“On paper, people have this idea of who they want to hire, but Veronika showed that this is a destructive model, to only use a stereotypical workforce.”—Erika George
Veronika Scott, Founder and CEO + Erika George, Director of Communications: The Empowerment Plan / Detroit MI
“on paper, people have this idea of who they want to hire, but veronika showed that this is a destructive model, to only use a stereotypical workforce.”—erika george
Interview with Erika George:
Can you summarize the relationship between Detroit SOUP and The Empowerment Plan?
Empowerment Plan Founder, Veronika Scott, and Detroit SOUP Founder, Amy Kaherl, have a really good relationship. I know they have worked together on multiple things over the past few years, and Detroit SOUP was a great way for Veronika to pitch her ideas to a group of local individuals looking to get involved and support causes. Collaborating with the community in general, and getting that support at an early stage in our development growth, has been really pivotal for the organization. Veronika really saw the vision and great potential for this organization. Having the support of the community is really important. Luckily, we did end up winning some capital at that dinner. Even for the individuals that did not end up winning, it is still a great way to expose yourself, meet new people, and really put yourself out there as you start a new venture. Detroit SOUP has led to a lot of other wonderful relationships.
Homeless Women Hired as Seamstresses to Manufacture Sleeping Bag-Coats
courtesy of ep
We work out of the same building as Amy, so SOUP is something that Veronika is still involved with. They see us grow and we get to see them grow, and we help each other back and forth.
How has the collaborative nature of your organization evolved?
Collaboration is a huge part of what we do. If you go to any other city, and you put yourself in this situation, it is a very competitive environment; but in Detroit, it is a very collaborative environment. Everyone has that same vision for the city and wants great things. There is a huge collaborative movement toward the same goal, and in our case, we have a unique organization and constructive model. Our workforce is unique. We have been able to connect and collaborate with a variety of individuals, varying from the local shelters where we hire our women, the case managers, and we partner with global outreach organizations, churches, other shelters, and nonprofits through our distribution efforts. On the flip side of it, we are also collaborating with corporate groups for fundraising support, sponsorships, and awareness, so we really collaborate across the board with a variety of individuals and organizations. It has been very helpful.
courtesy of ep
Do the seamstresses you hire from the shelters maintain relationships with those communities?
We are giving our seamstresses more opportunities. We have taken them to local speaking engagements, events, and conferences to expose them to what their city has to offer. For a long time, they were in the shelter, or living from house to house, or on the streets. They were not fully aware themselves of what their city could offer. Touring businesses and organizations really opens up their eyes to the opportunities for them and their children. One of our lady’s son actually got an internship with Quicken Loans this summer. So for them, this whole new world of opportunities opens up. A lot of them now feel that they were on the receiving end of things for so long, that they were the ones who always needed help and needed a handout, but now they are in the position where they feel they can go back and help people that are similarly in need. We do outreach and team efforts. They want to go to women’s shelters and speak to them and give them hope. They share their stories, which is extremely powerful.
courtesy of ep
In what ways does the Detroit community support what you are doing?
When you drive around in the winter and you see one of our coats, it is not only a reflection of the work that we are doing, it really is a reflection of the work and support that we receive from the entire Detroit community, because without their support and belief in what we are doing, we wouldn’t be able to get the coats out on the street. They are given out at no cost to the homeless. We are sponsored. If we didn’t have people backing us, believing in us, supporting the cause, and understanding how important it is to give back to the community, then we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. In that sense, we are not just making coats in our production facility, but they have really gotten behind us and are helping us in many ways.
At the same time, we also recognize Detroit as a city that has gone through a huge transition rate. Homelessness is not something that is not unique to the city of Detroit, but being from Michigan and growing up close to Detroit, it is something that hits home for a lot of us. We are doing it for Detroit, but it also helps set an example for other communities as well. It is something that we can see the direct impact, and the city can get behind us.
courtesy of ep
What makes Detroit particularly valuable for artists or startups?
