By Athena Thompson
Getting on the phone to Jess McDonald, I met my match of fast talkers. She spoke with so much passion about what she does, the intention behind it and the impact she wants to make. I have barely scratched the surface with this article about High Tees, her Kingsville based business.
They make original, unique, sustainable and high quality t -shirts and enamel pins with a focus on hand-drawn Australian icons.
Jess tells me that it didn’t start out as a real business, in fact, it started as a ‘fake business’. She set up a test case to re-practise her skills in business consultancy and refresh her knowledge in the latest tools available. Mainly so that she could provide her clients good sound advice in her other consulting business, Agents of Innovation. Starting with a vision of selling an absolutely ethical product, as she delved deeper into her research she identified a real gap in the market; our uncelebrated Australian icons. This test baby was proving to be something financially viable, sustainable and good fit with her values.
She then started on a drawing spree of Australian icons, with Ita Buttrose informing her style, simply because of the easily recognised features. She drew the design at least 180 times before deciding on a style she could work with and be replicable across people. Jess explains, she only draws people she admires, so this involves a bit of research. Understanding the impact and importance of the person brings to the Australian people is core to the decision on who to include as a design.
Top of her list during our conversation were Adam Goodes, Gough Whitlam and Julia Gilliard. On her website she notes that Goodes really shone a light on racism in Australia, particularly towards Indigenous Australians. Not only his work efforts to improve race relations, but also his work with indigenous youth projects notably through the GO Foundation.
It’s one thing to draw Australian icons, but what makes this business unique, is that in some cases it goes one step further, it also supports the causes that these leaders support. Jess has created a business that demonstrates profit for purpose. What this means is that whilst she makes money to create a self sustainable business she is also investing into meaningful projects that are making a difference. Such as the example of the T-shirt with Goodes, 10% of the sale of this t-shirt is donated to the GO Foundation
The t-shirts designs have become a vehicle for her to talk about what she values and the campaigns she champions. Her test baby became political, a platform to draw attention to campaigns, not intentionally but naturally developed to be part of her brand. Each year she designs a t-shirt to support and campaign a cause, supporting asylum seekers and refugees.
One of these campaign causes led to Cate Blanchett, Aussie actress, wearing the ‘WELCOME’ t-shirt. Cate, who at the time was getting ready to promote the TV series, ‘Stateless’ then shared the photo. Jess has been able to use the photo to continue to help promote the supporting cause, and key message to welcome refugees with the West Welcome Wagon. A grass-roots volunteer run organisation, providing material aid to asylum seekers in the west.
As lockdown struck earlier this year, Jess says, “I was again profoundly affected by the perilousness many in our western community face. And as we all went into isolation, I felt I needed to do something more. So I designed the KINDNESS t-shirt in the same design as the WELCOME t shirt.” The type of messages that you would want to embody and wear across your chest during these very trying times. With each of these t-shirts, $10 goes to West Welcome Wagon, so far the t shirts have raised just over $5,000 and it continues to grow.
This is a massive impact to a small organisation, after contacting CEO Candice McGregor she explained, “This has meant a great deal to our organisation, with international exposure thanks to Cate but also that we have been able to continue to support the community. And financially we have been able to use the money raised by Jess to purchase items such as pillows, linen and food staples, which during lockdown with our material donations mostly on hold, has meant we are still able to continue to assist the increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees in need.”
Athena Thompson is a professional problem solver by day (business consultant at www.TechLever.com.au), and supreme question asker by night. Exploring Melbourne’s west one curiosity at a time.