A Miraculous Start
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 began dreaming up a business that would employ vulnerable people in the city, building on the work of others and filling potential gaps in the market.
Upon Alexis’ return to Vanderbilt, she and Corbin began thinking more critically about their potential business, deciding on jewelry as a way to create and share beauty. Near the end of their junior year, Alexis began fasting and praying about the potential to pursue the yet-unnamed company after graduation. Around that time, one of her best friends, Ray, called. A Cuban immigrant then in his sixties, Ray was living at a local transitional home, where Alexis had met him when she was volunteering there. Alexis and Ray 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, and Alexis had become his Power of Attorney and regularly took him to appointments.
When Ray called that evening, he said, quite bluntly, “Alexis, I’m dying.” By his bedside a few hours later, Ray and Alexis spent hours discussing 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.” And just like that, a man who didn’t even own a mattress became the primary “investor” in a company meant to employ other people experiencing homelessness.
A Business is Born
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 our first Maker, Libby, who lived in the same transitional home that Ray had. The three of us began working wherever we could, beginning at a nearby park on a picnic table.
Just a few months after Alexis and Corbin graduated from Vanderbilt and went full-time with Unlocked, we met with a local nonprofit, Community Care Fellowship (CCF), to discuss a potential partnership. 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. Pathways is a 6-month transitional program that offers housing, career counseling, employment at Unlocked, financial training, and connections to new career paths.
“Casting” a Vision
As we grew our social programming, we recognized that we would need to take our jewelry brand to the next level in order to expand and employ even more women transitioning out of homelessness. As a result, we moved into our own office and workshop in the summer of 2019, and we began building out a new production process called “lost wax casting” that utilizes melted recycled metals to craft original designs. With these changes, we have been able to build out an ethical fashion brand that takes its environmental impact seriously, using recycled inputs, monitoring water and electricity usage, and crafting gorgeous products meant to last.
Jewelry and Beyond
Our products and social programs are tools not only for impacting our Makers but the entire community. By partnering with local 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 stories of hope and helps them to find their own voice for change. Through our growth, 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. We envision a world where everyone has a path out of homelessness.