Veronika Scott: ‘The Empowerment Plan & How Women in Detroit Make a Difference’
Interview by Katie Barger
GTF: What triggered the idea for The Empowerment Plan?
VS: I was a product design student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and was given an assignment to design a product to address a need in the city. I immediately recognized the amount of homeless individuals wandering the city and decided to conduct my research for this project at a local shelter. After speaking with various individuals at the shelter and exploring the issues that they face and inquiring about why someone would choose to live in an abandoned structure rather than a shelter, I came to realize that these individuals are motivated by the same things we are: pride and independence. When you have lost everything in your life, you want to feel like you are still able to provide for yourself. In a shelter they tell you what you can eat, how long you can stay for, what you can watch on TV…if you find shelter on your own, then the sense of independence still exists in some form. With this in mind, I wanted to create a product that would help the homeless feel that sense of independence and comfort. After months of volunteering at the shelter I had produced the first prototype and I received a lot of interest from those in the shelter. One woman, however, brought to my attention that although the coat could provide temporary comfort it would not help lift anyone from their situation of poverty and that if I wanted to help anyone I should give them a job. She was right. From there I began working with a few women from the shelter and modifying the design of the coat. Fast-forward four years and here we are, operating with a team of 16 seamstresses and producing around 500 coats a month.
GTF: Tell us a bit about your two-part goals: creating jobs and providing coats. How do you determine who is a right fit for a job? About how many people are you able to employ?
VS: The mission of The Empowerment Plan is to educate, employ, and empower homeless individuals to create a better life for themselves and their families while producing a humanitarian product for those in need. Right now we have a team of 22 employees (15 seamstresses and 7 admin staff including myself) and are aiming to produce and distribute approximately 6,000 coats this year. When I first started The Empowerment Plan, countless individuals told me that I would fail not because I didn’t have a good idea, but because I couldn’t rely on the homeless. The ladies of The Empowerment Plan are proof that just because they ended up in an unfortunate situation, it doesn’t mean they aren’t driven, intelligent, creative, and fully capable of maintaining employment. The women we hire take so much pride in the product they are making and are able to emotionally connect with the individuals receiving the coat because they understand first hand what it is like to be homeless.
GTF: What types of challenges did you face in the beginning? What types of challenges do you continue to face today?
VS: The Empowerment Plan started as a class project when I was a student in college. One of the biggest challenges I was faced with in the beginning was simply making the decision to fully commit myself to this project as opposed to following the more traditional career path I had always seen myself embarking on. I do not have any background in business and in many ways I think my lack of business exposure allowed me to freely take risks without being aware of the associated risks. Today, we face a variety of challenges in regards to fundraising, growth and sustainability, workforce development and education, and production. As a non-profit you need to constantly be fundraising to ensure that you can continue the operations while also expanding and growing your impact factor.
GTF: Why Detroit?
VS: Detroit truly is unique in the sense that young entrepreneurs like myself are able to reinvent the wheel and bring ideas to life. In so many other cities, there is a sense of competition amongst millennials and everyone is fighting for the same positions, but in Detroit competition is replaced with collaboration.
GTF: How many people have you helped in the last year?
VS: In 2013 we distributed close to 3,500 coats and this year we have plans to produce and distribute about 6,000 coats.
GTF: Is there a particular story that you remember and you can share with us?
VS: One of the most amazing parts of my job is watching the women transition out of survival mode. When we hire these women, they are living some of the darkest moments of their life, but once they join our team, begin making progress toward stable housing and financial security, their true personalities are able to shine through and it is so rewarding.
GTF: What are the plans for the future?
VS: We are currently exploring a few new opportunities that will present our team with opportunities to further themselves both personally and professionally. We believe that by integrating education into the workplace and offering workshops and seminars on topics varying from health and wellness to resume building and public speaking, that we will be best able to equip those that we hire for future growth, whether that be at The Empowerment Plan or elsewhere.
Founder & CEO of ‘The Empowerment Plan’, Veronika Scott, has built an organization that began around a single idea: to design a coat specifically for the homeless.