Amy Peterson never set out to start a jewelry brand. Since childhood, she had her sights set on becoming the first female general manager of a major league baseball team—a dream that led her to become an attorney for the Detroit Tigers.
But though she’d achieved her goal, Peterson recalls, “I just wasn’t in an environment that uplifted and empowered women”— goals that were becoming increasingly important to her. So much so, she launched a jewelry company, Rebel Nell, in 2013 with the mission of empowering women who were facing significant life challenges.
While working for the Detroit Tigers, Peterson lived next door to a homeless shelter, and became acquainted with many of the women there. At Rebel Nell, which is based in Detroit, homeless women are the employees and jewelry craftspeople. It’s transitional, but vital, employment. And in turn, the brand supports them as they transition out of shelters by providing personal finance education and access to housing resources and legal aid, among other assists. Employees are required to attend roughly three hours a week of classes that cover a host of life skills, and they’re compensated for the time they spend learning.
Peterson’s initial business proposal for the company stipulated that the brand would offer these women “equitable employment” plus the resources they would need to lead an independent life. After all, it’s one thing to offer someone a job. It’s another to assist with housing, transportation, and the skills needed to procure employment in the future.
She pitched the idea at local entrepreneurial competitions and won.“We used that [prize] money and taught ourselves how to make jewelry out of graffiti.” Peterson DIY-ed the initial jewelry concept herself, applying resin to preserve fallen graffiti, then setting the pieces, each completely unique and one-of-a-kind, into gold filled or sterling silver jewelry.
She works closely with local shelter caseworkers to identify women who are ready and able to transition out of shelters, and could benefit from Rebel Nell employment. In her first year of business, Peterson aimed to hire one employee, but “fell in love with three,” so hired them all.
In total, Rebel Nell has employed 30 women since 2013, providing transitional employment and support for roughly 18 to 24 months. The first year might entail helping find housing, transportation, establishing a budget, improving a credit score, and cleaning up infractions on a driver’s license, for example. “Year two is focused on—now that you can breathe, what have you always wanted to do? Living paycheck to paycheck, you don’t get the opportunity to dream. How do we get you close to your goal?”
For some women, this means obtaining a GED or enrolling in other classes. For women interested in manufacturing, that could mean setting a goal of working at the nearby Ford automobile factory, which offers livable wages and benefits for its employees.
Rebel Nell’s multifaceted approach, “is really creating an equitable change we need,” says Peterson, who points out that the majority of women in the nine local shelters she works with are women of color, all affected by “pervasive systemic racism.”
Rebel Nell also provides its employees with micro-loans as part of its transitional employment. It’s a program with guardrails: years ago, Peterson realized that Rebel Nell’s ability to dispense loans and provide its core social programming could be jeopardized by the state of the retail business at any given time. That led to her creating a nonprofit organization, T.E.A., in 2016; the acronym stands for “Teach. Empower. Achieve.” Now, “the ebb and flow of the business can’t affect the resources we offer,” she notes.
Today, Rebel Nell acts solely as a workforce provider for vulnerable populations, while T.E.A. facilitates all of the employee support and classes via a life coach, curriculum coach, and a resource provider, a move that Peterson says has been a game-changer.
T.E.A.’s future goal is to facilitate similar support to other social enterprises. Fortunately, one of the people helming T.E.A. is in an excellent position to steer it toward a wider reach. Karen, a formerly homeless woman and one of Rebel Nell’s very first hires in 2013, “was incredible and took advantage of all of the classes we offered,” says Peterson. “She helped us navigate [and figure out] what we could do better to provide resources that are truly helpful, not just what everyone thinks you need.” Karen transitioned to a job at Detroit Central City, where she currently works as a counselor for citizens returning from incarceration and is currently a member of T.E.A.’s board.
“There’s a stigma that comes from being at a shelter,” says Peterson. “If you had the opportunity to talk to any of the women at Rebel Nell you’d see our lives are incredibly the same. There’s maybe one instance in life that put us on different paths.”
Rebel Nell’s cool and unique jewelry is crafted from repurposed materials (there’s lots of graffiti in Detroit!), and has been since its founding. “Our jewelry is not only totally one of a kind because of the materials,” says Peterson, “but when you buy a piece from Rebel Nell, you’re also part of a woman’s journey to success.”
All photos courtesy of Rebel Nell
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