Entrepreneur, 25, Who Hires Homeless Shares Her Story

By Leisa Richardson
The Indianapolis Star.

What began as a class assignment five years ago for Veronika Scott has evolved into a nonprofit agency that cities across the nation and Canada want to emulate.

Scott’s The Empowerment Plan manufactures coats for the homeless that can be converted into a sleeping bag. But more importantly, the workers who produce the garments are single women, mostly mothers, who are recruited from homeless shelters.

In a talk Friday at the Indy Chamber’s Women’s Business Retreat, the 25-year-old from Detroit shared her journey from being the child of addicts, to a student at the College for Industrial Studies assigned to design something that would fulfill a need, to a founder and CEO of a nonprofit that has changed the lives of hundreds. In its second year, the retreat at the Alexander Hotel targets women entrepreneurs and attracted 200 attendees.

Scott and her team make and distribute the coats — which are self-heated and can be rolled into a bag and carried over the shoulder when not in use — to the homeless in Detroit and are now providing them to agencies across the country.

She said plans are in the works to create a retail side to help the organization become self-sustaining.

Question: What has been your biggest takeaway from your work?

Answer: It’s amazing what can be done with so little. People sometimes get worked up into making sure they have the perfect amount of money, the perfect things and everything has to be exactly right and frankly just starting and just doing it, even if it means touching just one life, even if it means impacting one person, it can grow exponentially from there. Sometimes people get so worked up into ‘I have to help millions of people,’ (but) I’m like just go around the corner and help that one person first and then it can scale beautifully. The second is giving people a chance. It’s amazing what they can do with it. Just give them that opportunity and say you have a lot of worth.

Q: How do you keep your social consciousness moving forward?

A: It’s the culture of the company. I ask am I still making a good impact? Are we aware of all those things because I know companies that had good intentions but got so far removed from the people they were trying to help that they lost it. They may be selling a lot of things and they may be doing good on the commerce side but losing touch on the social side … which is the core of what they were doing in the first place. It’s always in the forefront of my mind. I’ve been lucky enough to do this for five years now, two years as a class project and there have been absolutely surreal moments like Madonna coming through and Warren Buffett. … It’s absolutely insane, but every day I think about coming in and working with the team that’s been with me for years. At the same time, we’re always hiring. There’s never a point where we don’t have somebody new … That’s the best part … me getting to talk with them and do the reviews, do the personal empowerment plans that we do and engaging with them every day. … I don’t get to design stuff anymore. … And at the same time, we always make a point of going out and hand out coats. Everything that we do we do as a team. Everybody, from me to the person we just hired. We all go through it together.

Q: What keeps you motivated?

A: I think it’s different at different stages of life. In the beginning, it was the excitement of can this even work? And the fact that so many people were agitated about it — saying this is going to fail, this is going to suck, you don’t know what you’re doing and at the same time, most people said the people you’re going to hire are not going to pan out. This is going to be a mistake. Now it has grown into making our product the best and that gets exciting. So it changes as you go and every day you have to find the things that excite you about your business. There are tough times in any business. It is really, really hard so you just have to find something that will get you through it.

Q: What are the lessons for the rest of us?

A: Everybody’s past is obviously really different. I’ve learned a lot. I think some of it, too, is just when I talk to students or people my age, the biggest thing I tell them is don’t promise what you can’t deliver. When you’re trying to build trust, be honest and transparent. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Most of the failings that I see are people trying to do something that they can’t and they know it. And they try anyway and it never pans out. I’m a completely different person than I was when I started this in a lot of ways, but the best thing that can come from it is being open to change and adapting. I think what makes this exciting is something’s always improving. And we never think it’s perfect. We’re just about going out there and doing it. Stop getting obsessed with making things perfect and just do it. Make it happen. Perfection can come later.

Q: What’s next?

A: “We’re actually retailing our product. I think that’s a big step. We’ve been working on it a couple of years. I think as a nonprofit, we’re really lucky to have a product that we can sell that can actually sustain us. The long-term goal, and we’re trying to figure out how to get there, is to get to sustainability and not just talk about it and still do great work and not need the community to fund us. … From there, we’re trying to build out what it would take to scale into other cities. So many people request the model that you look and say ‘Everybody has this issue of the shelters being revolving doors with same people come through over and over again.’ And the sad thing is sometimes it’s generations of the same families. And the shelters are saying ‘What is it, what do we do?’ All these cities have permanent and transitional housing but the thing that they’re missing is the employment side. … (Homelessness) is a problem not just in Detroit. L.A. has a population of 50,000 who are homeless. Every city runs up against it. So we just hope to plug in with all those other great agencies not to take over but to find our spot in other cities and grow with them.”

Q: At 25, you have a whole life ahead of you, what’s next for you?

A: “I have a boyfriend who just moved from Houston to Detroit, that’s how much he loves me. … I adopted a retired rescued greyhound. I think for me, it’s finding that balance because initially, when I first started, my entire life became The Empowerment Plan.

I dumped everything. I don’t want to say it’s my baby. The organization is my product. This is like the product of everything I’ve put into it. But (the people) are my family. They are adults and the majority are older than me, but I’m like this person who has a whole booklet of pictures and I’m like ‘Look at how great, let me tell you the story of this person.’ But that’s my family and they will always be my family. I think it was important for me to recognize that if I just dump everything, I’m going to get burned out and I’m not going to be of use to anybody and really investing in doing things that I did years ago like painting, having a home, my boyfriend, those thing are really awesome so I’m really happy.

Q: Do you see your career in nonprofits or somewhere else?

A: Careerwise, I enjoy the fact that I get asked the question ‘Where do you see yourself in five years? I would mess up so many interviews nowadays. It would be hysterical because if someone asked me ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ — I have no clue! I enjoy the fact that when I started this, I didn’t have any clue about how much it would change me, I had no idea whatsoever. … I’m really excited about the fact that I don’t know what I will be or what I will want in 10 years. I know what I want the business to be and I know I want family, a home, but as far as career goes, I’m really excited to adapt to whatever is coming next. … There’s a whole world of opportunity … I’ve had such an amazing last couple of years, I could do anything and be happy.”

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