My name is Veronika Scott, I'm 24 years old, and I'm the CEO and Founder of The Empowerment Plan, here in Detroit. I think women have a really difficult time understanding how valuable they are. The idea of self-worth is very important to me, because I grew up a kid of addicts, and we were kind of setup for failure. We were setup in a hole, that we had to climb our way out of. I ended up getting a great scholarship to go to college, and a class ended up changing my entire life. The class assignment was design something to fill actual needs. I did my research at homeless shelters, so the first project I created was the coat. The coat looks like a regular jacket during the day, but when you open it up, you can actually slide your feet in, all the way up to your knees, and Velcro it closed again, to make a sleeping bag. I was talking to the homeless population in that area, and getting feedback, and making prototype after prototype. When I was on like prototype number seven, a woman came ...
out of the shelter that I was in, and she was yelling at me, she was full on screaming. And she said, "We don't need coats, coats are pointless, "we need jobs." And really, she was completely right, because a coat is just a bandaid for a systemic issue. And what really would have the impact, is hiring the population that would need them in the first place. And we hire only individuals from homeless shelters, and then we train them in everything from sewing manufacturing, to employment, as well as tech, and whatever they need to become more independent, and to be proud of their accomplishments, and be proud of themselves.
I'm happy to be working for a cause, there's no greater joy than me coming to work knowing that I can make this coat, and help somebody that was in my position. So I take great pride in what I do, I really do.
You know, actually, I sat at my dinner table with my son last night, and I cried, because I was like, you know, last year, we were just in a shelter, and now this year, we're in a home.
I was the only person that could create this opportunity for myself. And that's all we're trying to do, is give them the power to take control of the life that they wanna lead. No matter what you've gone through, you still can do a lot. (audience applauding) (audience applauding) (audience applauding) I'm really excited to be here today. I always tried to explain to people when I was going to school, and after, and talking to people about industrial design, they're like, "So what is that?" I'm like, "Well, it's the art of making everyday objects "look fast and sexy." And I would spend six weeks designing a sexy toaster, and they always ask, what does a sexy toaster look like, and I always end up having to draw really quickly, with like a popping 3D sketch with a toaster with a bra on, or something. But it greats to be here, and great to be here with everybody. Quick show of hands, how many of you guys have been to Detroit? Like, keep 'em up. (audience member whooping) Oh, yeah, yes, scream that way, yeah. Keep your hands up. Put 'em down, if it was just to the airport. Okay, like three people put them down. You just watched Eight Mile, and felt like a deep personal connection to Eminem. Alright, cool, everybody has their hands still up, this is awesome! Alright, you guys are good. I ask that, because a lot of people have some very intense preconceived notions of what is Detroit, and what it looks like. A lot of people think it's this post-apocalyptic wasteland, that people are just wandering around, there's buildings just on fire, and no one lives there. And if they do, they bought it for $ and they rehabbed it, and it's beautiful now. It's really interesting to hear that, and then also hear from other people, that it's this amazing, new, kind of Wild West of creativity, that it's a blank canvas, that you can come in and do king of anything that you want, and it's this exciting new space, and it's a phoenix rising from the ashes. There's a lot of metaphors I can't throw out there. But it's really interesting to see those two completely polarized opinions, that there is the city that's dead and gone, and that there's this amazing, new, perfect city, that's completely resurrected itself. And it's not exactly in either direction, it's somewhere in the middle, and it's still figuring a lot of things out. But I wouldn't have been able to start this project anywhere else in the world. And my whole family is from Detroit, I was born and raised there, I've been there my entire life, for generations. And so, it's something that's very close to me. But there were things that I didn't even know when I started this. That we have one of the highest homeless populations, we have about 40,000 estimated homeless living on the streets, counted 20,000. And the reason there's such a big gap in that number, is we also have 70,000 abandoned buildings. And I'm not just talking about a house, or just like a one lot area, this could be a multi-storied structure, just massive. And what happens, is a lot of people just kind if disappear into the landscape. You can't find them, Detroit is huge. And you end up getting people that live in these structures, that just kind of disappear. You know, the first person that ever actually received a coat, was a woman that told me point blank, she was like, "No, I'm not homeless, I got a roof over my head." I'm like, "Oh, awesome, where do you live?" And she points behind her, and there's this house that has no windows, no doors, no running water, no heat, and she was living there. And she was actually getting charged rent to live there. She was getting a monthly disability check, and