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Insights from a Social Entrepreneur

Today, I met Veronika Scott, a Detroit-based entrepreneur who has created a sustainable business that employs the homeless, gives them employment, make them independent. So naturally, I pulled out the Interview kit. Here are the answers and insights.

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The Empowerment Plan is a humanitarian project based in the city of Detroit.The plan centers around a coat that is self-heated, waterproof, and transforms into a sleeping bag at night. The coat is made by a group of homeless women who have been paid to learn and to produce the coats for those living on the streets. The focus is on the system to create jobs for those that desire them and coats for those that need them at no cost. The importance is not with the product but with the people. You can check it out here:  http://www.empowermentplan.org/
To get the interview kit, click here:  /open/web-start-up/inspiration/the-interview-kit-learning-from-entrepreneurs/

So tell us, what was your greatest resource in the early stages?

This started out as a school project when I realized that there were so many homeless individuals that had so much potential. I felt like, why not, let me try to do something to change that, help them stand on their feet. They were fiercely refusing hand-outs and I understood that sense of independence, it was the same factor that drives me till today. I guess the people were my greatest resource.

What was the greatest barrier when starting your company?

I had so many barriers. One thing is that I will never be able to understand the true conditions in which they live and all the things they have to go through. I will not even claim to do that. I feel that I can fail but my women can't. The risks are too much. This kind of limits my ability to take risks and I have to take things slow.

What kind of people or organizations helped you on your journey? How?

My greatest resource would be collaborating with other non-profit organizations. I also work with a lot of old-school companies like Acme. They have a lot of tangible knowledge and experience that I find extremely valuable. They're just so passionate and willing to help. I would also say the volunteers are very helpful, it's easier to work in the beginning stages of the company where the responsibilities are less and the impact is more.

What about technology, did you find a particular innovation helpful?

I would have to say Social media and marketing tools would be helpful in the future, but for now, I also think that they can be a barrier. Sometimes, you feel that the message distorts and for now, I'm fine doing things the old-school way.

At what point did you feel good (confident, motivated)?

One of my women, Alicia has now moved from a shelter to an apartment that she pays for herself. All her three children now go to charter school. It is wonderful to see some being independent. She was also very surprised to learn that her health and that of her children were important to the company. That really moved her.

At what point did you feel low (isolated, powerless)?

Sometimes, we non-profits have to protect ourselves legally and make sure we're covered by insurance. There is a culture of suing organizations even if the person initiating the lawsuit is the one that is responsible. I started with the infamous Mc.Donalds case where someone spilled hot coffee on themselves, sued Mc.Donalds and won. Similarly, I have seen people drop hot liquids on themselves in soup kitchens and then sue the organization. There were some hairy times.

What surprised you most about starting a company?

I think I surprised myself, I never saw myself going through with the whole plan. The reality and impact of it hit me one day and I was like, "What, am I actually doing something?". It also became popular really quickly and went viral, I got a lot of support from various individuals and that surprised me because until then, I only saw it as something that I was interested in.

If there were a start-up genie in a bottle, what three wishes would you have?

I would wish for a clearer process for start-ups, I felt I was a little alone in the beginning. I would also wish for some legal and insurance counselling, knowledge is the greatest resource of all. Last, I would wish for more investment, it would have greatly helped the movement grow in it's early stages.


Tell us a story: what was the issue you were facing and how did you overcome it?

In the beginning, I felt that there was the issue of trust. People did not trust the system, they didn't trust volunteers, they didn't trust me. But through a mutually beneficial process, we were able to distribute coats and collect very valuable feedback. This was essential in improving the design in a simple manner and there was a sense of equality. Hopefully, if all goes well, they will become independent and I will become obsolete.

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Photo of Jess Jaime

Awesome interview! What struck me was Veronica's insight into breaking into a new "culture". Veronica says "they didn't trust volunteers, they didn't trust me." It was hard for her to garner support from this group of women. The irony was that she wasn't asking them for money or protection, she was offering them work. Her life would have been made much easier had there been a connected individual inside the group who could convey Veronica's message . . . (think ahead to the concepting stage already hahaha)

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