Last night I had the great honor to be inspired.
Veronika is a 25 year old that admittedly stumbled on something amazing and has turned her commitment to impacting the world into a successful business. And the way she told her story was a story unto itself.
She starts out asking the audience to close their eyes and imagine what if your job, your car, your house, your family and all your friends, your entire support system were to just disappear – what would you do? Let that sink in, we will get back to it in a moment.
At 21 she was a college student in a product design program in Detroit. Much of her work centered around making toasters, “faster and sexier”. Consumer product design is big money because it is our job as Americans to spend, spend, spend, right? Anyway, I digress.
A professor challenged them to design for a need in the community and so she tells the story about her naïve entre into the world of homeless shelters and the people who make up the homeless community.
And as she speaks you get the real sense that stumbles, bumbles and ridicule are not obstacles in her world view, but opportunities.
You can read her story in many publications including this NYT article so I won’t repeat it here. But let’s jump ahead to the fact that she prototyped a coat for the homeless that converts into a sleeping bag and can be worn as a messenger bag to minimize the chance that it will be stolen from the owner. Last year they made 6,000 coats that the distributed in 29 states.
Pretty amazing, huh?
But that’s not actually the part of her business that she considers a great social impact.
Her stories of the women she has hired to make the coats are, to her and then to her audience, the social change.
She hires women through the homeless shelters. Women who do not know how to sew. Most of whom have felony convictions. They have families and they have been living on the streets.
She trains them and within 3 months they can make one coat in 6 hours.
She said early on a Board Member for one of the homeless shelters told her “you won’t be able to teach a homeless person how to make a grilled cheese sandwich”.
And so, to her point – the people in the homeless shelters she encountered are people. Real live living breathing individuals with histories and families, thoughts and opinions and they matter. And yes, she gives them jobs but most importantly she treats them with respect.
She has 25 women working for her. They transition out of the homeless shelters within months. They move into homes, enroll their kids in school, buy cars. They get their lives back from whatever tragedy that shoved them over the edge.
And then she wraps up her speech talking about how she was almost the child of one of those mothers. How her parents were addicts that couldn’t hold down a job between them, how they bounced around and lost family and friends along the way. How in 6th grade she was falling into that pathway as she failed that grade. Her grandmother saved her, took her in and guided her to a path of college and a career.
And then she says that these women who work for her – they could be any one of us. All of us could have a sudden life altering event that put us on the street. (think back to the question of “what if your entire safety net disappeared”)
So these women who work for her, they are all of us. And now they are employed and giving back to the community from where they landed for a time. But more importantly they are now taking care of themselves and their families.
And they are working for a non-profit company run by a 25 year old who is not afraid to admit that she didn’t have any clue what she was doing when she started this project – but she knew it was the right thing and so she just did it.
It was such an honor to be inspired by her. Thank you Veronika