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The Empowerment Plan is changing the lives of homeless people around the world.

In the fall of 2010, in response to a class assignment to design something to fill a social need, Veronika Scott reached out to the homeless community in Detroit. After five months of working closely with individuals at a local homeless shelter, she designed a heat-trapping jacket that transforms into a weather-resistant sleeping bag.

From that idea, Scott founded The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit manufacturing company that hires homeless parents from local shelters to become full-time seamstresses, producing transformative coats while earning a stable income and gaining back their independence.

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Veronika Scott

Scott just launched her second business venture, Maxwell Detroit, which brings a more contemporary design to her innovative coat for the consumer retail market. All proceeds go to support the nonprofit. 

We recently sat down with Scott to talk about her selfless entrepreneurial voyage and what she has envisioned for the future

FueledBy: Take us back to that first prototype for The Empowerment Plan sleeping bag winter coat. What’d you make it out of and how successful was it?

Veronika Scott:  The first prototype was absolutely ridiculous. I made it out of a bunch of materials that I thought were true to the term “recycled,” so I picked up five different wool coats from a secondhand shop, seam-ripped them and sewed them back together. I also used old billboard fabric and recycled construction fencing — the orange plastic mesh stuff you see at construction sites. The first coat took 80 hours to make on a home sewing machine and weighed 25 pounds — usually a winter coat is between two and four pounds. People struggled to stand up in it. It was a mess.

FB: Let’s fast-forward to the first wearable coat — something that had the form and function you had envisioned. 

VS: That took quite a while. Probably a year of iterations from that first one. The coat that finally went out on the streets for the first real beta test was made using the white high-density polyethylene material used to protect homes and buildings during construction. It’s a great wind and water barrier, but it’s not easy to sew with. It’s crunchy. And I also used a quilted nylon lining for insulation that was donated to us by a Detroit-based outdoor and work apparel company. It was very drapey — it looked like high fashion but it wasn’t very functional. But that first beta coat got us so much closer to where we are now, especially with the sleeping bag component. 

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FB: What kind of materials are you using to manufacture The Empowerment Plan coats?

VS: We use an exciting mixture of things and, in a way, we’re going back to where we were in the beginning — using recycled materials. What we use is recycled content we get from a couple of outdoor apparel companies and an American automotive manufacturer. We get their scrap, their deadstock, the stuff they can’t use — the stuff that would normally wind up in a landfill. Instead, they send it to us. The external materials the apparel companies send is very durable and water-resistant. The automaker sends us door paneling and plastic bottles, which work as the insulation of our coat. And then the last and final layer, between the insulation and your skin, is a thin layer of quilted nylon that feels good against your skin and helps keep everything else together. 

These coats are going out to people in need, whether they’re on the streets or in a refugee camp or in a disaster-relief situation.

FB: Looking at the number of people you’ve employed to make these coats and the number of people who’ve been kept warm by receiving them, how many people have been affected by The Empowerment Plan?

VS: We’ve made more than twenty five thousand coats over the last five years. Those are all made here in Detroit with the population of people that we’ve hired — all parents in shelters from across the city. These coats have been distributed across 49 states, seven Canadian provinces, the UK, France, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, South Africa and Malaysia. These coats are going out to people in need, whether they’re on the streets or in a refugee camp or in a disaster-relief situation. 

So, on average, for every one person we hire, there are three kids affected by that hire. And when we hire somebody, they move out of their shelter within the first four-to-six weeks — permanently. We have a zero percent recidivism rate, so once we hire someone, they’re never going back into the shelter. 

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FB: Maxwell Detroit is the new, consumer-focused fashion coat you’re producing. When did you start thinking about the commercial line? 

VS: We’re excited about the product we make, but we know what has the biggest impact is hiring individuals who would normally be on the receiving end of the coat. That’s what we rallied behind — the idea that we make these coats so we can hire people. Once we shifted the focus to create jobs, we knew we needed the revenue to sustain that. 

We have thousands of emails from people who have been trying to purchase the product for the last five years, and we’ve been saying no to that. Now is the right time to begin to explore what that would look like, so we can continue to grow and scale these jobs going forward. 

FB: What are the key differences between the product you’re selling under the Maxwell brand and the ones your giving to those in need through The Empowerment Plan?  

VS: The biggest difference is the fit. With the coats we hand out on the streets, we never know who’s going to get it and what size they are, so it’s built to be something that’s genderless and pretty much needs to fit everyone. Another factor is, with those coats, the person might already be wearing a lot of layers, and you don’t want them to have to take anything off to be able to put the coat on. 

With Maxwell, people need something fitted because they’re going for a specific style, so there’s a range of sizes. We’re also manufacturing an everyday commuter coat that doesn’t have the sleeping bag component, just something people might want to wear to and from work. But they offer the same durability and the same warmth.

Annis Maxwell was kind of like the den mother to everyone here and helped create a culture at Empowerment Plan.

FB: Who or what inspired the name of the Maxwell line?

VS: Maxwell Detroit is in memory of one of the first three people that I ever hired from the shelter. Her name was Annis Maxwell. She was kind of like the den mother to everyone here and helped create a culture at Empowerment Plan that was about family, taking care of people and supporting each other through this process. So when we’d hire someone new, she’d take that person under her wing and help support them through what can be a really terrifying process of getting to a point of stability. And she was always here. She used to say, “You’re going to have to roll me to the curb in my sewing chair if you ever want me to leave.” When she passed away, and it was really sudden, we were hit hard by the loss. She was pretty much family.

So we tried to embody everything that she brought to work every day. We have her face on the back of our business cards, there’s a portrait of her on our sewing floor, and when it came time to talk about selling coats, we wanted to be reminded of why we’re doing it in the first place — to create sustainable jobs for people like Annis. It’s not about the coats, it’s about the women we employ.