Artwork for podcast The Bonfires of Social Enterprise with Romy  of Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Entrepreneurship in Detroit
S2: Veronika Scott of The Empowerment Plan Detroit #42
25th February 2016 • The Bonfires of Social Enterprise with Romy of Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Entrepreneurship in Detroit • Romy Kochan | Gingras Global | Social Enterprise | Detroit Entrepreneurs
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   Veronika Scott

Veronika Scott of The Empowerment Plan shares her missional journey of discovering her passion for creating employment for the homeless. She courageously dives into human dignity issues and leads the way for many social entrepreneurs. Get inspired!

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Romy:                 Hey there. This is Romy, and I'll be your host for this episode of the Bonfires of Social Enterprise. Welcome, today you will hear from the amazing Veronika Scott, who is the founder, CEO, and overall visionary of the Empowerment plan of Detroit. The Empowerment plan is an organization that employs single parents primarily, out of the homeless shelters, to sew and produce the coats that turn into sleeping bags for the homeless. She both has a product that helps the homeless, and hires the homeless. I would truly say, she does far more than just hire. She really pours into their lives. They become family there at the Empowerment plan. Now, before we get too far, let's kick off this episode with a cool, fun fact about coats from Bonfire's team member, Jentzen Mel.

Jentzen:              Hey, this is Jentzen, and I have some fun fuel for your entertainment. As I was thinking about this episode, I began to research the history of coats, and found some interesting information on coat manufacturer, Eddy Bauer. Eddy Bauer came up with the idea for his lightweight down insulated jacket after almost freezing to death, steelhead fishing on the Olympic Peninsula. I found this information on, written by Aaron McCarthy. Did you know, at age 21, Eddy Bauer was stringing tennis rackets as an entrepreneur in East Seattle, out of a small shop? His business was growing, and eventually, he gained his own storefront. Here's a short excerpt I found in the article.

"The shop might have stayed a small, but successful business if not for a fishing trip Bauer took with his friend Red Carlson, a trapper from Alaska, in January 1935. The pair headed to a canyon in the Olympic Peninsula where they fished for steelhead. That cold, snowy January day, their haul was 100 pounds, and they stripped off their heavy, wool Makina jackets, climbing off the canyon in just their wool shirts and long underwear. The car was a mile away, and the 200-30 foot climb out of the river canyon was steep. As they hiked, Bauer, wet from his bag of fish and sweating profusely, began to fall behind his friend. When he reached to the top of the canyon, he stopped and leaned against a tree to rest. "He was literally falling asleep on his feet, nodding off," Berg says.

All that moisture froze in the cold in the snow, and he was getting Hypothermic. He was in a bad way. He realized what he needed was really a breathable, warm jacket, that he wouldn't have to take off when he was working so strenuously in the cold.

End of article. We all know Eddy Bauer went on to be one of the most successful outdoor clothing brands, and well-known for his coats. This is Jentzen, and this was your fun fuel for today. Talk to you next time.

Romy:                 Cool story. You never know what inspires people. Thinking about inspiration, let's turn our attention back to Veronika. I met her some years ago when she was considering some expansion in her organization and some investment. She's truly a visionary. I want to set this up a little bit. You can go to her website and get the back-story. There're lots of videos there that you can look up and go through, and you might want to because this interview is really picking up and discussing important issues she's facing today. Both in the form of opportunity and critical human issues that she's thinking through very strategically, so here we go, my interview with Veronika Scott.

Veronika:           Hi Romy, I'm really excited to be here. It's always great talking to you about this, and you can find out more about the whole history of Empowerment plan on our site, but it really all started off as a class project in college, while I was studying product design at the college for creative studies, here in Detroit. What started off as designing a product to fill needs in the city of Detroit, really turned into this whole system, and organization built around the coats themselves, and how the coats aren't actually the priority. They're just a way for us to employ the people we want to employ. The coat was what I designed in college. It took me 80 hours to build the first prototype.

Weeks of my life learning how to sew, while simultaneously making this coat, because what I noticed when I started the class, and all of us were kind of scrambling around as students, we had no idea how to address a need in the city of Detroit, that was actually something that we could tackle in a semester. What came up constantly was that, here, I see this person on the streets every day, and I want to do something, but I can't. I spent a lot of time in shelters, and I wouldn't say I was volunteering, I just spent time there. The one thing, the one moment that inspired the coat and the entire Empowerment plan, subsequently, was a playground that was turned into a home for somebody. Two people were living inside of a play structure that was covered in tarps and clothes, and this playground, where these two people were living, were 20 feet away from the shelter. That was just the most shocking thing in the world.

Why would you build something for yourself, when somebody is literally trying to give it to you for free? I remember just snapping a couple of pictures on my phone, and walking around with some of the people that were in that shelter, and coming back a week later, only to find that the playground had been burnt to the ground in a turf war, and had been completely leveled. The two people that were living inside of it survived that incident, only to pass away a couple of years later, just from being out in the elements for so long. Essentially, that moment inspired Empowerment Plan and the coats, but everything else as well. It's like, why would you do that, why would you even risk your life to make something for yourself? Initially, as a product designer, my way of dealing with it, and figuring out how to address, because it's not the physical need, but it's the emotional need.

