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Female Disruptors: Veronika Scott has shaken up the generational cycle of poverty

I believe that investing in a mother has a powerful ripple effect on society. That is why I founded Empowerment Plan over 6 years ago here in Detroit. Empowerment Plan is a non-profit focused on ending the generational cycle of poverty by employing and training homeless parents to manufacture sleeping bag coats for those in […]


I believe that investing in a mother has a powerful ripple effect on society. That is why I founded Empowerment Plan over 6 years ago here in Detroit. Empowerment Plan is a non-profit focused on ending the generational cycle of poverty by employing and training homeless parents to manufacture sleeping bag coats for those in need. This model is unique to the city of Detroit and I believe it can be scaled into other cities that are in need.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Veronika Scott, founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan. Born to parents that struggled with unemployment, mental health issues, and addiction, she carried these burdens with her for years. It wasn’t until college that Veronika was able to use her experiences to her advantage. To start, she built an organization around a single idea: to design a self-heated, weather-resistant coat that transforms into a sleeping bag for the homeless. That idea evolved into a system of empowerment in which homeless parents are paid to learn how to produce the coat, giving them an opportunity to earn money, find a place to live, and gain back their independence. Their mission is to prove that homeless individuals have worth and are fully capable of learning and adapting to create a better future for themselves and their families. Veronika is the youngest recipient of the John F Kennedy New Frontier Award from the JFK Library Foundation and Harvard University. She has also received an IDEA Gold Award from the Industrial Design Society of America, the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, received an honorary doctorate degree from The University of Vermont, the People’s Voice Award from Diane von Furstenberg, is one of Forbes 30 Under 30, and named one of CNN’s 10 Visionary Women. The Empowerment Plan story has been told across the world and shared at events such as the World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Forbes 400 Philanthropy Summit.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I knew firsthand what an unstable childhood trapped in poverty could mean. With that in mind, I set out to create an opportunity I wished my own family had been given. Initially, this opportunity took the form of a coat — a coat that could turn into a sleeping bag. Pursuing this vision, I designed that coat not only for individuals but also with them, listening carefully to their needs and preferences. In time, Empowerment Plan would evolve into a system for empowering some of Detroit’s most underserved residents.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I believe that investing in a mother has a powerful ripple effect on society. That is why I founded Empowerment Plan over 6 years ago here in Detroit. Empowerment Plan is a non-profit focused on ending the generational cycle of poverty by employing and training homeless parents to manufacture sleeping bag coats for those in need. This model is unique to the city of Detroit and I believe it can be scaled into other cities that are in need.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share how they made an impact?

CEO of Carhartt Mark Valade — Mark was my first ever donor and really helped turn my idea into the business model that it is today. He allowed me to spend time in their factories learning from people who have been happily working in manufacturing for 40 or more years. Mark and the whole Carhartt team generously donated our coat materials for years. We helped them reduce waste by taking their discontinued colors, deadstock, and scrap fabrics. Mark was also our first ever board member and still continues to serve as an advisor for Empowerment Plan and myself.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Don’t over promise.” — My Grandfather — When I started doing research in the shelter, my grandfather told me that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything unless I was able to build trust with the people that were helping me come up with the coat design and idea. In order to build that trust, he said it was imperative to not promise the world to them. Just make simple promises that I could keep and deliver on. For instance, if I told them I would be there Wednesday at 8pm, I better be there Wednesday promptly at 8pm.

“Stay true to your mission and always be willing to listen and adapt.” — Cat Johnson (COO of Empowerment Plan) — the work I’m doing now has evolved and tremendously improved over the years because we have stayed true to the core of the business and are completely open to the ideas and insights of others.

“Just because someone doesn’t think your idea will work doesn’t make it true.” — Imre (Dean of CCS and previous Design Director of Patagonia) — Before I wrote my first business plan, I was getting a lot of push back from my professors who thought my non profit design project was a joke. Imre, the Dean of my school at the time, took me in as an independent study student because no other professor would. He believed in me and pushed me to run with my crazy idea and is one of the main reasons Empowerment Plan is what it is today.

How are you going to shake things up next?

Empowerment Plan has provided employment to more than 65 low-income individuals, impacted over 180 children, and manufactured and distributed more than 30,000 sleeping bag coats globally. By pairing full time employment with a wide range of supportive services, we have helped dozens of individuals achieve financial stability and independence for the whole family. Our holistic approach addresses everything from housing and childcare to transportation, education and more. It is because of this model and the strength of those we employ, that every single person has moved out of the shelter within the first 4–6 weeks of working with us and not one has returned to homelessness once we’ve hired them.

Everyone at Empowerment Plan has changed the lives of many families experiencing homelessness and has been committed to breaking the cycle of poverty for countless more. By providing an opportunity and serving as a stepping stone to stability, we are proving that homelessness is not a life sentence nor the legacy one leaves behind.

As we look ahead, we hope to pull hundreds of families from homelessness through employment, making a difference at the level of a nation. A difference that will mean homelessness is no longer the life sentence it has been for far too many, and far too long.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl — This book helped me through many stages of my life. It gave me tools to help process and move through all different types of pain and struggle.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to build on our existing platform. We know we are changing the way people view others that are trapped in poverty and I am dedicated to continuing to shift that perception. I want to show the world that no one is worthless and that poverty defines no one.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I’ve gotten to know my mother better in the last 3 years then my entire life. Thank you for giving my daughter her grandmother back.” — Annis’s Son

Annis was one of the first 3 people I hired from the shelter. She was 58 and had been released from prison with some money saved up, but could not find any place to live due to record. She ended up sleeping on the streets until the shelter was able to place her in a room. Shortly after being in the shelter, she was hired at Empowerment Plan, and quickly became the den mother to everyone who walked through our doors. Having experienced much of what our new seamstresses were currently going through, she was able to provide guidance and give advice and quickly became the cornerstone of our culture. Three years later, on her way home from work, Annis collapsed and died from a heart attack. It was an absolutely devastating blow for our whole team. The quote above was told to me by her son at her funeral. It was then I realized that if it weren’t for my crazy idea and my class project, Annis’s story could have ended a lot different. She could have still been sleeping on cardboard on the streets without family. Instead, she was able to buy a home, car, start a college fund for her granddaughter, and leave a whole legacy behind.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

www.empowermentplan.org

Instagram: @veronikascott

Facebook: facebook.com/empowermentplan

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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