all of that was going to this guy that was charging her rent to live in an abandoned building. And a lot of people, a lot of people do that, it has happened many times. And then you end up finding people in the Spring, that couldn't survive through it. And so, that's the stuff that I didn't recognize when I started. But when I went to CCS, I ended up going to College for Creative Studies, because I wanted to do art and make money. I wanted to be able to support myself, I wanted to be able to have a life that was different than the starving artist mentality, and I wanted to do that. And so, I went into industrial design, I had many different class projects, and one came through that kind of screwed all of us up. It was the design to fill a need, by the Project H Group, that came through. They were touring the US in an Airstream trailer, and they stopped in Detroit, and they said, look, you're in the city, there's a lot of needs. We want you to design for something that somebody actually could use. Not just something trendy, or sexy, or fast. You guys do a lot of cars, and that's great, but we want you to design something that actually fills a need. And of course, like any good group of design students, we relied heavily on Google. So it's like Detroit needs, and then there's this laundry list of things that comes up. And I'm sure all you guys, again, have heard about a lot of them, but most of them you can't tackle in a three-month class. So I just kind of weeded out the entire list pretty quickly. But what you heard over and over again, and what you saw on the list, was a lot of people talked about homeless individuals on the streets. A lot of people, once we actually got away from Google, when we started talking to other human beings, which was a great first step, actually, they said over and over again, that you know, hey, on my way to work I see this person everyday. I walk by them, I have no idea what to do, they obviously need help, but I have no idea what would actually help them. The same thing, from kids, from everybody. I see this person, they're asking me to do something, I have no idea what would actually help, or be effective. And so, we went back to Google, like a group of 10 of us, and we were like, okay, homeless shelters Detroit. And there's not a lot of them, and especially at the time there was only three that came up. So the very first one that popped up, was the one that we went to, because we were very good at research, and very strong, and proved the due diligence. And it's really interesting, because every shelter, every soup kitchen, all these things have street names, whether you're aware of them, or not. And we didn't know this at the time, but the place that we picked has a name, it had a street name. It was known just as hell, period. It was the dead last stop for everybody. It was the, you know, you've been on the streets for years, and you had nowhere else to go, that was where you ended up. If you had been released from prison, and the cops didn't have an address to send you, they'd drop you off there. It was considered the last stop. That does not come up in Google, and nor does that come up in interviews with anybody else. So we show up to a one-story windowless building, painted gray, surrounded by barbed-wire, only one entrance. And you go there, and there's hundreds of people waiting outside, because inside they only have 150 chairs. And like I said, there's a 20,000 people that are counted homeless, that are waiting outside. There's hundreds and hundreds of people just rotating around, waiting for the next shift. So you've got people standing outside, you go through this giant barbed-wire fence. You go through the one door to two metal detectors, a pat down, and then you were told to write your number down at the end, because in Detroit, you can't just write your social security number. People may have lost it, somethings might have happened, so instead, you're given a homeless identification number. You are tracked by that number in the system, to see what services you've used. So you're no longer referred to as a person anymore, you're just tracked in the system, of how may times you went to each of these different locations. And so once you do that, all of your belongings are kind of assessed. If it can't fit on your lap, or underneath your chair, it is thrown out, all of your belongings are trashed. And so, you get a chair for eight hours. You get to sit and watch television before the next group rotates through. And that's it, it's a warming center, you only can sleep in the chair, you can only sit in the chair. There have been some people that have spent 10, 15, 20 years there, that couldn't even sleep laying down anymore, they had gotten so used to sleeping in these chairs. So we spent a lot of time researching, and end up at this place, and we talk to kind of the manager at the time, saying we're really excited, we want to talk to people, we want to do some great research, we have all these design research tools with us, which is like a giant bag of sticky notes, sharpies, disposable cameras, and some really horribly written questionnaires. That were like, tell us your day-to-day needs, describe your life, how could a product fill that need in your life? Very targeted questions. So we have all this stuff, and the classmates show up, we're all there, we're talking to the manager saying, okay, when can we talk to somebody? He's like, alright, you want to talk to some people, be my guest. Shift changes over at 8:00 p.m., come back, sounds good, we'd love to talk to you. And we didn't realize, he was like, it was more of a dare than anything