Scott turned her concept into an innovative non-profit, The Empowerment Plan, that hires homeless women from shelters to sew and manufacture the coat she first prototyped as a 20-year old design student.
The program helps its employees regain their financial footing, while the coats they make provide comfort to thousands of homeless individuals across the US.
Scott recently shared her story with Starting Good, describing some of the challenges she faced getting started.
Starting Good: For those unfamiliar, tell your founding story. What inspired you to start the Empowerment Plan?
Veronika: The Empowerment Plan started when I was a student studying product design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. I was given a class project to design a product to actually fulfill a need and being in Detroit, I immediately began brainstorming ways that I could help the countless homeless individuals around the city. I began volunteering at a local shelter and after spending time with and talking to various individuals staying there I came up with the idea for a coat that transforms into a sleeping bag. It wasn’t until I began working on the initial prototypes that I realized there was an actual need for this item and that my idea was much more than a response to a class project.
Starting Good: What was “job one” for you when you decided to start your venture — the most important thing you had to do initially to demonstrate your commitment to getting your program off the ground?
Veronika: Job one for me was deciding that after graduation I was going to fully dedicate myself to developing The Empowerment Plan into a full-fledged non-profit organization. When I was in college, I always thought I would end up with a career in product or industrial design, so for me, making the decision to take a risk and to commit myself to this was job one.
Starting Good: What kind of response did you get from others when you told people you planned to manufacture your coat with a workforce made up of individuals from homeless shelters?
Veronika: I received a variety of responses, many of them being more negative than anything else at first, but I have proven wrong all skeptics wrong. I was never told that the product we would be manufacturing was a bad idea or that there was not a demand for the product, but I was told time and time again that the organization would fail because of who I was hiring. I was told that homeless women were unreliable and that they would not be capable of holding employment. I, on the other hand, could not think of a better population to hire. Yes, we have an atypical work force, but each lady takes such pride in her work and understands the impact that one of our coats can have because they can directly relate to those receiving one.
Starting Good: You started The Empowerment Plan at a young age with relatively little business experience. In what ways has that been a detriment? Or conversely, has it been an asset?
Veronika: In some situations it has been an asset because I am more inclined to take risks and am more open to new opportunities, but in other situations I wish I had more business experience and overall exposure to the business world. Luckily, I have an amazing board of directors and multiple mentors that I can call on at any time and that have been critical to the growth and success of The Empowerment Plan. I have learned so much since I started this venture three years ago and am still learning every day. I have learned that I cannot be afraid to ask questions, to make mistakes, and to call on someone for help when I need it.
Starting Good: What role does your board play in mentoring you and helping your organization grow?
Veronika: The board plays a huge role in now only mentoring me, but also in guiding the growth of the organization. Our board members work in various professional fields, but they all genuinely care about our mission and bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. It means so much to me to know that I have such a strong support system to back me up. I cannot tell you how many connections I have made, events I have attended, and opportunities that have been presented to me as a result of the board constantly thinking about ways to help us.
Starting Good: What advice to you have for others who are inspired by your story and who are interested in starting their own non-profit or taking a leap into social entrepreneurship?
Veronika: The time is now and you can do it. When I graduated, I thought I was the last person that should be starting a non-profit organization, but I had to take a step back and realize that I was the only one that could create this opportunity. I know you hear it all the time, but you really cannot be afraid to take risks, to fail fast, and to learn from your mistakes. My mistakes turned into my biggest achievements because I learned what not to do.
You will never feel fully ready until you actually take the initiative and welcome the associated challenges. I hope to be able to show other aspiring entrepreneurs that achieving their dreams, both big and small, starts with making the first small step and the first small choice. I believe that all great change is accomplished one step at a time.