A chance encounter
When Co-Founder, Alexis, was diagnosed with Lyme Disease and had to take a medical leave from Vanderbilt, she used her newfound free-time to wander the streets of Nashville and befriend people experiencing homelessness. Through those conversations, Alexis became convinced that there was an opportunity to leverage the power of business to alleviate poverty in the area. One evening, while visiting her friends at Vanderbilt, Alexis was locked out of her car and had to wait for a spare key to arrive. At just that moment, Corbin, a fellow student, walked by and struck up a conversation. Sharing their thoughts about the connection between their studies and the “real world,” Alexis and Corbin turned the conversation towards a recent news article they had seen about social enterprise. Together, the pair dreamed up a business that would employ vulnerable people in the city, building on the work of others and filling potential gaps in the market.
After their initial curbside meeting, Corbin and Alexis began meeting weekly to map out a business plan. When Alexis returned to school in the Spring, the pair entered a pitch competition through an entrepreneurship organization at Vanderbilt, sponsored by LaunchTN. Working with mentors and fellow students, they evolved and solidified their idea, eventually delivering a 5-minute pitch to a panel of entrepreneurs and business mentors. In just two days, they had redefined their mission and business plan, ultimately winning the competition and gaining much-needed seed money and mentors.
A powerful relationship
During her first-year at Vanderbilt, Alexis began volunteering at a local transitional home in Nashville, where she eventually formed deep relationships with the residents, especially a man named Ray. A Cuban immigrant in his sixties, Ray had lived on the streets and in transitional homes for the past few decades. He and Alexis formed a quasi grandfather-granddaughter bond, meeting regularly to speak Spanish and eat Chick-Fil-A. Sadly, Ray was diagnosed with cancer just days after Alexis had been diagnosed with Lyme. Over the next few months, Alexis took Ray between doctor appointments and live-in facilities, eventually being named his Power of Attorney.
The storage unit
As Alexis regained her health, it became apparent that the opposite was true of Ray. One afternoon, Ray ominously called Alexis and said, quite bluntly, “Alexis, I’m dying.” Alexis immediately rushed to his side, spending hours discussing the meaning of life and all Ray’s greatest successes and failures. As Alexis was preparing to leave the hospital, Ray pulled her in closer and began, “Alexis, I haven’t told you this before, but I actually have a storage unit. And in this storage unit, I have a duffel bag of money. I want you to have it when I pass.” Although Alexis was shocked to hear that Ray, a man who didn’t even own a mattress, had a duffel bag of money, she simply believed. After Ray passed, Alexis organized the funeral and memorial services. A few weeks later, she, Corbin, and Chuck, one of Ray’s good friends, made the trek to the storage unit. Sure enough, amidst an impressive collection of art and journals, there was a duffel bag with enough money for Corbin and Alexis to file as an LLC, buy equipment, and plan wages for their first Maker.
A BUSINESS IS BORN
Taking notes and making friends
Intent on learning all we could about homelessness in Nashville, we began meeting with multiple nonprofits and business leaders, developing a deeper understanding of what resources were available and what unique role we could provide. In this way, we began building a collaborative environment early on, making sure to focus on the community as a whole, rather than just our company.
Working wherever (and wishing for a garage)
Although the classic start-up story begins in a garage, we didn’t even have such luxury; we started in dorm rooms and on park benches. During weekly meetings, we built our business plan and began testing out jewelry ideas on a dorm’s kitchen table. Once we felt comfortable with some of our earliest product designs, we hired Libby C as our first Maker; she lived in the same transitional home that Ray had, and she already had experience making jewelry. The three of us began working wherever we could, beginning at a nearby park on a picnic table. We wore jackets to brace for the cool autumn breeze, brushed fallen leaves from our workstation, and set up flashlights when the sun began to set.
WHERE WE ARE
A place to call home
As the autumn nights grew shorter, we began cold emailing local organizations, looking for a temporary place to work as we built a foundation for the business. This led us to Trevecca University, who graciously allowed us to use an empty classroom to work with our Makers. We began looking for a second Maker, and we happened upon Gwen J, who immediately seemed like an excellent fit. When we offered her employment at Unlocked, she told us about a long-lost friend who also loved jewelry making. That friend, it turns out, was none other than Libby C. Upon learning this, Gwen immediately accepted our offer. On their first workday together, Gwen and Libby had a heartfelt reunion, solidifying the familial environment of the group.
Growing the business
We have recently partnered with a local jewelry designer who has helped us develop new products and elevate our craft. We continue to push our products, packaging, website, and social media forward as we hone in on the unique value we can provide both our customers and our Makers. As we develop our online sales channel, we have also begun to sell through pop-up shops in downtown Nashville, and are looking to spread our products and stories into Nashville boutiques and retail stores.
WHERE WE ARE GOING
Fulfilling the mission
We believe that, through our jewelry business, we can create beautiful and unique products that connect our customers to the stories of our Makers and help them to find their own voice for change. While we plan to grow our product offering and stories told through jewelry, we believe that our impact can be even greater. We will continue to pursue other opportunities to create meaningful and transformative employment opportunities for people transitioning out of homelessness, and we will continue to find new ways for customers and local businesses to engage in our mission for change.
Jewelry and beyond
In everything we do, we will work towards bringing our vision to life. Through new products and services, we will build our Unlocked community, tell stories and foster empathy, and promote sustainability and dignity. We envision a world where everyone has a path out of homelessness.