else. And I am like really excited, I walk out of there like, awesome, okay, 8:00 p.m. Wednesday night, we're gonna all be back here, with all of our stuff and we're gonna start. And so I show up 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, and I have my bag of crap, in a giant trash bag, full of a bunch of different post-it notes, because it's really critical. I get there, and no one else is there. No one else shows up, none of my other classmates show up, and I'm there, I've gone through both metal detectors and the pat down at this point, I'm not turning around. And I was like, so I have all this stuff, and this guy named Mr. Spratt, who had his arm in a splint from breaking up a fight the day before, and was like built like a linebacker, actually wearing a jersey. He says, "Okay, you want to talk to some people? "Let's have you talk to some people." He pushes me out in front of a crowd of about 75 people just sitting in chairs watching what I remember very vividly was Cheers on this giant old television. And he goes up, he clicks off the television, and he says, "Good luck, you're gonna need it." And then, as soon as he turned the television off, I'm standing in front of everybody, everybody in the room stands up, and starts swearing at me, full-on screaming. I completely ruined their evening, and I am just standing there with my stuff like up here, as if it was gonna protect me from bodily harm at that point. (laughs) I totally understand, I completely ruined everyone's evening of Cheers, and I was just, at that point, all I could verbally vomit out, after everybody gotta calmed down, it took Mr. Spratt about 10 minutes to get everybody to sit again. And then, by that point, all I could say was, "Look, I'm broke, I live with my grandparents, "I just need your help passing this class." It was really inspiring. I got a lot of people to want to talk to me. I was like, "I just need your help, "I have no idea what I'm doing, I just want to talk to you." And the response was, and this is actually, a woman came up to me and said this point blank, "If you want to help us, turn our fucking television back on." I was like, "Okay, got it, got it." I'm gonna go stand in the corner, and if you need me, I'll be hiding behind post-it notes. And it was amazing, just that initial response. I think I got 10 people to talk to me, I gave away all 10 disposable cameras. I think I got two back six months later. It was amazing, just that that group of 10 were like, okay, sure, like alright, this is great, we've seen a lot of people come through here. There was a lot of different outreach groups that would come in, and a lot of different people that would come in and volunteer, and talk to like full grown adults like they were five, as if they were incompetent, or slow, or just plain stupid. It was amazing to watch people talk to individuals there. And so, I said, okay, I'll be back again, I promise I just want to talk to you, that's it's. I don't want to do anything, I'm not volunteering, I just need your help. So I came back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night at 8:00 p.m., for five months. The same time would show up, same group of individuals were there. And it wasn't even to really do anything, most of the time, it was just to listen to people and walk around. What ended up inspiring the jacket, were two things. One was actually a sandwich drive-by. I don't know if you guys are familiar, or have ever seen that. It's kind of horrifying, so you have a giant van stacked up with sandwiches, that they're being told to kind of go and set up tables, and hand out food. A whole group of outreach individuals that are ready to go. But in Detroit, and especially in the area where NSO was, where this shelter was, had a horrible reputation. It's known as one of the most dangerous areas of the city, the highest murder rate, all that is in this little kind of couple block radius. And so, instead of actually getting out of the van to hand out food, because they were so afraid, they got in the van, the drove down the street, and then they slowly drove by the shelter, and tossed sandwiches out the window at people. And then, just drove off, and just like sped off into the distance. And what I always wondered was: One, how do you think it felt, to get hit in the face with a bologna sandwich; but two, did you pat yourself on the back at the end of this drive? I wonder if that group of people that were there handing out food, were like, good job, people were hungry and we fed them. You know, if they sat the end of that, and patted each other on the back, and said, okay, we did a good job, we helped people today. And it's horrifying to imagine, like, I know you just treated them like they're in a zoo, and that they're absolutely terrifying, and that they're like feral creatures. And the other thing that inspired the jacket, was actually a playground covered in clothes and tarps, it was literally just like across the street from the shelter. So two people were living inside this playground. They had used all these old tarps, all these old clothes. And I took a picture of it on my cell phone, while I was walking around one day. I took a picture, came back a week later, and it had been burned to the ground in a turf war, completely pulled up, melted, just destroyed. And so, the two people that were living inside had survived that incident, only to pass away about two years later, just from being out in the elements for so long. And all of these things really made me wonder, like why in the world would you do this? Like why would you build yourself a home out of a playground, when somebody's