Nonprofit Sector

Jackets and Jobs

December 1, 2021

Where We Go From Here

Veronika Scott, CEO and Founder and Erika George, Chief Development Officer, Empowerment Plan

Empowerment Plan started as a small design project: coats that become sleeping bags for people who don’t have a place to sleep. But its mission quickly shifted from keeping people warm to breaking the generational cycle of poverty through employment. Now those coats provide jobs and so much more. Empowerment Plan hires unhoused parents from Detroit shelters, providing full-time employment plus supportive services and education.

In this conversation Veronika Scott, CEO and Founder and Erika George, Chief Development Officer describe their unique business model, bust myths about homelessness, and share lessons learned over Empowerment Plan’s first 10 years. Joining them is Sherr Lo, Associate Director, Advisory Services at NFF.  

In this video: 

  • The who, what, and where of Empowerment Plan. (0:19)
  • How a coat designed to fill a need – and look good doing it – became a nonprofit business providing jobs, supportive services, and education. (0:38)
  • Myth busting homelessness: what being unhoused in America really means. (2:55)
  • Why it’s so important for nonprofits to listen to their communities. (6:00)
  • What’s next for the organization. (9:11)
  • How Empowerment Plan’s business model makes donors feel good while doing good. (11:53)

Transcript

ERIKA: People always think that we were friends –

VERONIKA: Before –   

ERIKA: They’re like, “Oh, you guys have known each other.” I’m like:

BOTH: No!

SHERR: [Laughter]   

[Music]     

VERONIKA: Empowerment Plan is a nonprofit organization focused on ending the generational cycle of poverty through employment, and we do that by hiring individuals from shelters across the city of Detroit and employing them to produce coats that then turn into sleeping bags that we give out globally to those in need.

SHERR: The story of how you founded Empowerment Plan I think is very interesting. So if you could say a little bit, Veronika, about how you got the idea for turning coat into sleeping bags, and then say a little bit about how did you start to think about the business portion of it – turning it into something that could sustain itself.

VERONIKA: What inspired making the coat and what inspired the coat sleeping bag was this idea around designing to fill a need in the community and specifically Detroit. We, at this time, 2010, had a homeless population that was counted at 20,000 people and estimated double that. And at the same time, there was very few shelters open – this had just come on the heels of an economic crisis, and so a lot of shelters were really struggling and couldn't actually have that many beds. So at any given night back in 2010, there was only about 1,200-1,500 beds for people that were displaced, so that meant a lot of individuals were left without an option really and had to create opportunities and shelters for themselves.

And that was what inspired the sleeping bag coat, was the ability to be mobile if you had … if you couldn't get a bed, that you wouldn't lose, hopefully, limbs to frostbite. And that at the same time, it didn't look like trash, it didn't look like somebody else's hand-me-down.

That durability, that look of something new, here is something new for you, as well as the need: if you cannot get somewhere, what can you do?

I designed the coat with my mother. Spent three days a week every week for five months at this warming center developing the early prototypes. And it took me a while to realize, it took outside mentors and other additional help to realize that it could be a business. There was particularly one woman at that warming center that stopped me one day and said very bluntly, "Look, I don't need a jacket, I need a job. What you're doing is pointless," and so that's when it started to shift and the business started to get built where it was … made it very clear that the coat on its own, while incredible, is a band-aid for a systemic issues, and what makes true impact and deep impact is hiring the people that would need it in the first place.

SHERR: I think you guys have a very unique view or at least an opportunity to learn a lot from the communities that you serve, and I'd like to continue this conversation with a little bit of myth-busting. So there's so many myths about homelessness and what that term means and I would love to hear from either of you, both of you, about what you see and then to help debunk some of those myths that are about homelessness and what causes homelessness.

VERONIKA: There's so many. That you're lazy, that you … because you're homeless, you're lazy. You've done something wrong. You're addicted to drugs. You are … automatically you struggle with mental health issues, and that's just not true.

Homelessness is such a complex thing. It's not a defining characteristic for anybody. It does not tell you anything about the person other than they just do not have a place to stay. That is it. But people use it to make wide generalizations.

ERIKA: Yeah, we attach a lot of other negative stereotypes to, like Veronika said, a single defining term, which means you are without shelter and we throw all these other things at it. I would say from our experience with the individuals we serve, domestic violence is also a really big cause. We did a recent survey of our team and everyone said that they have or are experiencing domestic violence. So we see that as an overwhelming theme. And I would also say the housing market is really tough and really prevents a lot of people from getting stably housed as well as just employment opportunities. You look at the federal minimum wage and a family. How are you supposed to sustain that? The system is not necessarily set up for people to get out of that situation.

VERONIKA: Yeah, absolutely, and I think when I get – I get asked a lot about, "What are the five things that contribute to homelessness?" Or like "Why? Why are people homeless?" And you look at … It's almost like you look at it city by city. Each city has different pain points. Like, if you look at San Francisco, for example, cost of living, the like – you need to make $100,000 at a minimum as a single person to afford to live in San Francisco. I think that number has even gone up, which is wild. So...

ERIKA: And imagine being a single parent.

