“The creative process helps restore their confidence because they are believing in themselves again.”—Amy Peterson<
Amy Peterson: Co-Founder, Rebel Nell / Detroit, MI
“the creative process helps restore their confidence because they are believing in themselves again.”—amy peterson
Can you describe the link between your group and Detroit SOUP?
We owe Detroit SOUP a lot for our business. We were an idea a little over a year ago, and we were familiar with Detroit SOUP, being Detroiters. At this point in time, Diana Russell [Co-Founder] and I had exhausted our own financial resources into our business. That’s when we decided to submit a pitch for Detroit SOUP, and we were fortunate enough to be one of the four finalists selected to present our pitch last July, so July 2013. We ended up winning around $1,400. That money was critical to our launch because we invested 100% of it on material. We made the jewelry. Then we took it to a major fair in Detroit called Dally in the Alley. We sold a ton of pieces there, and with that money, we were able to start hiring and campaigning. I really credit Detroit SOUP with being the catalyst for helping to launch Rebel Nell. We took that $1,400 and we turned it into about $9,000, based on the physical store.
Have you maintained any sort of relationship with Detroit SOUP?
We are very close with Detroit SOUP. In fact, we think it is really important to teach the women that we hire about where we came from. We have done group outings to Detroit. Amy Keherl has done a wonderful job with Detroit SOUP, keeping dreams alive for social entrepreneurs in the city.
courtesy of rebel nell
Can you talk about what Rebel Nell is—the model, how works, what’s involved, and the art?
Rebel Nell is meant to employ, educate, and empower underprivileged women in the Detroit community. We employ them directly from the shelters. The shelters help us identify women who are ready for this type of transitional opportunity. We teach them how to make jewelry from falling graffiti that we find in the city. We go around on scavenges and collect graffiti once it has fallen on the ground; we have a lot of respect for the artists. We don’t pick up paint until it is just a scrap on the ground. We take that back to the shop, and through a series of processes, are able to peel through all of the layers that make up that particular piece of graffiti. That’s where the beauty really comes in. The women have complete creative freedom to cut out whatever shapes and sizes that speak to them. So each piece is truly a reflection of the artist and their personality, and we believe very strongly in that. The creative process helps restore their confidence because they are believing in themselves again. Each pendant is uniquely shaped and one-of-a-kind. In addition to the employment, we also provide them with education—not only business education by being at Rebel Nell, but we also provide them with financial management. There is a financial advisor that comes in once a month to teach them about spending appropriately to get out of the cycle of poverty. We provide them with life wellness, micro-loans, legal aid, and women’s leadership classes.
How do you balance the artistic and social side of Rebel Nell with the business side?
That comes naturally because the women have complete creative freedom over what they design, and we never limit that. In fact, we get lots of requests to do certain shapes. For example, a lot of people want us to make something in the shape of Michigan, and we appreciate all of the suggestions—we love critique and input—but as soon as we start agreeing to that, then we are limiting their creativity. We might be able to sell more jewelry if it is in the shape of Michigan, but we really believe in allowing the women to express themselves.
Do you see these women taking these skills and using them elsewhere?
Yeah, we want Rebel Nell to be a transitional opportunity for them. We want them to have the knowledge to go forward and start their own business. I really want this to be a conduit for their passion. We try to include a lot of business seminars, and we guide them as they start their own businesses. It hasn’t exactly happened yet, but that is where we are going.
All of them have a real passion for caregiving, whether it be to elderly people, children, or integrating former prisoners back into society. Their future businesses are not necessarily linked to jewelry.
Can you talk about collaboration within the group?
