DETROIT, MICHIGAN—After disappearing into the workshop next door, Amy Peterson came back into the main office and put down a box. Inside were the first prototypes of what would become the calling card of the jewelry business, Rebel Nell, that she co-founded with her friend Diana Russell four years ago—pieces of fallen graffiti paint that are made into bracelets, rings, earring, cufflinks and pendants. “I think this is the first piece we ever made,” she said, holding out a triangular piece with swirls of red and pink. That piece, in fact, not only was the first prototype (attached with silver clay versus the more expensive silver they now use) but it was also the piece that inspired the whole business model.
Ms. Peterson, a lawyer for the Detroit Tigers baseball team, was out running one day, thinking about the social enterprise business she wanted to start with Ms. Russell, with its premise being to get women in a local shelter back into the workforce. Running down the Dequindre Cut, a converted railway line that is now a popular running and walking path that is resplendent with lots of colorful graffiti, she found a pretty piece that had chipped off and fallen to the ground.
“When I got home, I started playing with it and I could see all these layers and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be prettier if we could access all those layers,’” Ms. Peterson said, adding that when she was in law school she had a small jewelry business and that Ms. Russell has for years been a jewelry maker. She started monkeying around with the piece, called Ms. Russell to come over and they came up with the concept for the business. The name pays homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had the nickname Little Nell, because they wanted to pay homage to a woman many people say was ahead of her time.
The idea was to employ, educate and empower disadvantaged women by providing a transitional opportunity to help build confidence and self-reliance. In addition to providing 35 hours a week of employment to women who live in shelters, they also offer sessions on financial literacy and business education so that the women can one day either start a business of their own or be well-equipped to join the workforce. The graffiti comes from three locations in Detroit and one location in Flint, with a portion of the proceeds going to local charities. Ms. Peterson spoke with she-files about creating design with a difference and giving back to a city that she loves. EXCERPTS:
BROWNELL MITIC: Tell me about how you got the idea for Rebel Nell in the first place? PETERSON: I used to live next door to the Coalition on Temporary Shelter and I would walk my dog past every day. I would talk to these women. I did this for several years and I would hear their stories. They were incredible women and you realize, at the end of the day, there is not too much difference between me and these women other than maybe a couple of life decisions. We are all so similar it is mind blowing, mind blowing in the sense that we do not appreciate that. Working in the sports industry I feel very passionately about empowering women. It is something that is in me to my core. I had my own struggles in the industry but also have been insanely grateful because Detroit gave me a shot at that dream. At first we were going to do classes about financial responsibility, because we had heard so much about them being in credit card debt or getting a paycheck and not knowing what to do with it because someone controlled their money. But I love the whole ‘teach a woman to fish’ idea: to employ them, provide the education and provide the tools they need so they are never back in the shelter.
So you came up with the idea to create a business by making jewelry.
I was thinking this was teachable and I loved that you could have such a creative outlet. It had potential, that you could show expression through the work. Diana and I, when we were making the first batch, I would say about a piece of the graffiti ‘this piece is so beautiful’ and she would say ‘yuck, no this piece is.’ So that is what I loved and my favorite part of Rebel Nell, aside from impact we have on the women, is seeing the connection that customers have to a piece. We are almost 100% sustainable just by sales.
I was fortunate to know Delphia Simmons [a member of the shelter’s leadership committee] so I reached out to her. I told her my idea to employ women to make piece from graffiti that would provide a salary. And she said, “I love it. It is going to be hard but you can do this.” She set me up with bunch of case workers, who really are the secret to our sauce and I will tell you why—not every woman is ready for a transitional opportunity, a lot still have to figure out things and we want the women who are ready. We have three things we ask for when we are hiring: they want to change their situation; they have a desire to learn and a willingness to work with others. That is it. We do not do background checks, we don’t care where they have come from, we only care where they want to go.
In the four years since you started Rebel Nell, how many women have come through your doors?
We have hired 12 women from the shelter. We have officially graduated four or five, and one we promoted to be production manager. And others have gone to get jobs more in line with their passion, better pay, better benefits. We give them the opportunity to work through all the stuff that has bogged them down in the past, to give them a place to breath. All are single mothers. What we do well is provide that awesome trust and we foster a family atmosphere here and that is where we have been successful.
How long do they usually stay on for?
For about two to three years. We also do a good job at finding the resources and connecting them to the community. One woman wanted to start her own business, a baked goods company and we helped her get into Build Institute, a program for entrepreneurs and helped her write her business plan. Another one went on to work for Central City. She always wanted to help ex-offenders, those with mental issues to help get them back into society. She found the job but she needed her driver’s license cleaned up and we helped with car loan and she also needed to go back to school. So we provided a schedule that accommodated her. And that is what we do but it is a challenge because you are running a business, balancing production with education and support. But we have made this work somehow.
We have had some great upticks—the first two years it was Michigan. But then every few months we would get an order from a place like Alabama and we would think, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ We were featured on the BBC so we recently have been getting orders from the UK, Germany and Australia.
How would you like to see things expand?
That is something we are playing with all the time. We would love to start thinking of other materials we could use or expand the business, the line or locations. I would love to have a Rebel Nell New Orleans or Chicago and finding the right places to do it and sharing what we have learned here.
Do you have any favorite anecdotes?
One story that sticks out in my mind and was an a-ha moment was during one of our earlier art fair shows. I encourage all of our women to sell because if you can pitch your product, you can pitch yourself. I took one of the ladies, Patricia, and she brought her kids. We had a small booth and this woman came up and said ‘Wait, this is made from graffiti and you empower women? Those are two of my favorite things.’ But it was really above her price point, so she said, ‘I am going to take a lap and maybe come back.’ So I said to Patricia, ‘Just so you know about retail, a lot of people say they will come back and they never do, do not be offended by that.’ I could tell she was a little bummed. But sure enough, about an hour later the woman came back and said, ‘I cannot live without it, the piece speaks to me.’ And so we told her that Patricia is the artist and she said, ‘I want to take a picture with you.’ So she bought the piece and left and then Patricia just collapsed on the ground crying. I came over to her and said ‘its okay’ and she said, ‘I know it is okay, I made that piece. That was me.’ She was crying from total happiness.
All photos courtesy Rebel Nell: 1) An employee making jewelry; 2) Amy Peterson and Diana Russell; 3) jewelry making; 4) brand logo