literally offering you shelter 20 feet away, for free? It's not as if you can't get to it, it's not as if you don't know it's there, it's not as if you don't have access, it's across the street from you, and you end up paying this ultimate price, to do it. At that point, I was like, okay, I still have to pass this class. I still have to come up with a product that somehow relates to this, because it's really not about this physical need of having shelter, because there's access to it. It's more about this emotional need of pride, and independence, and wanting to be able to take care of yourself. And then we tend to take that out, when we talk about charity, a lot of the time. We tend to take that emotional need out of it. And so, I was like, alright, I have to figure out how to make this into a product, and ended up kind of loosely trying to draw and design what was a coat, that would just allow people to wear something that didn't look worn by 50 people before they got it. It wasn't somebody else's trash. It was meant to look new, as a brand new jacket. But that if they needed it, if they had to, if they couldn't get into a shelter, they'd have an option. But I had no fashion experience, no sewing experience. I had to learn how to sew from my mother. I took 80 hours to make the first prototype, and I think it was the worst week of my life bar none, like just the worst Spring Break ever. And I think the same for my mom, as well. And it took us 80 hours plus, we had to seam rip five old wool coats, Frankenstein sew them back together, and then cut out all these different pattern pieces. And then I included orange construction fencing, Tyvek, old billboard fabric, trash bags, and I think there was some like other, some crazy materials in there, because I thought everything that meant recycle literally meant, you have to like take it from something else and repurpose it. I think I broke probably about 50 needles into that thing, because it was all on a home showing machine. And really, billboard fabric plus orange construction fencing, not meant to be sewn on a serger, or a Singer at home. So it took us forever to make it, it ended up weighing around 23 pounds, which is a little high for clothing. And it smelled terrible, because it was five old wool coats, there was just like five different people's smells in there, and it was just, oh! And at the time, it was also trying to be a tent, which is the reason I put the orange construction fencing in there. And the tent part never worked out, ever, not ever. So I brought it back to the shelter, tried to get it to pop up as a tent, it immediately failed. But I was so proud of this thing, I'd spent like 80 hours of my life, a couple weeks working on it. I went back to the shelter like a kid in kindergarten with like a really ugly macaroni noodle painting, that everybody else knows is hideous, but everyone just smiles at you and says, good job. So I went back to the shelter, I had to, you know, put it out, I was like, look at this, I spend the last few weeks on it. The first person that actually tried it on, could not stand up inside of it. It was way too heavy. And then when we laid it out on the ground, because of the nice recycled trash bag thing that I included also, in certain sections, when you laid it out as the tent in to sleeping bag, the first response that I got was, "There's no way I'm sleeping in that, "it looks like a body bag." I was like, alright, got it, terrible first prototype. I was able to make a few more, kept on going back, small improvements, I went from 80 hours to like 65, it was great. But it was amazing also, just the response at that point. Since I kept on coming back with more prototypes of this crazy coat, I ended up with a street name, that I still have to this day, in that area. I'm known as the Coat Lady, or the Crazy Coat Girl, one or the other. I still have that, if you go around that area and they're like, do you know the Coat Lady, they'll know who you're talking about. I'm very proud of that. And also, I had a spokesperson. His name was Pee-Wee, he had been on the streets about 15 years consecutively, 20 years really give or take. So he'd been probably homeless for that long, that means not a single night off in 15 years. He was like five two, he had the deepest voice, and everyone was just terrified of him. And I had no idea why, I didn't ask questions. He was just the guy that I would walk around with. We went around the whole city, he would introduce me to people, he was like, this is the Coat Lady. We want you to try on this coat, try it on, try on this coat. Alright, if you want one, you can sign up here. And he had a sheet, and it was like, he was like, you can get in line after me. His name was like the first slot on the line. But after that, we'll get you one. And we would spend hours like walking around at multiple times a week, just talking to people. And at this point, I'm getting complete strangers that have been on the streets for years, coming up to me, and saying, so, I heard you're the Coat Lady. Like so when are we getting coats, when is this gonna happen? I'm like, never gonna happen. To fill this one list of like seven people, is gonna take me, I don't know, a year, with my rate of sewing, and my expertise. And I don't think my mom would appreciate the amount of time that she'd have to do that with. And it was just... I was amazed by just the response, though. For spending most of my college career in front of computer, knowing that if my computer died, and if something happened to the backup hard drive, everything I'd worked on for years would be gone. Actually talking to other