The image of Detroit is not an accurate image. We see a lot of bad stuff in the media from the outside. It is described as a very dangerous and scary place, but so many student groups and visiting groups come through, and they realize that it is nothing like what they thought it was. For the people that are here, and the young entrepreneurs and artists and individuals that are moving into the city, it is a blank canvas that you can really bend to do whatever you want. And if you fail, it is okay. Everyone has their failures, and everyone is trying. There is that great energy and enthusiasm and support and success stories and everything.
For Veronika, being an art student, she never thought she would be operating a fully fledged nonprofit organization right out of college, but it just shows that you would never know what is possible and she had to decide either to do it or to not do it. The opportunity is here and it may not have been there in other cities. There are a lot of individuals investing in startups, supporting and encouraging them, and there has been an influx of students coming downtown, excited about what is going on and wanting to make it better.
courtesy of ep
What have you learned that would be a valuable transplant to other cities?
The biggest thing is looking at our workforce and seeing how it works. When Veronika started it, most people told her that her idea wouldn’t work. It wasn’t because they didn’t believe in the product that she had created, but it was because they didn’t believe in the workforce that she wanted to hire. She was told time and time again that she wouldn’t be able to get these people to show up, they wouldn’t be on time, and that she was wasting her time. She really proved them wrong. She has shown that the women that we hire are motivated, they want to be successful, and they want to be able to provide for their families. They want to be independent and have a sense of pride in the work that they do. I think that is the biggest take away for other employers: you can’t overlook this group of individuals that has been left behind and looked at as worthless, because they are not. We have a team of 15 amazing women that are extremely talented and intelligent and hard-working, and we wouldn’t be The Empowerment Plan without them.
We should look at ways to change up the norm. Society tells us what an employee should look like. On paper, people have this idea of who they want to hire, but Veronika showed that this is a destructive model, to only use a stereotypical workforce. This kind of workforce can be successful and be replicated elsewhere.
courtesy of ep
We don’t require any background in selling or manufacturing. Basically, our only requirement is that they are a single parent, or single mother, living in the shelter, which is not a typical requirement for an employee. We formally train our ladies, and we give them the skills that they need to succeed in our industry.
Is there a diaspora involving these skills that you are teaching?
Definitely. That is an end goal of The Empowerment Plan. Right now, we are not a year-long program; they are here indefinitely. A lot of them do have bigger goals. They talk about how they love sewing, and they want to start their own clothing brand. In the long run, our five-year plan is to become a program where we would provide transitional work for these women, until they would be able to further themselves and move beyond The Empowerment Plan. I do ask them what their ideal job is. They have goals to be in the medical field, or they want to go back to school, or they want to start their own business. We are really focused on giving them the skills that they need to do that. We are now looking at offering more educational and professional workshops and opportunities within the workplace. We help them with a financial literacy program. We give them career counseling, resume workshops, and the skills that they need to feel confident in their ability to go out and get a job.
One of our ladies actually did leave. She felt like she was ready to move on, and she was able to get a job elsewhere.
What sort of partnerships, resources, or connections are you still looking to develop?
We are looking at organizations that can offer us the things that we may not be able to offer the ladies ourselves. Whether it be financial literacy, a career coach, or just helping them achieve specific goals, GED courses, college courses—anything that that they may be interested in learning more about—these are all things that we want to pursue. At the same time, so many people haven’t heard about The Empowerment Plan in the community, so we want to continue spreading awareness about our mission and the work that we do. We want to engage the community on a more personal level. We want people to start giving back as well, so it goes both ways in that sense.
courtesy of ep
At our fundraising event, we collaborated with three local artists and had them design the back panel of our jackets, and then we auctioned them off to raise money for the organization. We are looking to do that again at this year’s fundraiser, but we are looking to do fifteen coats this year instead of three, because it was a huge hit and a great way to work with local artists and engage them in the work that we do, while spreading the word about their work, and also bringing attention to our coats in a cool and creative way.
How is the space set up in terms of workflow and facilitating interaction?
We each have our own space that is somewhat segmented off from our neighbors. But we also work closely with a lot of the other tenants in the building. There is a workspace right outside of our area, where individuals can rent the space, so there are always people coming in, interested in what we are doing, and we also learn about what they are doing. It is very beneficial to do volunteer work with other tenants in the building and we are finding ways to collaborate. We worked with Detroit Denim on quite a few projects and have plans to do that the future.