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 temporary 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.
A partnership is born
Once classes started back up at Trevecca, we began looking for a more stable place to work. During this search process, a local nonprofit, Community Care Fellowship (CCF), reached out to discuss a potential partnership with their career counselling program. CCF is a local nonprofit that has served the homeless population of Nashville for over 35 years, providing hot meals, showers, laundry, and meetings with other social services like housing coordinators and mental health counselors. Realizing how a partnership could amplify the impact of both of our organizations, we moved our production and office to their building. After months of planning, Unlocked and CCF launched the Pathways Program together in January of 2019, hiring Leticia as our first Maker in the program. Pathways is a 6-month transitional program that offers housing, career counseling, employment at Unlocked, financial training, and connections to new career paths. Through this program, we hope to empower our Makers towards long-term change, equipping them with the community and tools necessary to forge their own paths.
Growing the business
As we grow our social programming, we continue to push our brand through new jewelry designs, marketing, and wholesale partnerships. We offer unique ways to engage with Unlocked through ambassador roles, sales parties with Unlocked Makers, and Philanthropy Partnership trunk shows to benefit nonprofits around the country. We are constantly innovating, finding new ways to engage our community and customers.
WHERE WE ARE GOING
Jewelry and beyond
Our products and social programs are tools not only for impacting our Makers but the entire community. By partnering with local community organizations and providing dignified work, we create a pathway towards stable housing and employment for our Makers. Simultaneously, we create beautiful and unique jewelry that connects our customers to the stories of our Makers and helps them to find their own voice for change. Through our success, we hope to influence policy, advocating for the benefits of housing and employment first as cornerstones of lifelong transformation for our neighbors transitioning out of homelessness.
Fulfilling the mission
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.