human beings, and having them excited, was huge! That was amazing! I was like, alright, if I actually want to make these coats, I hear that you have to have money, in order to do this. I don't know anybody that's ever started a business, or has done any of that. So I was like, alright, but I know that in order to get money, you need a business plan. And I have no idea what a business plan looks like, but I'm going to make a great, very pretty one. And so, I spent the next semester, I was like, alright, I'll figure out how to make it into another class project. And the business plan I ended up with, was definitely like the art student's business plan. It was 15 pages of pictures, it had five sentences total, and the whole thing was horrible punctuation. And then, it had one very, very, very, very, very, very small spreadsheet in the back, it was like three lines long, that said we needed $1,600 dollars, to operate for a year. And I, nobody's like... Everybody was like, that sounds reasonable. I showed this to a lot of people, I'm like, why didn't you tell me that I was kind of, you know, underestimating my costs, slightly? And so you look at, and I was so proud of it, it was a nice booklet, I had it printed nicely. And I was like, alright, I don't know anybody with money, but, I go to this college, I pay them money every year, they should give me money to start my organization. So I get a meeting with the Dean of my old school, College for Creative Studies. He had been... The Dean had been a design director for Patagonia for over 20 yearsh. I had no idea about that, when I got the meeting with him. But I sat there, went through the whole booklet, it didn't take that much time. And at the end of it, I was like, look, want the $1,600. He was like, there's no way we're gonna give that to you, but you seem to have thought everything out really thoroughly here, you seem to have your stuff together, maybe I can introduce you to somebody that could help. They're local, maybe they'll support you in some way other than just the check too. I was like, awesome, that sounds great! I get a call the next day, from the CEO of Carhartt. How many of you guys are familiar with Carhartt? Like the vast majority, okay, good. I had no idea, and he was just on the phone, he calls me, he says, look, I hear you got a good business plan. I hear you got your stuff together. Come to my office in two hours, wear what you're wearing, and bring everything you have. I was like, okay, and I'm like, that sounds great, see you then. I'm Googling, like what is Carhartt, on the way there. And I have what looks like a giant trash bag with me, and a very pretty pamphlet, and that's it. And I go there, and I meet with him, and there's a fountain in the lobby, and I'm wearing jeans, and like something I wore to an introductory painting class. I show up there, and there's everybody's in suits, and I look like I'm taking out someone's recycling. I have this like giant bag, and this little booklet. Anyhow, the CEO is like, alright, let's meet, let's go upstairs, let's talk. I'm like, okay. We go through, again, we go through the business plan, it doesn't take very long to get through the whole things. And at the end, he looks at all this, and he goes, this is very good, what does $1,600 actually get you? And that Excel sheet only had one line item, by the way, and that was sewing machines, and that was it. No needles, no thread, no fabric, no nothing else, just sewing machines. Elves were gonna make everything at night, and we were gonna use air, to make all the garments. So at the end, he was like, so what does that $1,600 get you? So my very competent answer is, sewing machines. He goes, well, what kind of sewing machine? And in my mind, there are only two types of sewing machines in the entire world, at that point. There was the home swing machine, which I had been working on, and then the non-home sewing machine, that everything else in the world was made on. And I hear those were called industrial sewing machines. So I was like, we need the industrial kind. And he goes, you know there's more than... He was being really, I thought I was playing it really cool, and he was being really generous at the time, I didn't realize it. I thought I was really doing well in this meeting. And he's like, okay, you know, there's more than one type of industrial sewing machine? And this was complete news to me. At that point, I'm a deer in headlights, like, yes, of course I know there's more than one type of industrial sewing machine. And he starts listing them off. He's like, there's single-needle, there are double-needle, there are triple-needle, there are surge... And starts going on and on. And once I couldn't count how many needles it had any more, I was like, alright, three needles sounds like overkill, but two needles are bound to be better, and faster than one. It was like my first business decision right there. And so, I sit there like super-confidently, yes, we need double-needle sewing machines. And he's like, okay, how many? I was like, well, we just need two. He was like, how about three, just in case. And do you want it to have walking foot? I'm like, yes, have the feet walk! That sounds great, just like, do you want it this thing? I just said yes to all of it, I just ended up with the most pimped out sewing machines, with the most unnecessary bells and whistles strapped onto that thing. I was just like, yes, all of it sound very critical, that we definitely need those things. And so, we go down into the Carhartt store, and we're just pulling clothes off the rack. And this lady is looking at me like, again, who is this person