How a Nonprofit Turned a Product into a Platform
At an #ASAE16 Game Changer session Monday, the CEO of the nonprofit The Empowerment Plan described how an idea to solve a specific problem led to a larger mission to change the lives of the homeless.
It’s not every day that a class project is transformed into a national nonprofit.
But that was the case with Veronika Scott, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of Detroit-based The Empowerment Plan, who shared her path from student to leader at a Game Changer session at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Salt Lake City on Monday.
What began as an idea to create an extreme-weather, multifunctional coat for the homeless led Scott to start a growing nonprofit that actually hires the homeless, despite any felony records, to sew these coats—giving them back their self-sufficiency and empowering them to support themselves.
While the coat protects homeless individuals and has even drawn interest from retailers, Scott says she is much more excited about the jobs the coat has helped to create. “That was something people didn’t realize we could do … but what we found is the jobs are so much more impactful,” she said.
The Empowerment Plan has employed about 40 previously homeless individuals, who were all able to move out of their shelters four to six weeks after beginning work. And if they’ve left Scott’s organization, they’ve moved onto other jobs—not back to the shelter. In addition, employing these individuals has also put their children into homes.
“Yes, it’s about hiring people, but it’s really a way to intervene in how kids are raised,” she said. “And saying if you have a stable income, if you’re working full time, if you’re able to hold down a job, what’s your home life going to be like? It’s going to be better.”
And as corporate sponsors and the public want to either help distribute coats or purchase them for themselves, Scott then has a platform to talk about the homelessness problem. Her family only avoided the streets because her grandparents intervened when her unemployed parents, who struggled with addiction, couldn’t find a place to live.
“Our product is good enough to stand out. Our product is strong enough to be sitting next to REI or Patagonia, and people will still want to buy it, and then they’re going to find out about the social side,” she said. “And it’s about talking about how homelessness should no longer be a life sentence. But it is right now, and it shouldn’t be this legacy that gets tracked over generations.”
Scott’s goal was not always to start a nonprofit. In fact, it all began after she received a class assignment in college to create a product that could address a local need. When beginning research, although she struggled finding homeless people to talk to at a Detroit shelter, she did discover their primary need.
“It wasn’t about the physical need, having shelter. It was about the emotional one. It was about pride, it was about dignity, it was about wanting to take care of yourself,” she said.
So when she saw homeless people wearing multiple hand-me-down coats strapped together with bungee cords, and the demoralization that resulted in, she had her product idea. Working to design a coat that would be warm but wouldn’t immediately mark a person as homeless, she began testing her prototypes—though the first was 23 pounds that took her and her mom 80 hours to sew.
It wasn’t until the requests for coats started coming in that she considered the business potential. Armed with “an artist’s business plan”—10 pages of photos, five sentences, and a spreadsheet with a single line item—she managed to secure the help of work clothing company Carhartt, a connection made through her school’s dean.
Several industrial sewing machines that made the move from her grandparents’ garage to a utility closet at a shelter, yards of material, and a viral news story launched Scott into the nonprofit realm. Her first year, which resulted in three hires and 20 coats, was completely funded by the PayPal button on her blog.
Today, The Empowerment Plan has produced 15,000 coats and distributed them around the world. Carhartt and Patagonia send their discontinued materials to Scott and her team. And the nonprofit is set to move into four new cities and hire 600 people, all of whom have two paid hours during their eight-hour workday to focus on professional development.
Through her simple product, Scott has provided an amplified voice and escape route to the homeless community. “You don’t realize that homelessness is not a defining characteristic at all,” she said. “It shouldn’t tell you anything about an individual, except they don’t have a place to go. That’s it.”
The Empowerment Plan's Veronika Scott. (photo by Jason Keen and Nick Hagen)