It's this desire of wanting to take care of yourself. That this person had the pride and the drive to be independent, because when the rest of the world is trying to force them to take handouts and rely on the whims of others for everything that they need in their day to day life, these two individuals tried to take control in the best way possible, and show that they could provide for themselves, even in this small way. The coat was trying to address that emotional need of wanting to be independent, and not feeling like you're worthless because most of the handouts are used by other people, before that person gets it. It makes you feel less than everybody else, to be wearing somebody else's trash. I know that just from growing up. My parents, who are unemployed to this day, still struggle with addiction, and it's something that we still struggle with.

Most people assumed that my siblings and I, we didn't have any value, because they didn't think my parents had any value. Even though my parents are very intelligent, driven people, that are in that circumstance for many different reasons, they just kind of looked at them, and then subsequently looked over us. I know what it's like to have to deal with other people's cast away objects, and have people look down at you and think that you're worthless, and all you're trying to do is prove that you're not. That's a really long, hard struggle, so when I started with Empowerment plan and spent time in that shelter, I was the only one of my friends and classmates that actually spent time there, that didn't end up running away because it is a rough shelter that got uncomfortable. This is something that I know, if it weren't for family, we would have been in shelters.

We would have had that same experience, so if it can happen to my parents, it can happen to anybody. Homelessness, one, is not a defining characteristic. It doesn't define who someone is; it just tells you that they just don't have a place right now. They don't have a physical place to live, but people all the time, think it defines who that individually is as a person. When starting Empowerment plan, and spending time in that shelter, I knew, because my parents had gotten very close, but them not having a home, or them suffering from addiction, does not define who they are. If it could happen to my parents, it could happen to anybody, and that we're all a lot closer to homelessness than we'd like to think we are.

That was the reason I fell in love working in the shelters and spending the time and designing the coat that was initially meant not to feel like someone else's trash, and offer a little bit of warmth, with also giving a little bit of dignity. That's why it grew into something that was just beyond making a coat but hiring a population that would need it in the first place. In a way, it was me trying to deal with and address, what I had gone through growing up, and offer that same opportunity to my own family.

Romy:                 That's such a moving story. I think we can all find ourselves somewhere in that history, relating to that. For the folks listening that aren't familiar with your coat, will you tell them the functionality of this coat?

Veronika:           The coat now is beautiful. When I first started, they were absolutely terrible, and I really suck at sewing, even to this day, but it is meant just to be, simply a jacket. If you look at it on the streets, you can't even tell it's anything other than just like, a regular winter coat that people walk around with. What makes it different, really two things. There is what looks like a giant, giant pocket that unfolds from the back, that then you can velcro clothes. That you can actually slide your feet into, all the way up to your knees, and velcro the front panels of the jacket to it, and it becomes a sleeping bag. Then there are two clips on the sleeves themselves of the jacket, so that when you're done with the jacket in the winter, and you're done with the sleeping bag part, you can always roll it up and use it as an over the shoulder bag.

That's really important, most people deal with theft on the streets, and things like that, that they can wear it physically at all times, even in the summer, and not worry about it getting stolen. The coat itself is actually made with a lot of interesting things too. It's been really exciting to see the materials develop over time. We use recycled discontinued colors from Carhart on the outside shell; we use recycled automotive scrap from General Motors, from their door paneling. I think it's Buick, specifically. We use recycled Buick door panels, that they use as insulation in their cars, that are recycled and reprocessed, and given to us to use as insulation in the coats. Then we use quilted lining, just for extra comfort and warmth on the outside of those layers. I think it's just meant to be a very, very, very durable jacket because it's used in such extreme situations.

We've made about 10,000 coats over the last 3 1/2 years. People always ask, do you just distribute in Detroit? We're like, we never just distribute in Detroit. Even the first 20 that I made, half went to Detroit, and half went to Ohio and a couple of other places, but we have actually been able to have those 10,000 coats reach out in 30 states across the US, as well as 6 Canadian provinces, and now New Zealand, Australia, and France, as far as our outreach goes. That's through, just our network of outreach groups. We don't do distribution ourselves. We just partner with the organizations that do it and have the trust and respect on the streets.

That way, we've been able to have huge impact and scale at such a small organization, because we want to partner, and because we use it that way, and because we trust that the outreach groups, after we work with them, and Vet them, that they are going to give them to the people thaT really need it. They're going to know better than us, and so that's why we've been able to get our coats across the globe.