hanging out with the CEO with a giant trash bag? Pulling clothes off the racks, and he goes, will this work? And I'm like, all of this is so much better than a trash bag, and Tyvek, and like construction, this is all great. And he's like, okay, alright, I think we got some materials for you, got the sewing machines. He's like, was there anything else that was in your business plan? I was like, no, no, that's it, I think we covered everything. And he was, and here's the $1,600, as well. Again, just in case. And I walk out of there, calling everybody I knew, and just like screaming, and freaking out like I'd won the lottery. This was the largest check I had ever seen, at that point. So I was very excited. I was like, alright, now we can start. I had no idea what that meant, but I was like, I got the money, and now we can make coats. And so the next day, I get a call from their Vice President, saying, I heard you had a good meeting yesterday. We were told that you're ready for some equipment, that we're getting some stuff ready for you, okay. We have three industrial sewing machines, walking foot, double-needle. They're ready to go, they weigh about 550 pounds a piece. We also have a couple thousand yards of fabric, some zippers, thread, needles, bobbins, all of that, oil. I was, why do you need oil in this process? But I was like, sure, fine, that sounds great! Anything free you want to give me, I will take at this point. He was like, okay, so we have all this stuff for you, it weighs about 2.5 tons, and is being shipped to you on two freight trucks, where do you want it to go? He's like I've got two trucks being routed from Mexico and Kentucky, and they're making a few stops on the way. And I'm like, okay, I'm like, I have an address for you. And he's like, this is technically residential, does it have a lift gate, or a loading dock. I was like, it has a garage, does that count? And he's like, you may want to find a different space. For the first two weeks, they were being routed to my grandparents house, because I hadn't thought that far in the business plan, about where to put the things, once you got them, and where to actually make the coats. So for those two weeks, I spent a lot of time talking to all the shelters that I was working with, and ended up getting an old utility closet inside of one of them, that had no windows, or no heat, that I ended up painting lime green, and setting up the three sewing machines. And we actually couldn't make a coat from start to finish, in that space. We had to take the fabric outside into the driveway, cut it there, and then bring everything back. But the top of the hood would touch one wall, and the bottom of the sleeping bag part would touch another wall. So we had to do it in stages, throughout the whole process. And I think that that was... That was the big part of that first year, was just getting the equipment, and then it was like, alright, so obviously, my mom and I should not be making these coats from now until the end of time, and the efficiency of making one coat every two weeks, is not that great. So it's like, alright, I need help, I don't even, I really gotta find some people that can help me sew. So the first couple people I hired were just individuals from that shelter. I hired three people, again, we could barely fit in the room. And we made 20 coats that entire first year. It was not an efficient process. And I was still moonlighting, and going to school at the same time. Fast-forward to today, we have hired over 40 people, and we have distributed over 15,000 coats, we've actually distributed 15,000 coats to 40 US states, six Canadian provinces, New Zealand, Switzerland, Sweden, Malaysia, France, and South Africa, in the last four years. I'd like to thank you. (audience applauding) (audience applauding) And my favorite part about the beginning, was that the first three people I hired, within a few months, they had moved out of the shelter completely. They had moved out of the shelter, they had gotten their own apartments, they actually had gotten cars, they had gotten their kids enrolled in new schools. And all of this happened completely without me, it was just because they were earning that steady paycheck. I was like, this is awesome! How do we make this happen again, like this is the best part of the job. And I didn't think about it at the time. But for us now, that is a standard, that every, within four to six weeks of hiring somebody, they've permanently move out of the shelter. And even if they don't work out with us, even if they go on into some other job, they end up, there's no staying there, keeping the house that they had, there's no recidivism back. And for every one person we hire, there's on average, two to three kids, as well. So that's really the big part for me, was that we're pulling this kind of generational, really destroying this generational poverty. Because that was something that was so close to my heart, was why in the world would you do this? Why in the world did I keep doing this after the class project? It was because I wanted to create something that I wish my own parents had had. Like how would my siblings and I have been raised differently, if we didn't, if we had that steady employment.? If that was something that they were able to actually buy a home, or actually be able to afford these things, or take us to school? All of those things. And that was exciting, to be able to offer other people. You know, because most of the time, people just assumed because of my parents, because of what they were doing, because they were either running through different addiction support groups, or because