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caption: Seattle Indian Health Board CEO Esther Lucero and Eighth Generation CEO, Louie Gong, pose for a photo with the company’s donation of masks.
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Seattle Indian Health Board CEO Esther Lucero and Eighth Generation CEO, Louie Gong, pose for a photo with the company’s donation of masks.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Know anyone in China? These businesses are working their connections to get masks to Seattle

Pacific Northwest businesses with connections overseas are leveraging their networks to import needed personal protective equipment.

Sometimes, the process is smoother than others.

Seattle company Eighth Generation decided to donate masks to medical workers, but first, they had to find them. Senior project manager, Serene Lawrence reached out to her overseas connections.

“Those people would then check and do their own research within their local areas to find out what the options for us were,” Lawrence said.

Every day the quantities of personal protective equipment available would change. For days, the team stayed up past midnight arranging logistics, Lawrence said.

“Kind of like, go go go! We needed to get this as soon as we could before it was gone.”

Eighth Generation sells goods designed by Native artists in the United States.

Lawrence, who is from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Anishinaabe and Hopi, develops products like enamel pins, notebooks and socks, and works with suppliers in India, Turkey, and China to make them.

About two weeks after her search began, workers loaded large cardboard boxes onto hand trucks and wheeled them into the Seattle Indian Health Board's building.

Eighth Generation donated 10,000 masks plus 300 face shields. Lawrence was really happy with the outcome, she said.

“The connections that we had to the places that we got this equipment from was because I came on board and I established these relationships on behalf of the company,” Lawrence said. “And so it ended up benefiting everyone.”

The intense need for masks and other equipment for healthcare providers battling the coronavirus epidemic is motivating a lot of folks in the Puget Sound region to help how they can, including businesses like Eighth Generation with connections overseas.

Health board chief medical officer Emily Ashbaugh called the donation "incredibly rejuvenating and inspiring."

“At a time when it’s really hard to feel confident about anything, it’s nice to feel confident in the communities that support us,” she said.

Not all donations have gone so smoothly.

“One might think if you say, 'Hey, I've got 200,000 masks available today, and I'd like to send them to you' that that would be essentially the exchange,” said Anker Innovations’ global communications head, Eric Villines. “Unfortunately, that's not the case.”

Anker is a consumer electronics business, based in China with U.S. headquarters in Bellevue. The CEO wanted to donate masks to healthcare workers in hotspots around the world, Villines said, so the company reached out to dozens of manufacturers and acquired a lot of equipment.

“And now we're sort of dealing with the bureaucracy,” he said. “We're dealing in Italy, we're dealing in Spain, we're dealing in New Jersey and Washington.”

Each place has a different donation process. In Washington, the company hit a snag.

The Department of Enterprise Services is responsible for accepting donations of personal protective equipment here. Villines contacted the department to donate -- but didn’t hear back. So Anker sent the masks to the next state in line.

“The last thing we wanted were masks sitting in a warehouse, you know, doing no good. So we diverted 200,000 masks to the state of New Jersey.”

The Department of Enterprise Services says Villines originally used the wrong form. Now the department is improving its processes so donations don’t get lost, according to spokesperson Linda Kent.

Villines said he understands. Since then, he contacted the state again and is now donating 50,000 masks, plus, he will distribute almost 100,000 more directly from his house to frontline organizations -- as soon as he figures out how to fit them into his garage.

“We just moved and our house is literally just boxes to begin with right now.”

caption: Samples of face masks being reviewed by Designers Union, a company looking to pivot from the fashion industry to mask production and importation.
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Samples of face masks being reviewed by Designers Union, a company looking to pivot from the fashion industry to mask production and importation.
Credit: Courtesy of Chris Clawson, Designers Union


Companies planning to rework operations to sell (not donate) personal protective equipment are facing additional hurdles.

The fashion business Designers Union in California decided to pivot and import N-95 masks from China, CEO Larry Hansel said. They hope to sell to customers like Overlake Hospital, but financing has been tough.

“All this product is so hot right now that you have to buy it upfront,” Hansel said.

A few weeks ago, they would have had a month or two to pay.

Plus there are new additional expenses, like a special license from the Food and Drug Administration to import medical supplies (costing the company $6,500).

Designers Union is raising money from family and friends. Despite the challenges, the company is happy to be able to help, Hansel said.

“We're excited about having something to do, frankly. Because the whole fashion industry shut down and it's like being the Maytag repairman. There's really nowhere to talk to. So it's nice to get out of bed.”

As for getting the supplies to Overlake, the company is still working their connections.