Veronika Scott knows how it feels to be homeless in the dead of the winter. Now she’s the CEO of a social enterprise that makes that plight a little more bearable and even saves lives while providing employment for others experiencing homelessness.
And it’s all thanks to an ingenious garment of Scott’s own invention: the EMPWR coat, a winter coat that doubles as a full-length, weather-resistant sleeping bag and a storage tote.
Scott, 30, founded Empowerment Plan in 2012, and she designed the coat when she was just 20 years old as a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Majoring in product design, Scott took on an unusual class assignment: design a product that would fill a need in the community.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness in America reported an estimated 500,000 Americans were homeless in 2019. “I wanted to design this [coat] for this whole population of people that we just don’t see,” Scott told CNN recently.
Scott’s own family had struggled with job loss, mental health issues and addiction, and she was homeless on and off during her childhood. “There was a point in my upbringing when everything I personally owned could fit in a backpack,” she told CNN. “In that backpack, I had my sketchpad. And that is why I got into art. That was the thing that I could do with nothing.”
It took her more than 80 hours to design her first EMPWR coat for her class project. While testing a prototype of the coat at a local shelter, Scott met a female resident who said she didn’t need a coat—she needed a job. Inspired by that encounter, Scott founded Empowerment Plan immediately after graduating in December 2011. With help from one of her college deans, she hooked up with the CEO of Carhartt, a clothing manufacturer that donated sewing machines and fabric to Empowerment Plan and flew her in for a visit to their factory to see how their products were made.
Before long, Scott was hiring employees straight from a homeless shelter. Since then, Empowerment Plan has created more than 80 jobs for homeless people—often women with children—and created 35,000 sleeping bags that have been shipped around the world, CNN reports. Employees work for Empowerment Plan for an average of two years and receive job readiness training and support services to help them get off the streets and into their own homes. “It is because of this model and the strength of those we employ that every single person has moved out of the shelter within 4-6 weeks of working with us, and no one has returned to homelessness once we’ve hired them,” according to the company’s website. Some have even gone on to start their own businesses, Scott has noted.
About 60 percent of an Empowerment Plan employee’s paid 40-hour work week focuses on coat-making, while the remaining time is spent on programming and services to ensure they don’t become homeless again. The latter focuses on GED, HSE or post-secondary education, financial health and wellness, driver’s education, domestic violence support, meditation and mindfulness, professionalism and leadership training, and nutrition.
One Empowerment Plan employee, Pam Warren, was living in her car with her two youngest children after being laid off from her job due to a severe blood clot that prevented her from working for months, according to CNN. Warren had spent years with an abusive husband until she finally “just left one day—for my kids.”
Warren’s daughter continued going to school but missed a lot of days due to bullying from her classmates. “For a long time, we went two days where we didn’t [shower],” Warren recalled to CNN. “We couldn’t afford to bathe … My daughter was going to school, so she missed a lot of schooling because it was embarrassing, sending her to school without clean clothes and taking care of her hygiene.”
After moving into a shelter, Warren eventually got hired at Empowerment Plan, even though she had no sewing experience or knowledge. “My jaw was hurting from smiling so much,” she said in the CNN interview.
Now Warren, a seamstress for Empowerment Plan with a special knack for stitching pockets, has her own home and her kids are back in school fulltime and doing well, thanks to Scott’s social enterprise.
The coats themselves are a marvel of design, workmanship and sustainability. They’re made from upcycled fabric provided by companies like GM and Patagonia and can last multiple seasons. They function equally well as waterproof coats, sleeping bags and over-the-shoulder bags for carrying the wearer’s personal belongings.
For her work as a social entrepreneur, Scott is the youngest recipient of the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award and was named a CNN Hero.
Anyone can support Empowerment Plan by donating to its GoFundMe campaign here. A donation of $125 provides a coat for someone in need, covering the costs of labor, materials and overhead expenses. “Your contribution is not just keeping someone warm,” Empowerment Plan’s website states. “It is also keeping our team employed.”