they had kind of burned all the bridges in the family, and they kept on moving, and they never stayed in one place long, they just assumed that my siblings and I were just kind of worthless by extension. That we'd end up automatically the same exact way. And that's something that we're constantly battling against, even now, and my siblings, because they're much younger, deal with it even more than I do. And that's something, when we talk about the people that we employ, we still get that. We get people coming through and getting tours of our facility every day, all the time. And it's amazing, like people actually want to tour our space, we're not making food or snacks, or something that you can take samples away from. But it's amazing, when they walk through, they always end up pulling somebody aside, and being like, oh, my God, I can't believe you were homeless, and like the amount of shock that they have. I'm like, do you realize how insulting that is? And they're always so amazed. And I always want to ask, so what exactly did you expect to see, when you showed up here? Like what exactly did you have in your mind, that this would look like? And everybody has this idea of what a homeless person looks like. They think it's this person sitting on the street corner holding up a sign that's asking for money, that's asking for all these things. And it's not what it looks like, at all. Because my parents went through that, because it was something I grew up with, and I know that my family is very lucky to have them, and I know that my parents are both really intelligent, driven people, that it can happen to anyone, and that we're not as far away from it as we'd like to think we are. And it's amazing the amount of pity that comes out immediately, when people are talking to member of my team, like, oh, I'm so sorry. One interview with one of the ladies on my team, one interview on a local news station, on camera, this lady goes, point blank, "Oh, it must have been so hard "being addicted to drugs." And Tia, who was actually being interviewed at the point, "I was never addicted to drugs, excuse me?" And I think it was, her response was amazing. It was like, you know, you don't get to pity me. You should admire me. I've gone through more things than you can imagine, and I'm sitting here right now, in front of you. And from this attitude that we have, it's like you should not, and you do not get to pity anyone on my team. They've gone through things that most people can't even imagine going through, and have come out the other side stronger. Frankly, they're bad ass. This is an amazing group of people, that any company would be lucky to have, and not just good enough for making these coats. And I think that's been the exciting thing, is to watch people go on and do crazy, amazing other things. And one of the first people I hired, she was 21 when I hired her, she was living in her car with her three-year-old son, and she'd been in prostitution most of her life, she had never had a real job. And hired her on, immediately, you know, it took awhile for her to get used to having the job, and showing up for work on time, and all these things. After awhile, when she had gotten used to talking to other people, she said point blank to me one day, "It's easier to turn tricks, than coming to work." And she said, that was what it was like for the first couple months. It was really difficult to adjust to it. But after two years, she actually moved on, and she now works for Quicken Loans. And that's at 23, she's now working at that company. And I think, the people like that, people like her, and people like, and again, one of the first three people that we hired, Her name was Anis Maxwell. She was about 51, when I hired her. She had been in prison for about 10 years. She had come out, had been told, once you get released from prison, you have money saved up, you can start your life over again. You can do all this again, you can get this chance. And that's not the reality, at all. So when she had gotten released, nobody would let them in, her or her family, into any apartment building. She had money saved up, but she wouldn't get in to any new apartment complex. And ended having to sleep on cardboard on the streets at like retirement age. Got into one of the shelters, and we hired her on. She was one of the first hires, because she was there and she was nice. I had never interviewed anybody else before, and she was two hours early for the interview. I'm like, hired, you're great, you're fabulous! She walked in, totally thinking she wasn't gonna get the job, either. She was like, there's no way, I'm too old, you're not gonna hire me, I have a rap sheet, there's no way. And at that point, everybody I'd looked at and interviewed that day, had checked that box, they may have been convicted of a crime, like everybody has that. It does not matter, who cares? I was like this is, it shouldn't matter at all. And so when I hired her on, she was not exactly the warmest in the beginning, but quickly kind of became this like den mother to everybody. Her actual famous line was, "If you ever want me to leave, "you're gonna have to roll me to the curb "in my sewing chair". And she was known as taking care of every person that walks through the door. Because she was the eldest, because she had the most experience, she would take care of somebody right when they came out of the shelter, and started working with us. We get a lot of people that have suffered from domestic violence, that have post traumatic stress, that have all these things. And this is the first time that they're getting this opportunity to deal with it. And