The University of Michigan (U-M) will host its annual day-long Entrepalooza symposium Friday, Sept. 22, at the Michigan League, featuring socially-minded Detroit entrepreneur Veronika Scott as keynote speaker.
Scott built a nonprofit called The Empowerment Plan around the idea of designing a coat specifically for the homeless and employing workers who have experienced homelessness.
Scott came up with the idea for a self-heated waterproof coat, which functions as a sleeping bag at night or a carrying bag during the day, while she was a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
"It's always, from the beginning, been the plan to hire people from shelters. That's really the most important part of our business," Scott says. "The coat is just a bandage for systemic issues with unemployment and poverty."
Scott says the idea is to hire formerly-homeless people to make a product they will hopefully never have to use. So far, she says every employee hired from a shelter has been able to move into permanent housing within four to six weeks of starting work at The Empowerment Plan, with zero recidivism.
Even though Scott was running her own business before she even graduated college, she says it has been difficult to embrace the label "entrepreneur."
"Growing up, nobody in my family had ever started a business," she says. "I thought entrepreneurship was something for people from the higher classes, people with wealth and connections. It took me a long time to settle into that 'entrepreneur' title."
Scott will address that struggle with identifying as an entrepreneur during her keynote speech. She says many women have a "side hustle" ranging from baking to doing hair, but don't see themselves as entrepreneurs.
"Women usually wait until they've completed something, while men will often start talking about themselves as entrepreneurs after they get the idea," she says.
Scott says she is deeply involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Detroit, and one thing that stands out about it is how most small business owners collaborate and help each other out. She thinks Ann Arbor and other entrepreneurial hubs could learn from that example.
"Everyone supports each other, because they know everyone needs to rise with the tide," Scott says. Repairing the economy in Detroit is something that needs to be done collectively, not by one person or one company, she says.
As a nonprofit, sometimes a funder won't make sense for The Empowerment Plan, but Scott will pass on the funder's information and connect them to other entities that are a better fit.
"I don't see that happening in many other cities across the U.S." she says. "It doesn't work to be isolated and protective of your network and your connections and other things you see as valuable."
In addition to the keynote address, Entrepalooza includes opportunities for networking and workshops on a variety of topics led by members of the U-M and local entrepreneurial community, including representatives from Ann Arbor SPARK, Grand Circus Coding Bootcamps, Bodman PLC law office, and the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship.
The symposium is co-hosted by the U-M Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering, the U-M School of Public Health's Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship program, the U-M School of Information's Entrepreneurship Program, the U-M School of Music Theatre and Dance's EXCEL Program, and Innovate Blue.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of The Empowerment Plan.