Veronika Scott, Founder and CEO, The Empowerment Plan
Veronika Scott has been to Hell and back…literally. She remembers, as a young college student studying product design, walking into Detroit’s Neighborhood Service Organization (N.S.O., better known on the city streets as “Hell”) with all of her design tools – sticky notes, Sharpies, disposable cameras and a questionnaire to get the conversation started.
Her agenda? To try and entice the homeless people at the shelter to help her with a class project: creating a product based on actual needs rather than trends.
What she found was a small, one-story, gray building with no windows, one door, encircled by barbed wire. After going through two metal detectors, a guy pushed her in front of a crowd of about 40 people (a mix of folks who had just gotten out of prison or were mentally ill) sitting in chairs watching TV, shut off the tube and said, “Good luck, you’re gonna need it.”
While Scott was initially met with much disdain (one woman told her, “If you want to help us, turn our … television back on!”), she continued to return to that same shelter every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for five months, just to talk to people for five minutes. By the end of that time, she had managed to gain their trust and get their feedback and devised an idea to make a coat that doubles as a sleeping bag for people living on the streets.
Fast-forward to a year and a half ago, and the “crazy coat girl” (as she had become known) is now CEO of The Empowerment Plan, a humanitarian organization she founded the day after she graduated from the College for Creative Studies to help people trapped in the cycle of homelessness become self-sufficient.
The organization’s main goal is to hire homeless women to sew the coats so they can earn money and afford a place to live, but The Empowerment Plan also offers addiction services and microloans for continuing education and new businesses endeavors. And there are new programs in the works all of the time.
“It’s amazing to watch the transformation of someone who comes from the shelter and has been on the streets and has kids and is in survival mode,” says Scott. “All of a sudden there’s not that fear. They know they can put food on the table the next day, and they know where they’re going to be sleeping. That sense of urgency, despair and tension is gone.”
Womenetics: What did you learn after visiting the shelter for five months?
Veronika Scott: Everybody is motivated by a need to be independent and self-reliant, and everybody has pride. When people think about the homeless population, many think of them as lazy or degenerate and tend to reject the idea that these people have pride and are human beings who want to be able to take care of themselves. When you live in a shelter, every aspect of your life is decided for you: where you can sleep; where, when and what you can eat; etc. Many homeless people don’t want to live in such an environment and try to create their own shelters on the streets.
A Detroit woman wears her Empowerment Plan coat
Womenetics: Why the coat?
Scott: I had seen so many people wearing coats that were bungee corded together because they were falling apart. I also kept hearing about thousands of people found frozen to death on the streets every year. The coat initially was a way to offer comfort and warmth, and itsomething they could have pride in because it doesn’t look like it came out of The Salvation Army, wasn’t worn by someone else before, fit them, and didn’t smell like someone else. When people look at them on the street, they’re not automatically assuming anything.
Womenetics: What’s special about these coats?
Scott: For me, the story of the coats is not that unique. The coat is a means to an end with the people we hire. It’s great our byproduct happens to be this coat that doubles as a sleeping bag, but if you look at the major retailers, they all have a version of a sleeping bag jacket or a tent coat. I designed the product to be used in very extreme situations and for free. We could produce regular coats or leggings, and we’d still have the same model and the same strength of the organization. The coat is what grabs people and pulls them in, and it’s easy to understand. It’s a cool product.
Womenetics: How are they made?
Scott: The material for the outside of the coat is donated from Carhartt (a Detroit-based company known for manufacturing uniforms for construction workers and firefighters). The inner layer of the coat is scrap car insulation, which is donated to us from General Motors. The coat is sewn and assembled by the women we hire, and each coat can be completed in less than an hour.
Womenetics: How has the coat business evolved?
Scott: It’s been a very organic process. It took 80 hours, with help from my mother, to make the first prototype. We did three of them together in my grandparents’ basement. They were hideous, big and heavy, and they smelled funny because they were made from recycled stuff, but it got the idea out there.
A woman sewing at The Empowerment Plan’s headquarters
I built the very first “artistic” business plan. It was about 14 pages of pictures with a tiny spreadsheet in the back. It was a funny thing to look at, but it got the idea rolling – and I realized all of the sudden I may need money to do this. I had budgeted $1,600 a year to make the coats and get all the equipment, which was ridiculously low. It got me in the door with the dean of my school (a big mentor for me and design director of Patagonia for about 20 years).
He told me the school couldn’t give me money, but he might know someone who could. I gave him my cell phone number, and the next day at 9 o’clock in the morning I got a call from the Carhartt CEO saying, “Wear what you’re wearing, bring the coat, and show up in two hours with your business plan.”
I met with him and we talked for about an hour. He went through my business plan, being very gentle with me, and asked me what kind of sewing machines I needed. I told him we needed three double-needle machines, and the next morning I got calls from plants in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mexico and had two tons worth of sewing machines, fabric and zippers being shipped in two freight trucks to my grandparents’ house.
I remember going to a local shelter and saying, “I need space to start this and to give to the homeless population, and I’d like to partner with a homeless shelter.”
We got a space equivalent to the size of a closet, with no windows. We lined up the sewing machines and couldn’t even lay the coats out on floor, it was so small. I went back to N.S.O. and showed them the new prototype and said I have machines and equipment now, but there was this one woman who was full on yelling at me and had to be physically restrained. I was shocked by how angry she was.
