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Business with social mission helps keep homeless warm

Starting a business can be hard. How about starting a business with a mission to help end homelessness? Well, that’s even harder.

Stateside’s Mercedes Mejia tells us about the Empowerment Plan. It’s a business with a social mission.  The company makes coats that double as sleeping bags, and gives them away to homeless people.

After nearly two years, its mission is the same. But its business model is evolving.

The coats made by the Empowerment Project look like big ski jackets. But, open one up, and hidden inside is a pouch. Pull down that pouch and all of sudden you have a sleeping bag.

Today, at a warehouse in Detroit, half a dozen women are sewing, cutting and folding.

Veronika Scott is the founder and CEO of the Empowerment Plan. She says the idea for the coat came to her while studying industrial design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. She says she wanted to design something that would help people living on the street.

“I spent so much time (on the streets) that I ended up getting a nickname on the street as the crazy coat lady.”

Scott never thought her idea would become a business. But, there were some pivotal moments along the way that helped her imagine what the project could become.

First, Scott found out just how much support there was for her idea. A crowdsourcing campaign brought in money from Detroit and around the world. That helped sustain the business for the first year. Then came support from big companies like General Motors and Carhartt.

Soon, Scott was producing lots of coats. But as she spent time with some of the people for whom she was making them, she realized it wasn’t just coats they needed.

“They needed an opportunity to have independence, they needed an opportunity to strengthen their pride, as well as, really, jobs – because a coat is a Band-Aid if you’re just trying to make coats," Scott says. "But if you are trying to employ the people that would normally have to receive them, that’s when you actually have power.”

Scott decided she could still make the coats, and at the same time provide some jobs. She teams up with local shelters and finds women who want to change their lives. Then, she gives them jobs making the coats. Scott’s says it’s not just about sewing. It’s about an opportunity for these women to provide for their families.

Teia Sams is a seamstress for the Empowerment Plan. She makes outer shells and hoods, she puts on foot bags, and recently she started making coats. 

About a year ago, Sams lost her home. She ended up giving her children to their father and checked into a homeless shelter. It was there she met Veronika Scott, who offered her a job. She’s been sewing coats ever since.

“I’ve been able to get my children back from their father. And I’m working on getting a car. So hopefully I’ll have my car soon.”

The Empowerment Plan’s business model is the perfect example of social entrepreneurship. And it’s becoming popular among the millennial generation.

“Social entrepreneurship is largely about doing good, as opposed to just generating wealth or profit for a company,” said Matt Gibson, assistant director of student ventures at the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan.

“I think you’re seeing this current generation that just in general is not as interested in just getting a job of just doing the regular thing, but actually feels inspired to do something bigger in the world and to have more impact.”

Veronika Scott has already had an impact on the world. The project has produced almost 4,000 coats to date. Now, just two years after starting The Empowerment Plan, she’s looking to make her business more sustainable.

“We’ve gotten so much demand from people wanting to buy it that we are slowing trying to build out a kind of wear-one-share-one," Scott says. "So what we want to do is get people to buy a coat online eventually and fund the one that goes out on the street.”

“You may have heard of another company that does something very similar. Tom’s Shoes promises that for every pair of shoes it sells, it will give a pair away to a child in need.”

Scott’s getting calls from hikers, campers and hunters, wanting to get her coats. The hope is that there are enough potential sales there to sustain The Empowerment Plan’s social mission. 

Listen to the full report above.

Mercedes Mejia is a producer and director of Stateside.
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