Like many good things, the concept for Unlocked has its roots in a genuine friendship.

When Unlocked Co-Founder, Alexis, was a freshman at Vanderbilt, she went to volunteer with a group of students at Mercury Courts, a low-income and Section 8 transitional complex in Nashville. “Volunteer” is a loose word here; the students really just went to serve ice cream and make friends. During this first visit to Mercury Courts, Alexis connected with many of the residents, particularly with a man named Ray Ponce de Leon. Ray and Alexis immediately bonded over their Spanish-speaking abilities (Ray was a first-generation Cuban immigrant), their love of Chick-Fil-A, and their shared ability to make a conversation of just about anything. Compelled by her new friendship, Alexis started visiting Mercury Courts on a regular basis, forming a quasi grandfather-granddaughter bond with Ray. They would tell stories, write songs, and tell the worst “dad jokes” possible. This relationship went on for two years with frequent phone calls and visits.

Ray and Alexis at a community barbeque

Ray with a sign Alexis made to celebrate their "2nd Friendiversary," months before they both became ill.

In a series of unpredictable misfortune, Alexis was diagnosed with Lyme Disease the summer before her junior year at Vandy, and Ray was diagnosed with bladder cancer shortly thereafter. While Ray and Alexis had always fostered a mutually beneficial and light-hearted relationship, the burden of poverty that Ray had shouldered for years became apparent to Alexis during this period, when she spent many days transferring him from various hospitals and recovery clinics. One day she even took him back to his apartment at Mercury Courts, only to realize that he had forgotten to lock his room and everything had been ransacked. Ray’s reaction to being robbed while at the hospital? “That TV was broken anyways. Those idiots can have it! At least they left my piano.” Ray’s optimism never ceased to amaze.

While Alexis slowly improved from Lyme and returned to school in the spring, Ray’s health continued to deteriorate. Formalizing their grandfather-granddaughter relationship, Ray named Alexis his power of attorney, and she continued to transfer him between medical clinics and live-in facilities. In one of their last conversations, Alexis sat by Ray’s hospital bedside for hours as he recounted his life’s regrets and successes. Suddenly, Ray pulled Alexis in closer and began, “Alexis, I haven’t mentioned this before, but I have a storage unit. One of my best friends, Chuck, has the key. In the unit, there’s duffle bags of money, and I want you and Chuck to have it.” In all their years of friendship, Ray had never once lied to Alexis, so she simply believed the most absurd thing she’d ever heard. Ray didn’t even own a mattress, yet he had a duffle bag of money? Regardless, Alexis was too worried about her dying friend to muse on it. About two weeks after this conversation, Ray passed, and Alexis organized the funeral. Even on his deathbed, Ray remained optimistic and kind. Other than "don't cry" when Alexis began to wipe tears, Ray's final words to Alexis were,

“If you believe in a God that is all-loving and all-powerful, then nothing bad can ever really happen.”

A few weeks after the funeral, Alexis, Corbin, and Chuck met and went to Ray’s storage unit. Sure enough, there was a duffle bag of money. That money was the primary investment needed to found Unlocked, making Ray the first investor. By unlocking his storage unit, quite literally, Alexis and Corbin were able to begin a company they hope will unlock opportunities for those in similar life situations as Ray. In this way, Ray’s spirit lives in, both in the company and in the lives of those he touched.