She said, “We don’t need coats, we need jobs. Your coats are pointless without jobs. A coat isn’t going to fix anything.” It was then that I knew I should bring someone on to help me make these coats because it didn’t matter if I was the only one making them. And here I had a whole group of people in front of me who needed jobs but couldn’t find employers that would give them a chance.
Womenetics: Tell me about the hiring process.
Scott: I remember interviewing about 20 people, and the first woman came two hours early. That was the first woman I ever hired. She had three kids, all under the age of 13. In the first three months, that $1,600 evaporated very quickly from the business plan, but a local news station had gotten a hold of a coat and we went viral. All of a sudden this woman’s salary was being funded with the PayPal button on my blog. Within the first three months, she had been able to move out of the shelter with her kids and into a new home, furnish her home and get her three kids enrolled in charter schools. Her youngest, who was 6, was learning Japanese.
For me, this clarified my understanding of whom I needed to hire. I realized that the mothers I was meeting who were homeless had an incredibly heightened drive and commitment to finding a way to provide for their families. They have that maternal sense that they need to take care not just of themselves, but also their children. I made it part of my business plan that every person we hire must have children and needs to exude that drive and ambition. That’s a requirement when we are interviewing applicants.
Frank J. Parker, the first person to wear an Empowerment Plan Coat
Womenetics: What then?
Scott: We spend the first month teaching the ladies to use a sewing machine, and they learn how to build the whole garment. Within the first three months, they have the freedom to make mistakes, and it may take them a whole day to assemble one coat. After six months, they’re making one coat every hour.
Womenetics: What other services do you offer?
Scott: We’re very focused on helping our ladies beyond the scope of just giving them a paying job. We help them partner with organizations to move them and their families out of the shelter and into their own safe and affordable housing. We also offer them financial assistance through providing microloans, which help them with other costs such as childcare, transportation or even tuition costs if they want to take classes. We also have an experienced human resources manager who provides financial-planning assistance, as well as addiction services counseling.
Womenetics: Where are you based now?
Scott: Our facility is an old, 40,000-square-foot building called Ponyride, in a Detroit neighborhood called Corktown. Ponyride is home to 14 other companies and organizations. The building was abandoned for a number of years but has been slowly undergoing renovations to accommodate each of the unique ventures operating there.
Womenetics: Where do the funds that enable you to operate The Empowerment Plan come from. Who are your supporters?
Scott: At this point, we are completely donation-based. Some of our funding comes from private in-kind donations, and some of it comes in the form of coat sponsorships. A person or company can donate X number of dollars so X amount of coats can go to a homeless shelter or outreach organization as a gift. These organizations get our coats directly into the hands of people who need them.
We’re making 4,000 coats this year and 10,000 next year. We can guarantee those can be made if we get every coat sponsored for $100. People are donating to us and supporting what we do — the $100 covers each of our ladies’ salaries as well as the materials needed to produce each coat. We’re mostly in the U.S. right now, with our coats being distributed in Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Portland, Buffalo, San Francisco, New Orleans and a few other major cities that are main distribution point hubs.
Womenetics: What is your annual budget?
Scott: This year it will be about $400,000, with about $30,000 a month to operate. That covers all our overhead and programs.
Womenetics: Anything new in the pipeline?
Scott: We will launch “Buy One, Give One” soon, similar to Tom’s Shoes. When this launches, people will be able to purchase a sportier version of the sleeping bag coats, and for every coat purchased, one will be given to a homeless individual in need. We’re rolling this out as a pilot program, starting with 200 coats to see how it goes. We’re excited to be able to produce and sell a new version of the coat, because we get so much demand from people who want them for recreational use, such as hiking, mountain climbing and hunting. We think consumers will feel good about purchasing our unique product while simultaneously helping the less fortunate.
Another exciting thing we’re rolling out is 3-D printing. We just purchased a 3-D printer, and we want to use it to design and produce all the little things on the coats – like buttons and clips – in-house with recycled plastic from toys and car companies. I’m most excited about being able to teach and train all the women how to 3-D model and how to code. This is just another way our ladies will grow professionally and expand their skill sets.
Womenetics: How many women have you helped become self-sufficient?
Scott: Right now, I think we’re at 15 women, and it’s been over a year and a half since we really started in January 2012. I’m going to teach the 3-D printing classes and pay people to learn, so it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens. I see it being more of a 6-month program where you’re learning all these skills and can continue to work with us on “Buy One, Get One” coats, sewing or 3-D printing. If some of our ladies want to explore employment opportunities outside of our organization, we are committed to helping them find placement at another facility or providing them with microloans if they want to start their own business.
Womenetics: What is the most important thing you learned about starting this nonprofit? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Scott: There are some things I wish I’d have done a little better, but I chalk that up to learning. There are two things that I usually tell people of all ages who are not only starting just a nonprofit but any business. One is not to be afraid to talk to people about it. People are so afraid of critiques and sharing ideas, and everyone gets tight lipped.
In this day and age, everything has been done before. If you want momentum and to get off the ground, you have to start talking to people about it and collaborating. Get people engaged and excited. If you never talk about it, it’s never going to go anywhere.
The second is a motto I live by and maintain my business by: Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. It’s a very simple rule and a lot of people break it, especially with nonprofits. They try to promise donors the world and that they are going to save this or end that or take care of that, and it is too much. When they can’t deliver on it, their company and idea suffers, and the good they were actually doing suffers. It’s one thing I try to stand by. I don’t say we can produce more coats than we can or that we can do something when we can’t.