Nathan Rothstein’s company Project Repat, which takes old T-shirts and sews them into blankets, made $2.5 million in revenue this year. Rothstein today lives in a two-family Victorian off Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, but less than two years ago, he was living out of his office, sleeping on a hidden mattress, and showering at his gym.
We often think of government programs like subsidized health insurance as the type of safety-net resource that protects the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents, such as low-income families and the elderly. Likewise, public investments made in higher education, such as the University of Massachusetts, provide in-state residents of all incomes with access to quality education at a fraction of the cost of private institutions.
But investments in these and other public programs are not only good for providing opportunities for residents at the bottom and middle of the economic ladder. They also go toward propping up the future of Massachusetts’ economy by allowing startup entrepreneurs — like Rothstein — to advance as well.
What kept Rothstein going, and other entrepreneurs like him, was his unalienable belief in his future self. But he also credits public investment. From the affordable health insurance he received through the Commonwealth’s health care system, at just $60 per month, to the education and training he earned at UMass Amherst, the state’s flagship public university. Plus, before Project Repat, he was a finalist with MassChallenge, the startup accelerator located in the Innovation District that was launched with public dollars.
While at MassChallenge, Rothstein also slept on couches as a substitute for a true home, but there he was not alone. David Chen was part of the Roof For Two team, which built a weather protector cover for daily motorcycle commuters in India. While on the team, Chen’s bed for nearly three months was a blow-up mattress that he set up nightly beneath his work bench. He recalls living with a small group of other innovators-in-residence who strangely never left the building, constantly working.
Chen now works for the online marketing firm Constant Contact, since funding never quite came together for his startup. But he has no regrets, having gained valuable skills in Boston as well as India, while pursuing a dream that he will likely one day return to. In the meantime, he fondly remembers the way he felt on the day that he finally bought a bed frame and set it up in his Central Square apartment.
Rothstein, on the other hand, has seen his company take off. Today that company supplies work to more than 50 people in Fall River and North Carolina, all earning a living wage, sewing old shirts into new blankets.
Rothstein is the living, breathing example of how public investments can pay off, proving that supporting such programs is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing, too. Such monies can go directly to helping new businesses grow and thrive by supporting the entrepreneurs who start them. Scott Bailey of MassChallenge agrees. “Affordable health care and decent housing is needed to attract and retain talent. Improvements to these areas have positively impacted many of [our] companies,” he said.
As a result, a new business thrives, and an old mill churns with the buzz of sewing machines and employment. And somewhere in Boston — likely on a couch — a future CEO nurtures a budding company.
Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.