Social entrepreneurship has proven to be essential to the development and growth of urban areas around the country, which are struggling to find ways to solve the problems that many traditional start-ups may overlook or ignore. Rebel Nell, an L3C company (limited low profit liability), was founded in 2013 by Amy Petersen and Diana Russell as an outlet to educate and empower women in Detroit. The business creates “Defiant Jewelry with a Purpose” using the remnants of graffiti that has chipped off or fallen to the ground. This is an inspiring story with so many layers, just like their jewelry, and one that proves that art plays an important role in the renaissance and revitalization of a city looking for new ways to create sustainable employment while boosting the local culture.
Amy Petersen came up with the idea for Rebel Nell after spending time with residents at a shelter located next to her home in Detroit. Working as an attorney for the Detroit Tigers during the day, Amy would stop by and help out at the shelter in any way she could. She gravitated toward the women in the shelter and started to see a pattern in their backgrounds and history – why they were there. Many of the women came from abusive and controlling relationships, and would have nowhere to go after they decided to leave to try to change their lives. Even though many of the women may have had good jobs at one time, their paychecks would be taken by their abusive partners, making it hard for the women to manage their finances. Lack of education to enter the job market combined with a poor local economy made it tough for these women to get on their feet and gain independence. Amy explains the struggles of public transportation, “this put many of the victims in a tough spot; many had no transportation and used to live close to work. Living in the shelter offered transportation challenges.” If they did have a vehicle to drive, many would drive on suspended licenses, or have car problems, and these situations just put them at more risk for financial ruin.
From all of this Amy became inspired and found herself thinking of ways to educate and empower the women in the shelter. She started by offering financial management training to the residents. Soon she started to see the difference she could make and started to visualize other ways she could offer help; “this was the catalyst in getting Rebel Nell started.” Amy had a background in jewelry-making and the ambitions of starting her own business with a social conscience. She approached her good friend Diane Russell about the jewelry business idea; Diane volunteered to help, but Amy thought it would be a good idea to ask Diane to be her business partner and Diane agreed. It was a perfect fit – both had a background in jewelry making, both wanted to create social change, and both wanted to help women. There was only one problem: what kind of jewelry would they sell?
Amy knew two things for certain; she wanted to help the women who inspired her and she wanted to start a business which could employ these women. She was running one day on a bike path in Detroit and noticed herself paying close attention to the beautiful graffiti. She noticed a chunk of graffiti that had fallen onto the ground and picked it up to take home. When she got home she studied the chunk of graffiti and became interested in the depth that was underneath the outside layer. “I wondered if I could access those layers, so I called Diana and we spent the next five hours trying to figure out how to do it.” After four months, the two had developed a prototype for the exact jewelry that would become the focus of Rebel Nell. All of this happened in their living room.
To get started, Rebel Nell managed to raise $25,000 using the Indie Go Go crowdfunding platform; Amy admits this was a surprise. They were also winners of the 2013 Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, a yearly competition offering financial, legal, and strategic support to a select group of Michigan social businesses. Rebel Nell approached Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) to explain how they wanted to hire women in need and offer the support and training they would need to get back on their feet. COTS helped to get the search started and after time had it narrowed down to seven possible candidates. Amy wanted to make sure the women were willing to learn, and would have a strong work ethic with a desire to change. Rebel Nell only had the finances to hire one women, but Amy felt compelled to do more – she found a way to hire three. “We loved all the women we interviewed, but there were three in particular candidates we had to have.” The three women have been employed by Rebel Nell for over six months now and the business plans on hiring two more by the end of 2014. All three women have now moved out of the shelter and have moved on to transitional housing.
“These women keep me motivated,” says Amy. Her employees work eight hours a day, five days a week and have all received salary increases from the time they started. “Our organization is built around family and trust, it is just as much their company as it is ours,” Amy says with pride. She further explained how Rebel Nell includes the women on vital business decisions to help educate them on starting small businesses of their own one day. “We are flexible with our work hours but the women also know that we need them to be successful.” The women earn ten paid days off a year and a paid birthday day. Amy concludes, “these women are Rebel Nell.”
Each piece of jewelry made by Rebel Nell is unique. There are different types of art available on their website: earrings, pendants, cufflinks and rings. Several local and national stores also sell the jewelry and Amy anticipates more to come in the future. If you are interested in learning more about Rebel Nell, please visit their website and take a look at some of their art, you will find that there is always more than what you see on the outside.
Visit Rebel Nell on Facebook here