When you walk into the Stakes Manufacturing facility in East Lake, Ohio, you can feel it in the air: the contentment, happiness, and general welcoming and well-being of everyone who works there.

There’s nothing extraordinary about it on the surface; in fact, if you stop at the front doors and just look around, it looks like any other apparel decorating facility that’s cranking out print-on-demand (POD) orders on its direct-to-garment (DTG) machines. There are shelves and shelves of blank inventory, carts with stacked shirts waiting to be printed, conveyor dryers rolling along at a humming, consistent speed.

But if you look closer, there’s something beyond the surface, something you can feel — there is, indeed, something special going on at Stakes.

When I met co-founders Jed Seifert and Vince Bartozzi, as well as general manager Christopher Marinin, the puzzle pieces started coming together. When I met Jed’s brother, Darren Seifert, as well as the employees working at Stakes who have a disability (and those who don’t), it all made sense.

Jed, Vince, Christopher, and the whole team have fostered an environment of inclusivity in every dimension of the word. But to really understand what they’re doing, how they’re propelling the business strategy of employing those with disabilities forward, you have to peel back the layers.

A Look Back

This story goes way back to when Jed, Vince, and Darren were young, and it has quite the personal connection. When Darren was a child, he was diagnosed with Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability, behavioral and learning challenges, and has various physical characteristics.

According to the National Fragile X Foundation, of which Jed is now a board member, there are several signs and symptoms of a person with Fragile X; however, there are many areas of treatment and intervention that can improve the lives of affected individuals and their families. In fact, when given the proper education, therapy, and support, all persons with FXS can make progress.

Darren is living proof of that. He has his own apartment, a job as a mail clerk, and thoroughly, completely loves pizza. We also bonded over our mutual love for the Backstreet Boys, though I have to admit I’m a little jealous that he’s seen them more times live than I have.

A lot of Darren’s support comes from his family and friends. You only need to spend five minutes with the group to figure that out. But he also gets support from SEEC, a nonprofit agency providing a wide range of community supports to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live lives of their choosing. And, you guessed it, Jed is a board member for this organization as well.

“They provide a job counselor and supports for my brother and hundreds of other disabled individuals in the Maryland and DC area,” Jed says. But it goes just a little bit further than that. While it’s clear that Jed pulls most of his inspiration from Darren, SEEC’s structure also serves as an employment model for Stakes.

A big part of this layer is Vince, who Jed has known virtually his whole life. “[Vince] moved up the street from me at five years old and we have been best friends ever since,” Jed says. Their friendship has traversed the boundaries of personal and professional. In fact, they first went into business together 15 years ago.

“Jed and I started a company in 2007 called MusicSkins, which licensed and produced (on demand) mobile device accessories,” explains Vince. “We sold the company in 2011.” And while its history has quite a few bends in the road, Stakes Manufacturing was officially born in 2019.

So Much More

Yes, it’s about the apparel. Yes, it’s about print on demand. But ultimately, it’s so much more than that. If it’s not already clear, Jed’s ultimate inspiration starts with Darren. “Darren has done more to make me the man I am today than words can articulate,” he says. “He has inspired me and Vince personally by seeing him overcome so many challenges with his disabilities growing up and exceed everyone’s expectations of what they thought was possible for him. … His hard work and dedication to gain his independence through his job that he loves and the happiness it brings him inspires us professionally to help other people with disabilities do the same.”

Jed always knew that he wanted Stakes to have a disability inclusion program. “I shared my vision for it with our general manager, Christopher Marinin, and Vince within the first week of starting Stakes,” he states. “It was always a three-year plan.” And Jed, being the passionate businessman he is, shares the specifics of that plan:

Year one was all about starting small. The company made it a priority to hire at least a couple individuals with disabilities. They did so by promoting disability inclusion in their Indeed and LinkedIn job postings while also searching for a local support organization in Eastlake similar to SEEC in Maryland.

Jump to year two. The goals included scaling the program with the local support organization they decided to partner with, CEVEC, and expand the number of job roles across the company and departments involved to make a case study on the spectrum of positions that people with disabilities can do successfully at a print shop.

CEVEC is a major part of what makes Stakes’ program run. CEVEC stands for Cuyahoga East Vocational Education Consortium, and it’s an association of 21 school districts within the eastern end of the Cleveland metro area that started in 1980. The group specifically works with kids with disabilities and helps them transition into the adult world.

Jed and the team at Stakes specifically work with Mike Krenisky, CEVEC job training coordinator for the manufacturing and merchandising segment, and frankly one cool guy. “I was a classroom special education teacher in an elementary school when I heard about this opportunity,” Mike says of joining CEVEC. “I fell in love with it.” Twenty years later, I can still see the passion in Mike when he’s asked about what he does; it’s a passion that I see in Jed when I ask him about Darren and what Stakes is doing.

“We walked into Stakes one day, struck up a conversation with Jed, and immediately Jed was like, how can we get started,” Mike recalls of his first interaction with Stakes. “He’s that big picture guy, he’s got the big vision. I’m the nuts-and-bolts guy, and you need those two working together. I love his vision. Without vision, where would you be?”

And that’s what brings us to year three, and ultimately what brought me to Stakes’ plant in Ohio in the first place. “The goal of year three, which started earlier this year, was to get the message out to the public to encourage and inspire other companies to get involved and realize benefits of disabilities inclusion, as well as find likeminded media outlets such as the News Herald, Spectrum News, and PRINTING United/Apparelist to help us expand the message’s reach and impact,” Jed says.

As soon as he says this, it reminds me of when Jed first reached out to PRINTING United to share his story. We had a virtual meeting that lasted well over an hour, one that left every single person in tears. And now it’s something we want to help with because not only is it a beautiful, human thing to do, but it’s a program that can help the entire decorated apparel community as a whole.

After all, we’ve seen what it’s done for Stakes, and for Jed and Vince, firsthand, so we know what it can do for others. “Jed and I grew up with our brother Darren, so for us its natural,” adds Vince. “Our goal as an organization is to continue to create an environment where all types of humans can build a career, enjoy being a part of our crew, and thrive both in our building and in their personal lives. This isn’t a project for us, this is who we are.”

There is so much more of this story to be told — we’ve only just scratched the surface of what Jed, Vince, Christopher, and the team at Stakes are doing for not only their company, but the entire decorated apparel community. Keep an eye out for part two of this series, where we’ll share more insight, history, and resources.