Manufacturing products in Montana is not necessarily easy, which can make it difficult for new companies to make their products in the state.
Three years ago, Jen Perry started Jelt Belt with the hope of making her product in Montana. She soon realized it was not going to be simple.
“I started in China and then as I started growing my business I felt really bad that I wasn’t making it in Montana, the state that I love,” said Perry.
The difficulty is the product itself: a belt made completely out of recycled materials.
“It’s 100% recycled water bottles woven into a super strong stretchy elastic,” said Perry. “It has a patented flat buckle with a grippy inner gel on the inside of the belt so it stays on whether you have belt loops or not.”
The flat buckle makes the belts invisible under tight clothing. The belts also don’t have any metal, which was important to Perry because it means the belts can stay on through airport security.
“I just had this idea and I thought if I needed it, a lot of other people would,” said Perry.
Once business began to take off, Perry devoted herself to finding a way to make her belts in Montana. That is when she heard about the Montana Correctional Enterprises (MCE), a program that allows Montana inmates to work while incarcerated.
"The vocational education gives them a set of soft skills,” said Ester Weis, the production manager at the MCE facility. “Working with a supervisor, attention to detail, teamwork…all of those things become really important as they re-enter into the workforce."
Perry was able to have the raw goods shipped from China to Montana, and then have the manufacturing done at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings.
“The women fill out applications, then they interview, then they are chosen. It’s a privilege program,” said Perry. “The money that they make goes toward their restitution, child support and then finally into a savings account for them that they can use when they are released.”
It is not just the women behind bars that benefit from Jelt Belt as Perry also uses the company as a way to give back to the community.
"I have this huge interest to give back to Bozeman and to Montana, so my business is basically social entrepreneurship,” said Perry. “I created the business as a way to give money back to my community. I still make a profit, but I donate a portion of my profits to charities all over Montana and national charities as well."
Aside from donations to various organizations around the state, Perry also donates a dollar from every belt sold to Warriors on Quiet Waters, which works to improve the lives of post 9/11 combat veterans through fly fishing excursions.
Perry said Jelt Belt will also be available throughout Yellowstone National Park gift shops starting this summer.