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Empowerment Plan

1401 Vermont Street
Detroit, MI 48216

Veronika Scott

By Tunde Wey
March 21, 2012

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Considering how a fair number of youth choose to spend their time, his words still ring true. Yet every so often some industrious young person pushes back against Shaw’s notion, deciding at the behest of ambition and fate to tackle an impossible challenge.
Veronika Scott is one such person. She had already formed The Empowerment Plan and been featured in The New York Times before she ever even graduated college.
Scott is the Founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan, a manufacturing company that designs and manufactures self-heated and waterproof coats that double as a sleeping bag. The Empowerment Plan employs homeless women to manufacture the coats and then distributes them to homeless individuals across Detroit.
The Empowerment Plan is more than a manufacturing company; it is a response to some alarming facts. According to The Empowerment Plan, about one in every 42 people in Detroit is homeless -- roughly 20,000 people, with around 18,000 people needing shelter on any given night. For most of these Detroiters, the real issue is not a lack of physical housing. Rather, the loss of financial independence that perpetuates a downward spiral and keeps people disempowered to transform their circumstances.
The intentional choice Scott has made to empower people is what differentiates her solution from many other responses to homelessness in the city. Not content merely to provide coats to those in need, she creates jobs, teaches industrial sewing and manufacturing skills, and nurtures pride in those she employs.
The Empowerment Plan evolved from a class project Scott started in 2010 as a product design student at the College for Creative Studies. Usually faced with conceptual design challenges involving marketable consumer products such as cellphones, Scott was venturing into uncharted territory.
For five months she spent 3 days a week at a warming station run by Neighborhood Services Organization (NSO), meeting the people she was designing for. Her proximity to the enormous challenges associated with homelessness in the city turned Scott’s school project into a full time commitment. Scott kept returning to the warming center even after her class ended, bringing different iterations of coat designs and getting feedback on the subsequent prototypes. Her frequent visits earned her the moniker “crazy coat lady.”
The warming center she routinely visited during her research -- dubbed “Vietnam” by those on the street -- was a tough place to be. With a name so intimidating, such a place might have given most people pause. But not for Scott, who cites naiveté as a hallmark of innovation.
“Fear of failing is what makes social projects not begin. No fear! Stay naive long enough because what you don’t know you cannot fear.”
This intelligent brashness of Scott has not gone unnoticed. Her humanitarian work has been featured many times in national media, including Forbes, NPR, CNN, Fast Company and GOOD. A dedicated and invested community of supporters has also rallied around her. Recognizing the importance of her mission, Mark Valade, CEO of Carhartt, is one of Scott’s benefactors, providing capital, resources and mentorship.
Today, at 25, Scott is an employer of more than a dozen formerly homeless women, each with their own inspiring story of bold action. Since its informal beginnings, The Empowerment Plan has become a 501c3 nonprofit organization, distributed thousands of coats for free since its inception, and has been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in support. She plans on making The Empowerment Plan a self-sustaining nonprofit by launching a for-profit company built around a one-for-one model in which each coat sold funds a coat for someone in need. 

Scott, in turn, was named one of Crain's Detroit Business Twenty in the 20s in 2013 and has been a guest speaker at a number of prestigious conferences and events, including TEDxDetroit and TEDxSanJose, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Forbes Women's Summit. 
It seems youth, with the energy and naiveté it brings, might be what Detroit needs to win against its more serious challenges. In rethinking how to address homelessness, and creating economic opportunity in the process, Scott is proving a certain Irish playwright wrong.

Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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