We are one tight-knit family. I think that is really important, and that is why we have been able to grow as fast as we have. Everyone is very supportive of each other, and the women are all part of this business. They are an instrumental part of Rebel Nell, and they know that. When it first started out, everyone learned every part about making the jewelry. As we have progressed, everyone is now making different parts of the jewelry. This is a perfect example of collaboration and how things have changed as the business evolves. Originally, I was going to have each designer sign the back of her work with her own stamp. But as we evolved, everyone started working together to complete one piece. While someone may cut out that design, it goes through everyone’s hands in order to finish it. And I think it is beautiful that we have evolved that way. Everyone has gravitated towards the things that interest them, and lucky for us, it has worked out. Everybody likes different things.
What was the genesis of the idea for Rebel Nell?
I lived in Detroit, right next door to one of the shelters. I would walk my dog and often chat with the residents of the shelter, particularly the women. There were several women who I spoke with whose stories really hit home with me. They were there because they had lost their job; many of them coming from very difficult situations where they didn’t control their finances, and whoever they were with, took their money, and that’s why they had nothing. They were courageous because they left the situation and went to the shelter. So that’s where the idea started.
I had a jewelry business back in the day, when I went to law school many moons ago, so it was a natural fit for me. My business partner, Diana, loved the idea, so we joined together in the adventure. Diana also has a really strong background in jewelry-making. We didn’t know what type of jewelry we would make until I was inspired during a jog one day in Detroit, and saw tons of graffiti. I noticed that there was a piece that had fallen off of the wall, so I brought that home, and thought it was cool on the surface, but then realized that it was made up of all of these different layers. Diana and I played around with it for a while, and that is how we came up with the process to expose the layers.
How responsive is the local community?
Detroit is a very embracing and loving community. If it weren’t for all of these people, we would be an idea somewhere else. The city and this community really helped launch us, and they are very supportive of social endeavors. We are heavily involved in the community.
What is it about Detroit that makes it very fertile for this?
There is a creative energy here in Detroit. I think that a lot of individuals have stepped up to the plate. In other cities, the government would provide certain resources, but since we are a city under bankruptcy, a lot of those resources aren’t provided. There are a lot of citizens who really care about Detroit and see the potential that it has. It’s also because of what has gone on here. There isn’t a ton of competition. People are very supportive of one another.
Do you have advice for people who would be interested in launching a similar startup?
It sounds so cliché, but just follow your passion. Your passion is what is going to motivate you. Any entrepreneur will tell you that there are amazing days and there are bad days, but it is your passion that gets you up every day, wanting to make a difference. For me, it’s been the women that we have. I love them like family. It is one thing to let myself down, but now I have all of these other people who rely on me.
courtesy of rebel nell
What is it about collaboration as a process that you think is essential?
I think that collaboration has made Rebel Nell so much stronger as a company. It has enhanced our trust in one another. It has improved our process. When Diana and I started making the jewelry, we thought we had it down to a science, but the women are intelligent and amazing, and they have found ways to make the process even better. If we didn’t allow for collaboration or opportunities for them to express themselves, then we may have never encountered that.
One of the major collaborations that has been really helpful to our businesses is this group called The Alley Project in Southwest Detroit, and there is so much collaboration in this one story. An entire neighborhood dedicated their garages that are all located in an alley to this art program. They teach at-risk youth how to be creative through street art. The whole neighborhood has been really comfortable and loved them. Local street artists come and work with the kids to teach them how to do it. There is an after school program that does arts and crafts with the kids every Friday. It is a beautiful nonprofit. Not only are they collaborating with the neighborhood, but they are collaborating with street artists and really making a difference in Southwest Detroit.
We started working with Erik Howard, who is the founder and artist of The Alley Project, and Erik will call us when his graffiti gets really thick, so that we can go over there and pick up scraps, which we then take and transform into our jewelry pieces. Each necklace has a little tag on the top that identifies where we found the graffiti. Those pieces are marked with a “TAP” for The Alley Project, and a portion of the proceeds from each sale of those necklaces goes back to Erik and TAP. He has never asked for a single penny at all; he just wanted to give us the graffiti because he believes in what we are doing. So we want to give back and help them succeed.