When Veronika Scott was a student at the College for Creative Studies in her native city of Detroit, Michigan, she received an assignment to “design to fill a need.” She dreamed up an idea for insulated overcoats that would double as sleeping bags, made 25 of them, and handed them out to people living in makeshift shelters on a run-down city playground. While her efforts were greeted mostly with enthusiasm from those braving Detroit’s brutal winters, one woman voiced dissent. “We don’t need coats; we need jobs,” she told Veronika. Then she had her second inspiration.
Veronika, now 26, found an expert to teach two homeless women to sew and hired them to assemble the coats. She paid them with donations she received through her blog. At first, the coats were constructed in a homeless shelter’s utility closet. “The top of the coat would hit one wall, and the bottom would be out the door,” says Veronika.
After graduating from college in 2012, she moved the shop into an old downtown warehouse for socially conscious businesses and founded the Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit organization. Clothing manufacturer Carhartt donated several old industrial sewing machines and reams of fabric and zippers. GM and other companies chipped in operating funds and insulating material. To date, the Empowerment Plan has produced more than 10,000 coats and distributed them in 30 states, Canada, and elsewhere abroad.
The group employs about 20 people—mostly single mothers, some of whom have served time or worked as prostitutes—and pays them more than Michigan’s minimum wage. “We don’t require a GED or even previous employment,” Veronika says. “We’re looking for people who are motivated.” The Empowerment Plan provides free GED and financial-literacy classes and offers micro-loans to those who qualify. Nearly all the employees eventually move into permanent housing, and some go on to jobs in the auto industry and construction.
Veronika has refined the coat’s design by switching to an outer layer of lightweight polyethylene that resists air, wind, and water and an inner layer of synthetic fabric that stores body heat. Her latest innovation is to make the bottom of the sleeping bag removable.
Still, Veronika is less focused on the coats than on the workers who make them. “At the end of the day,” she says, “[the coat] is a vehicle for us to employ people.”