Q&A: Veronika Scott of the Empowerment Plan

The product designer's idea for a winter-worthy coat evolved into a system for helping Detroit's homeless lift themselves up.
Written by Mary Catherine O'Connor, Contributing Writer

In 2010, while juggling her courses toward a degree in product design at Detroit's College for Creative Studies and volunteering at a shelter for some of Detroit's estimated 20,000 homeless residents, Veronika Scott came upon an idea for a one of her class assignments that has evolved into a small but growing enterprise.

Some of the homeless people she was interacting with at the shelter preferred, for a variety of reasons, to sleep on the street, even during Detroit's freezing winter months. So she designed a large, warm coat that can be converted into a sleep bag or into a tote, for easy transport.

Scott found that there was strong demand for the coat, and she began talking to outreach programs that could distribute the coats to the homeless. Then, she was able to secure enough private funding (after dedicating some of her own funds and hundreds of hours of design and research time into the coat) to employ a couple of women from the shelter and teach them how to sew. From there, The Empowerment Plan grew into a non-profit that was able to manufacture and distribute 275 coats last year.

I spoke with the 22-year-old upstart about what she has learned about designing and fabricating a coat/sleeping bag hybrid that can withstand Detroit winters, why the Empowerment Plan is about much more than just a coat, and how she plans to transition it to a for-profit company soon.

The first prototype was a Tyvec shell and the current design uses Thinsulate and chair upholstery fabric from Steelcase. Can you walk us through the design process and how you brought the coat to its current form?

Because we got little feedback on the Tyvec coat, which had insulation used in some Carhartt coats, me and some of my friends slept outside in 17 degree whether in the middle of a parking lot. Nobody had told me enough about the coat so I needed to find out for myself. It was uncomfortable laying directly on concrete but I wasn't cold, and none of us had many layers on. So that was the first beta test.

Original, Tyvec coat. Photos: Brittany Thomasson

Then over the summer [of 2011] I wanted to make it look better, function better, be lighter, easier to carry. And hopefully warmer, because it's really impossible to make something too warm, considering the type of winter weather we usually have.

So I started working with a company that got its start building materials for car interiors. Like, the first Model T. So they've been around for years and years, it's a company called Acme Mills. The reason I picked industrial materials is these coats are going to be used in different ways than usual garments. I had to find lighter materials because this isn't someone who is going to have the luxury of toting it in a car or on a bike. But it needs to be really strong and to withstand people sleeping in it over and over again. Based on what we heard this year, people want the coat to be black [instead of while], they want it strengthened in certain spots.

Acme helped me narrow my focus into types of insulation, getting more cloth-like forms of the Tyvec material, because the Tyvec was really stiff and also really loud.

The pattern has completely changed from the first coat to the one from this most recent winter. The most expensive thing is the insulation. Acme helped me figure out how to use the best products I could find while also running this as a nonprofit. We are now working with a couple different companies - GM being one of them - and we're working with a recycled insulation product from them.

We're designing the coat in a way in which the insulation might actually work better than down, in terms of heat value. So that would be very exciting because it's the material from GM is essentially free and good for the environment. So we're really excited about this idea.

How has The Empowerment Plan evolved beyond being a coat to being, as you call it, a catalyst for change?

I look at the coat as a vehicle for the previously homeless women I hired to learn sewing and to learn a skill and to be employed and I look at the coat as a way to begin a conversation with people who have thought that their opinions did not have value.

Some of these people have been on the streets for years and years. They have a sense of depreciated self-worth. I go in and I give these coats to outreach programs and I say please don't just give it to somebody. Please let them know that we want their feedback. It didn't really happen the first year because we only got a few coats out, but this year we've gotten more feedback than ever. And the greatest thing is that people who have received the coat are coming in and hunting down the outreach group just to talk to them about it. Just to give them their ideas - their design ideas.

They are becoming design consultants, in a way.

It's more active than that. They're an active part of the process. It's not like with a consumer where I hand you something to someone and say "You better like it, you better use it." Or, "I hope you like it, here it is. Deal with all the problems it has." Instead, [with the coat], it's "Here, use this and tell me what you think."

The Empowerment Plan is proving to be a life-changer for Elisha, one of the first people you hired, who now has her own apartment and her three kids are enrolled in school. What's next?

The latest model, in Aspen

In August we're going to start launching the business as a for-profit, starting with a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign. We want to sell the coat for profit, using the one-for-one model, similar to Tom's Shoes.

I was recently at Aspen Fashion Week. It was an amazing time, there were a lot or really supportive people.

So [under the for-profit model] we're going to release coats that somebody in, say, Aspen, could buy. They could go skiing in it. They'd go online -- or through Kickstarter at first -- and they could buy a coat, specifically from one of the women who I employ. It would include the [employee's] profile, and the coat would have her portrait  and signature into it. And then, the buyer would pick where they want the counterpart coat to go. If you're in Boston, you could send your counterpart coat to Boston. So it's the one-for-one model, but the thing is that we want as much transparency as possible. So not only do you know who you're buying it from, but you feel like you know where it's going.

What I want to do is blur the status line a little bit. People assume a lot of things when they see someone who is homeless. They categorize them, and they think, this person is obviously lazy and made a lot of mistakes. But you know what, you don't know. People want to put homeless in that category because it's safer for them to do so. But what happens when someone who has a $6 million home and someone without a home are wearing the same coat?

Top and bottom images: Courtesy of The Empowerment Plan

Related: Wanted: Silicon Valley talent to help rebuild Detroit

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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