VERONIKA: Imagine having children and that number dramatically changes, and then there is no housing. There's no available housing for anybody to live in that area with the wages that they're making. When you look at some of the themes that we see, those are some of them, but each city and each community has its own kind of unique struggles.

ERIKA: Right. You know, we serve single parents, but you look at LGBTQ youth, that's a huge population just because they're not supported by … The lack of familial support is huge in that community. So again, I think like Veronika said, it depends on where you're looking and at what community you're looking at.

SHERR: You guys have perfect... I mean, one of the things that I admire about you guys is you're an example of listening. Like, you really listen to the community and what they say. Part of why I say that is because the way that you're illustrating that, yes, there are some similarities to homelessness across different areas, but really, it's the uniqueness is important. The nuances of the history of a location and the populations that used to live there or moving in makes a difference, and all of that. Could you say, or maybe provide some insight into how you make sure you're listening to community?

ERIKA: Listening is a huge reason of why our program looks the way that it does.

VERONIKA: It's evolved so much, yes.

ERIKA: The reason we offer on-site supportive services, educational programming during paid work hours is strictly because we listened. I'll give an example. Probably a year within when I first started – a good amount of the people that we hired have not graduated from high school or don't have a high school diploma – so we were looking at GED programs around the City of Detroit to help enroll our employees in. And they were either from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM or after work, and they said that they were free, but they didn't offer transportation or child care, and they just added all these barriers that were not feasible for our team to then enroll in these programs. So we heard that this was a big need and it was really important, so we partnered with someone and we brought it on-site.

And I think as we approach 10 years of impact, listening right now, too, is so important, like, what do we want the next 10 years to look like and how can we do even better moving forward?

VERONIKA: Yeah, I don't think we've really remained this … We've always been changing, and I think people are like, "Well, when are you gonna get to this point where you're just kind of steady, this is what you do," and it's frankly within the community, the community's needs change and evolve. If you had asked us two years ago what challenges we would have ahead, we would have told you, "Oh, we make so many coats, we have so many working hours, we want to make sure there's a market opportunity for the amount of coats that we produce. We can't hire enough people. There's just so many people that need jobs.” And now the entire world has changed in the span of a year and a half.

So this idea that – especially nonprofits I think in particular – that you can just stay the same and that the need does not evolve, is I think really flawed. I think communities evolve and change, the needs of communities evolve and change; if you are not listening … I see a lot of very big, older nonprofit organizations that are incredible, but the needs of your community have evolved, but you have not. And it can happen in an instant, and it can happen over a span of years, and I think that listening part is really critically important.

SHERR: So two questions here. What are the hopes for the work that you're doing? What is the hopes for the future of the work that you're doing today? And then, what do you need to make that happen?

VERONIKA: I think we are distilling down the hopes for the future now as a group, and I have to take into account that as soon as I say something, in the words of Darren Walker, the incredible Ford Foundation leader, our words carry a lot of weight and sometimes, we don't think about that. So I'm now being very careful because I want to build this vision with everybody on the team.

This has been an incredible learning experience, in sometimes the worst ways, but we now are listening more and getting more information than we ever have in our history as an organization. We have more data to look at, we have more kind of radical intense transparency across departments and communications, because we had to really force it through and made it happen. So I think using that to steer the organization as we see it moving forward rather than, anecdotally, I think this is what we should do – using this incredible wealth of information and knowledge that we now have.

And that sustainability piece. We need to … We will be needing to bring on key staff members in order to keep up with demand on all ends. Even short-term, it's just making sure we can bring those people in, in order to become a more sustainable organization, even if we're adapting, a more sustainable organization.

ERIKA: Yeah, and I'll just add in obviously with my developments cap on. Fundraising and bringing –

[laughter]

VERONIKA: In order to hire people, we need –

ERIKA: We need grant funding, some foundation support, our donor community is so important to the work that we do. And we're so fortunate that our donor base is not hyper-local. We have so many supporters from coast to coast and around the world, honestly. And that's really unique for an organization like us, and really just bringing them along with us as we look to hire more people, expand our staff. It takes money to do that, and first and foremost, making sure we can sustain the jobs and serve the people in the community. So that's always a priority and top of mind for me.

SHERR: Yeah, one of the things that I will mention that I found very unique is it's not just about foundation support, but it's the individual buyers of the coat, your coat champions, I thought were … It's not a new concept, necessarily, but what I really appreciated was it does allow for someone like myself who is middle income to really participate and contribute, in a way.

ERIKA: Yeah, and it's a very tangible … It's $125 for a very tangible item that you can then go and hand out and give to someone in need, so it's like you said, we've had kindergarteners saving money and sponsoring a coat, high school students, college students, individuals of all walks of life, and they feel like they're really able to make – they really are able to make a difference through that donation and that contribution. So our individual donors make up a huge percentage –

VERONIKA: Huge part of our revenue –

ERIKA: Yeah, of our revenue.

VERONIKA: That's been one of the things I'm the most grateful for and did not expect at all, and did not go into expecting, and couldn't be more surprised by how communities across the globe have really embraced the work that we do.

[MUSIC]

Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.

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