so, she was there for everybody, including myself, just everybody on the team. And then one day, as she was getting out of her car, walking to her house after work, she collapses and dies of a heart attack. This crushed all of us. So we all go to the funeral together, and this was one of the hardest things we had every had to go through, and one of the hardest things, I had ever had to go through, starting this organization, and to this day. So we're all sitting there, and everybody starts talking about this before and after Anis, this before and after Max. And I thought they were talking about before and after prison. I thought they were talking about, you know, after she had been released. And then her son gets up and talks, and he says, I really want to thank you. I really want to thank you, Veronika. And I'm already a mess at this point. It was like, I've gotten to know my mother more in the last three years, than I have, really, my entire life. And you gave my daughter her grandmother back. And he was like, I don't think you know how much she loved you. She had your Facebook photo, my Facebook photo, printed and framed in our house. It is not a great Facebook photo. And he's like, I don't think you understand how much you meant to her, and all of us. And so, that was one of the hardest experiences, was just losing her, but then at the same time, figuring out what to do once she was gone. We had built, without really realizing it, this whole culture around this one person, this whole company culture around this one individual. And what do you do, when that person is gone? And also, for me, this is the first time I actually recognized, and how was more than just this kind of class project, it's more than just this project that without going to CCS, without doing, you know, walking around and designing the coat, would Anis have passed away still alone, still sleeping on cardboard on the streets, without her family? And did this actually allow her to, you know, move out of the shelter, have here own place, but also, have her own car, setup a college fund for her granddaughter, and leave a whole legacy behind. And would that have happened, if it wasn't for this silly class project? And that was one of the weirdest moments, to think about. And that's something that we try to keep going, like how do we keep her legacy alive, even now that she's gone? And you know, our goal hasn't been about making the most amount of coats now. Yeah, we hit this point, where we had made 15,000 coats, we were like, that's awesome, and that's really exciting, but how do we hire 15,000 people? How do we say that, really, that we believe, and that we're fighting for the fact that homelessness should no longer be a life sentence for people. That once you're there, usually trapped for generations. This is a legacy that a lot of people leave behind, is the one where, you're so used to being in the shelter your entire life, you grow up there, you're gonna have your own kids there. Most shelters see the same families over, and over, and over again. So how do we stop that? And so, for us, like how do we hire 15,000 people. We've made 15,000 coats, is that even possible? And so our goal is, actually in the next couple years, is to hire about 600 people. 300 of them going on into other jobs, scale actually into three other cities. But for us, it also impacts over 1500 kids and families, that would normally be raised in that same system. And what's exciting, is to see that it's not about the product anymore. We're like, we could make Tyvek speedos, and still have the great affects. Because it's about the people that we employ, it's about helping individuals reach that stable, financial point. And for us, it's also exciting, the response that people have had, to the coat itself over the years. It's amazing, the emails and requests to purchase the coat. Like people never really read our site, they're like, I just want to buy it. They read it, they're like, okay, I want to buy a sleeping bag coat. We get request from hunters, camping, fishing, doomsday prepping, which is a large, very strange market. You know it's good email, when it starts with, preparing for the end of days. That was the purchase order that comes through. We get thousand of requests a year, to purchase the product. And every year, we keep on turning people away, we're like, nope, can you sponsor it for somebody else, can you... They're like, people are like, I will pay you $200, come on, why won't you give it to me. There's no greater way to make somebody angry, than to say that they can't buy something. I'm like, here, links to other jackets you can buy. (laughs) Here you go. But it's amazing and exciting for us, that we get this opportunity, that we're actually gonna launch the retail side of what we do. Because we have this skilled group of people that can do it now. When I started, no one knew how to sew, especially in Michigan, but especially in the US, that skill is almost dead. Very few people actually know how to do that, and are training other people. So now we have this skilled workforce that can handle it, people that are gonna be with me permanently, that are gonna make a coat that will be able to be purchased anywhere. That you're not just gonna buy it, because you feel bad, that you feel bad for the people we employ, but that's because it's a cool product. We get told it's very post-apocalyptic sheik. Which is good, I think, I think that's a good thing to say. But it's really exciting, to get to that point, where we're be able to even sustain ourselves, and grow beyond just Detroit. Thank you, so much, for having me. (audience applauding)