Success sparks Sock it to Literacy campaign

Courage, resiliency and a book changed her life — now she’s giving back

One of Decoda Literacy Solutions’ values is courage. We know that courage is necessary to move literacy forward, to develop innovative solutions and to take risks to address complex situations.

Marilyn Cobban, owner of Blue Sky Clothing Co., is a testament to how courage, resiliency and a book can change a life. She created a meaningful business and saw it grow to nine retail stores, a thriving web store, and multiple wholesale locations across the continent.

Her own history and connection to literacy sparked the ‘Sock it to Literacy!’ campaign that has raised more than $42,000 for literacy in BC between 2016 and 2020.

Marilyn’s story

“I didn’t finish high school and I always felt bad that I was undereducated,” says Marilyn. “You need to feel good about yourself to be successful. That’s why I support literacy.”

Marilyn left high school partway through Grade 9, married young, abused alcohol and drugs and held a series of low-wage jobs. Then, when Marilyn was 30, her husband was killed in an industrial accident.

“It taught me that life can be unpredictably short,” she says. “I wanted to somehow make a difference.”

One book changed her life

She credits a special book for helping her build self-esteem and courage during this time, and for changing her life.

“Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life – I didn’t just read it, I lived it,” says Marilyn. “That turned the page in my life, and really changed the route that I was on.”

The book focuses on the mind-body connection and training your brain with positive affirmations.

A daily mantra was: “I love and approve of myself and therefore…” and she would fill in the blanks with her own goals, including “…therefore, I am a successful businesswoman” and “… therefore, alcohol has no power over me.”

Six months later, she quit her grocery store job and spent some time at a lakeside cabin to think about what she wanted to do.

Inspiration

Her love of clothes and travel sparked her start in the garment business.

She remembers growing up, feeling like she didn’t have a lot of clothes, and seeing her mother struggle to find affordable, natural-fibre clothes that fit.

“My mom was a big inspiration. She was short and big busted and had a negative experience with shopping,” she says.

She started researching and interviewing people in the clothing business, took a business plan course at Community Futures, and did some high school upgrading. She had no sewing experience, but she studied how clothes were made and the spec sheets – and discovered a hidden talent for numbers.

“I could look at a spec sheet with 25 different measurements and the numbers just jumped out at me. I thought, ‘I get this!’.”

And she felt the sizing was all wrong. “I base Blue Sky Clothing’s sizing on how people are really shaped.” So Blue Sky Clothing offers sizes XXS to 4XL.

She connected with a clothing importer and scraped the money together to visit Indonesia to learn about the fabric and clothing industry. She found beautiful natural fabrics she could get dyed with her original prints in smaller quantities than was possible in North America.

Then she started designing and making clothes.

In the meantime, her home electricity had been disconnected due to unpaid bills.

Selling clothes out of a VW van

In 1998, she was selling her designs out of her Volkswagon van (it had a pop top, for a makeshift changeroom) at the Balfour ferry landing. Her first day she sold $500 worth of her clothing and paid her electric bill.

People loved her clothing and in 2001 she moved into to a ‘little shack’ at the Balfour ferry – her first real store. Gradually she expanded to hundreds of products and opened more retail stores in BC.

Good karma

In 2016, she won an award for ‘expansion and growth in small business’ from Bank of Montreal’s Celebrating Women Program.

Her formula for success is based on her affirmations, which guide her business decisions with people in mind. Marilyn’s (and Blue Sky’s) philosophy is all about kindness, as it affirms on the website: “Kind to the people who make our clothing. Kind to the environment by using natural fiber and dyes. Kind to different bodies by making clothes for real people of all shapes and sizes.”

As a fair-trade company, Blue Sky ensures their employees – from fabric cutters and batik artists in Bali to the e-commerce team in Vancouver – are treated with care and respect.

“I base my success on having karmically good energy, from the beginning to the end product,” says Marilyn.

Connection to literacy

Her success motivated her to give back in a way that could lift others, increase self-esteem, and bring them more opportunities. She found the perfect cause, the field that her sister, Margaret Sutherland, (Decoda’s executive director) worked in, and that was always in need of funding – literacy.

Sock it to literacy

In 2016, Blue Sky Clothing and Decoda Literacy initiated the Sock it to Literacy! campaign. For every pair of its $6.99 merino wool socks sold, Blue Sky contributes $1 to local literacy programs.

In addition, Blue Sky Clothing works directly with community literacy organizations by offering the merino socks at a discount. Organizations can then sell the socks as a fundraiser for increased profit/donation.

“Our belief in empowerment is what fuels our desire to support this cause,” says Marilyn. “Literacy is a key to success. If you don’t know how to read, you can’t succeed. It’s also a matter of self-esteem. The act of building self-esteem is the foundation of setting people up for success.”

Today, Marilyn is the successful businesswoman that she visualized, she is 17 years sober and she is making a difference.

Decoda applauds Marilyn’s courage, determination and philosophy of kindness and is grateful for her continued support of literacy in BC.

September is Literacy Month in BC. It’s a great opportunity to stock up on socks and support literacy in your community!

Two women stand with arms around each other holding out their feet with Sock it To Literacy socks on.

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