it offered. Attesting to that, she recently purchased the Dominion Building on Front Street where she’ll open a 6,500-square-foot store, keeping the firehall as her design studio. “The support of the town and the support of the community, you couldn’t ask for better,” Passero says. “I want to high five everyone in Thorold but it’s all of Niagara, too.”

As such, her propensity to better people’s lives is evident locally. When Passero turned 40, she marked the milestone by offering two $12,500-business grants to entrepreneurial women.

She had just read the businesswoman zeitgeist Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, a stack of which sit on a shelf in Passero’s office, and realized she had worthy opinions “on being a woman in business beyond running around like a chicken with my head cut off.” She also had the means to help other entrepreneurs.

“I know what it costs to run a business and I know how lean a lot of women have to be with the financial,” Passero says.

Recipients have seen revenues increase by two-thirds, she adds proudly.

Initially, Passero saw the annual grant as a simple financial boost but some recipients have asked her to be a mentor, too, seeing as much value in learning from her experience. Passero, who didn’t have another strong female role model to turn to during her career, finds that humbling.

“There’s real value in giving feedback without wanting anything in return,” she says, “but just because you have an interest in seeing people succeed.”