Romy:                 I'm glad we've transitioned a little bit deeper into the coat, and I want to stay on the coat itself for just a minute before we go back, and talk more about some of the initiatives with the social mission, but the coat itself has such a high, high quality, because of your demand for quality. You got the coat that's going to become part of the enterprise here, and because of the high quality of the coat and the awesome functionality of the coat, people want to buy it. It started out being a donation, and all of the sudden you're starting to get all these demands over the last couple of years from what, like outdoor enthusiasts and everything, and Camel. Can you tell us about this, because this is sort of what started the conversation about potentially selling these, right?

Veronika:           Yeah, so what's funny is when I first started, I got a lot of interesting responses to the coats and hiring a couple people from the shelter. It started off with getting hate mail actually because people were like, are you just helping people stay homeless, or those people are not going to work. That's literally quoted from e-mails. Like, those people, those homeless people are never going to come to work everyday. They're never going to make a sandwich, let alone a coat. We had a lot to prove when I started because nobody was doing what we're doing now. Nobody was going to shelters and hiring people. Nobody said that that population and the people that were there had any worth or value, so we were really trying to do a couple of things when I first started was, prove out, hey, we got this coat idea, can we even make it?

Can we even produce this [inaudible 00:13:49], because I didn't know how to sew, and I had to find somebody on Facebook that would help teach us, so it wasn't probably the right business choice, but it was never a thought in my mind to make it somewhere else. Hiring the first couple people from the shelter, we had kind of a chip on our shoulder, that we wanted to prove that no, you can hire someone from the shelter. That there are valuable, driven, powerful individuals there, and that they're really the reason the coat has worked out, and gotten to this point. We were just trying to prove those two things, can we hire people from the shelter, and can we make this coat.

As we were proving those things, and as we prove them now, we were surprised by the response after that initial first phase, like I said, of not the best and the most happy responses from everybody, when people just saw the coat and didn't understand the system. Then, people started requesting the coat just for the function of it. They wanted to buy one. We would get thousands of orders for the coats for somebody that wanted to purchase one. We had been telling them, because we were making so few, and that the demand in the US and globally, for individuals that are sleeping on the streets, or are in a disaster relief situation, the demand is so high, that every coat that we made needed to go to someone in dyer need of it. That needed this because the situation was really extreme. I cannot tell you how many people we made very angry by saying, no, you can't buy it yet.

We're not there, and right now all the coats that we make, need to go out on the streets. We would get e-mails from hunters, campers, fishermen, ice fishermen, a lot of doomsday preppers, but there are people that just wanted to buy the coat, because they liked the coat, and they had no idea about the social side, whatsoever. They're like, I want to buy this coat that turns into a sleeping bag, that's light, and meant to be very, very, very durable, and also, withstand very cold temperatures. They just thought it looked cool, and so, those orders have never stopped coming in. I thought it would just be with waves of press that we had gotten, and then it would die down once people understood more of what we were doing, and frankly, the more effective we've been in hiring and employment, and the more that we've done in the employment space, the more the demand for the product itself, has increased.

Not only do those hunting, camping, fishing people want to buy a coat for the functionality, there are those now that want to support the Empowerment Plan, and want to see us grow, and they want to do that through also wearing one of those coats. I'm secretly really excited and thrilled about the idea that there one day could be two people walking down the street and cross paths, and one person could be wearing the coat because they need it, and they have to wear it, because they have nothing else, and one person could have worn the coat because they bought it, and they liked the product, and they thought it was cool, and that these two individuals may walk past each other on the street, and you won't be able to tell who needed it and who wanted it. I think that is one of the most exciting things for me, just thinking about from a dignity standpoint, and a respect standpoint, and pride.

I think that's something that I'm really excited about really trying to see if we can achieve.

Romy:                 Veronika, what was your focus on making a quality product?

Veronika:           We focus a lot on the quality because this can't just be a good product for people on the streets that's free. It can't just be looked at as, "Oh, that's a good product for, oh homeless people made it, oh this is good enough." That's not how I feel like a product designer. The product needs to stand on it's own. The product needs to be good, no matter what. That person that didn't pay anything for it, and couldn't afford it, needs to have just as good of quality as somebody that can afford something like that. Quality has been a big thing. We've actually, over the last nine months, have had a true focus on lean manufacturing. We've had a lean specialist come in that used to work with Toyota and Ford, and the Government, doing tanks, he came in to help us set up our system, because we're not a typical production facility.

Our whole focus is learning, and just having this work place that makes you feel warm and comfortable, and supported, because everything else in the world may be chaos around you, but I want to feel like when you come into work, that at least in this space, it's not. It's not chaotic; we're there to help. For me, that was like, how do we do that, while fostering the creativity of our work force? How do we hear ideas from the team on the floor that's making the coats everyday, and hearing that, and listening to them, and improving the coat that way. It's about bringing that out through manufacturing. It sounds weird, but being able to share ideas, and innovate together as a team, is really important. That innovation isn't just me in a corner, trying to design new coats because I am not that good. I am not that good at all of this.

I think the only reason the coat is where it is now, is because of that, is because of the whole team innovating together, and because the people are everyday making it, are the...




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