ND grad heads multimillion-dollar textiles company

Welland native Shannon Passero runs a highly successful textile company in Thailand that employs 1,100 mostly women workers and another 4,500 skilled artisans from nearby villages.

She is co-founder and creative director of the Pure Handknit and Neon Buddha clothing brands that generate $50 million to $75 million in annual sales.

Just last year, after years of selling online and in stores, and having her clothing featured in such places as Elle magazine and on TV’s Celebrity Apprentice, she opened her first storefront in the old fire hall on Albert St. W. in Thorold.

Passero is a Niagara success story that she admitted has been “under the radar a little bit.”

Since graduating from Welland’s Notre Dame College School in 1991, she’s done extremely well.

And so have her employees.

Each of her overseas workers is guaranteed a minimum wage, free English and Thai classes during work, free health care and paid health benefits, including maternity leave twice Thailand’s national standard.

Dyes for the fabrics are produced in-house and only high-efficiency light bulbs are used in the factory.

Now 16 years into her business, recently turned 40 and expecting to deliver daughter No. 2 on Monday, Passero said she is at a point in her life that she finds herself reflecting on who she is and how she got here.

Now living in St. Catharines with husband Michael, Passero — nee Cooney — said she learned going to school that education was “not just about books.”

“I was very interested in the extracurricular parts of school,” she said, also admitting that while she played a number of sports, she wasn’t particularly good at any of them. But the experiences moulded her into a well-rounded person.

“I was a good student — I got A’s — but I really had to work at it,” she said. “I know the value of education.”

Experiences at Notre Dame, including its annual pilgrimage for developing nations, developed her life skills, she said, that gave her tools to succeed in subsequent studies at fine art and business management at University of Guelph.

“I guess I was given the gifts of teamwork and camaraderie that Notre Dame laid out as foundations for me to work with,” she said Friday prior to receiving one of seven Niagara Catholic District School Board 2014 Distinguished Alumni Awards.

For what Niagara Catholic graduates made of their positions — not what positions they attained — are what the board’s now two-year-old celebratory distinction awards are about, education director John Crocco said at the start of the awards ceremony at the Catholic Education Centre in Welland.

Board chair and St. Catharines trustee Kathy Burnik praised distinguished alumni for embracing the Catholic faith while making the choices they have in their working lives.

“You now inspire others … not by your words, but by your actions.”

Other award recipients are:

• Lisa Monchalin, Lakeshore Catholic High School, class of 1999

Monchalin became the first Aboriginal woman in Canada with a PhD in criminology, and is now a professor of criminology at Kwalten Polytechnic University in British Columbia.

• Michael Rosinski, Notre Dame College School, class of 1993

He entered the Jesuits the year after graduation. In his years as a priest, he has served in Rome and South Sudan and as a chaplain and religion teacher.

He quipped Friday that he is indeed “a product of the Catholic education system” —his teacher parents met on the job.

• John Belcastro, Notre Dame College School, class of 1952

He was the first lay principal of the Welland high school, and upon retirement continued to serve Catholic education as a trustee.

• Khalil Syne, Saint Francis Catholic Secondary School, class of 2002

As a pilot with the United Nations, he was stationed in hot spots including Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast and Liberia and in Haiti. Many of the flights in these areas included medi-vac missions and flying in humanitarian aid.

“Catholic education is not something we attend, but what we become,” he said in an acceptance speech made via pre-reorded video.

• Jennifer Hollett, Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School, class of 1990

Hollett’s media career included working as a TV host and reporter at CBC, CTV and MuchMusic. She has been an advocate of the rights of women while on location in places such as Afghanistan, Kenya and Sierra Leone. In 2006 she founded YouthCARE with CARE Canada, and has been the moderator of the G(irls)20 Summit since 2010, an international girls leadership conference.

“I wouldn’t be here without that education. It shaped me at a very young age,” she said.

• William Jones, Saint Paul Catholic High School, class of 2004

Jones was in class on March 23, 2004, when staff administered CPR before he was rushed to hospital, where he was given a 7% chance of survival. Today he is president of the Schulich Non-Profit Management Student Group and Vice-President of the Schulich Student Speaker Series. In 2011, he was selected by the Governor General as one of 120 youth leading Canada toward being a Smart and Caring Nation.