HERStory | Esther Vlessing
President of Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers (CEMM)
Esther Vlessing is the President of Canada Emergency Medical Manufacturers (CEMM). The company was created when the pandemic hit and pushed Esther to create a manufacturing network by tapping into the apparel, furniture and automotive sectors. CEMM purchased machinery for factories, retooled these factories, purchased and distributed the necessary raw materials and medical fabrics to these factories, provided design specs for PPE, and ended up supplying government bodies, municipalities, and the largest hospital networks with isolation gowns that are made in Canada.
How did you build a skill set to successfully lead CEMM?
“My history was actually very well suited to serve and to use my domain expertise and skill set that I had acquired over the years in manufacturing, I started my first fashion accessory line when I was 20 and studying at the University of Toronto. I noticed that a lot of my friends who had Canada Goose coats were all zipping off the furs of their coats. I love solving problems in innovative ways which led me to apply for a grant with Summer Company – a government run organization that provides grants to students in Canadian universities.”
“With this $3,000 grant, I started my very first fashion line using domestic manufacturers. I ended up building and scaling this national accessory line into big box stores like Sporting Life. This involved me doing all of my sourcing to find the factories I wanted to work with and who wanted to work with me. This led me to have conversations with the leadership team at Canada Goose and after I graduated, I started to work on the Canada Goose design team focusing on materials research. That was me getting exposure to manufacturing at what is now a billion-dollar company.”
Did you know you always wanted to work with domestic manufacturers or was this something that naturally came to be in developing your businesses?
“The reason I have used domestic manufacturers is because I like to run my companies with just in time ordering. This means that there is a very quick turnover from order to production to delivering. This is what has served me so well during the pandemic and CEMM in particular. It was necessary to operate in such a hyper-speed way. We didn’t have time to depend on overseas materials and overseas shipments.”
“There are so many benefits for keeping everything close to home. One of them being speed, and also visibility into production lines and the quality [especially for a product like personal protective equipment] you want to be able to make sure that the quality is there and that testing can happen when it needs to. I also think factory owners are more likely to take responsibility because you can show up and can go meet them in person, which wouldn’t be the case many times with overseas production, especially during COVID times.”
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
“It really means celebrating the accomplishments and successes of women around the world. It’s about taking the day to take note of how far women have come and then checking in with society and businesses and how we can all do better.”
“International Women’s Day is geared around issues like financial independence, employment discrimination, and having enough representation of women in leadership roles. In March, when the pandemic was starting, I was able to walk into a bank branch, open a business account, and start CEMM. Just taking a moment to reflect on this – that wouldn’t have been possible for me all those years ago. It’s wonderful to think about how far we’ve actually come in terms of women’s rights and independence.”
“I was reflecting back on all of the women that I’ve met and gotten to work with through CEMM over the last few months of the pandemic. I’m talking about women who are seamstresses, factory owners, chief financial officers, and even the lab technicians that run all the tests on PPE. These are all incredibly successful and wonderful women that are helping to build the infrastructure for making isolation gowns and helping our nurses and doctors. International Women’s Day allows us to celebrate not only the frontline heroes but the heroes behind the heroes on the frontlines.”
What made you choose a career in manufacturing?
“One of my biggest influences is that I’m a fourth-generation manufacturer. My father had a furniture factory in Concord, Ontario, and I pretty much grew up there in-between sofas and lots of foam. It was one of my favorite places to hang out and I guess I was inspired by seeing that operation and how at home I felt there. Manufacturing is also one of the ways that I’ve been able to express my solutions and problem solve. The problems that I thought I could solve have always been manufacturing related.”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“I would say that if you have big dreams, it’s okay and even necessary to start small. It can be so daunting if you have big dreams and big desires to look up at the castle that you want to build – you have to really focus on laying one brick at a time. Each thing that you do throughout the day, it’s like one small brick that you’re laying. Only in hindsight can you actually see the full picture or the things that you’ve built if you’ve been focused, consistent, and working towards whatever goal you have.”
Why would you encourage young women to enter careers in manufacturing?
“There is so much opportunity in the sector for women. Especially if it’s something that calls on them, then it’s something that they should do. I sum manufacturing up using three adjectives – thrilling, challenging, and rewarding.”