Amy Peterson is the cofounder of Rebel Nell, a social enterprise in Detroit dedicated to employing, educating, and empowering women. And, oh yeah, they also make distinctive jewelry — rings, necklaces, and cufflinks created from scavenged chips of graffiti. It’s an important maker model: using a popular maker skill, jewelry making, as the center of gravity for an organization that provides not just employment, but also financial literacy and other resources to impoverished women in local shelters who are trying to transition to more independent lives.

Amy Peterson

Where did the idea for Rebel Nell come from?

I moved to Detroit to pursue a career in sports law (I work for the Detroit Tigers currently) and lived next door to a shelter. I often talked with the women there, and I was inspired by who they are, what they went through, how they wanted to make life changes not only for themselves, but for their families. I thought, what can I do to help them?

At first I thought about financial classes, offering education so the women don’t end up back in the shelter. I realized we needed to do more. These women need jobs. How do we create jobs? We thought out the social mission before we came up with the product.

That’s a different model from many startups.

Right. We reversed the usual process. We wanted to provide jobs and education for women, and we needed to come up with a product to support the classes and resources.

What product ideas did you consider?

[Co-founder] Diana Russell and I love Detroit. We wanted our product to be Detroit-centric. We flirted with making jewelry from tires or bricks. Then one day I was out running and saw graffiti that had fallen on to the ground. It had a unique look. I took it home and started playing around with it and got the idea for jewelry. Diana and I spent about four months prototyping the pieces before we started making it on our own.

Had you made jewelry before?

I took jewelry-making classes when I was in law school and had a small jewelry-making business, mostly beadwork. Diana had taken silversmithing classes. When we were first starting out, we partnered with Lauren Yellen who had graduated with a silversmithing degree. I give her credit for helping our product evolve. We actually recently hired her to handle our product research and development.

Tell me about the process.

How we process the graffiti, to reveal all the colors of the graffiti, is a trade secret. Each piece is made up of many different layers, which we’re able to expose. We plate it in silver and then put a resin on top to protect it and bring out its shine. We stamp our logo on the back, loop a silver chain through it and out the door it goes!

Starting a business is hard enough. What was it like launching a startup with a social mission?

There are many challenges! You’re operating a business, but the social mission is what’s most important. You have to find a way to balance the mission with the business — for us, that was how to balance the education with production. Obviously if we don’t have sales, we can’t help the women that we serve.
Sometimes we’re heavier on one side than we are on the other, depending on the time of the year and the seasons. But we always reflect back on our mission, to make sure that we’re doing what we set out to do — helping disadvantaged women reach financial independence.

Any special considerations when setting up a social enterprise business?

We’re set up as an L3C — a limited low-profit liability company, which is an option available in about a dozen states. We’ve also started a non-profit arm to support our educational classes.

As a lawyer, do you have any advice to makers who are thinking about setting up their business as a non-profit?

It really depends on their business model. I always suggest to speak to people who will give you free advice, through small business community groups or organizations, to figure out what is the best structure for them. It’s always great to get the advice of an attorney or accountant too. I tell people that the first year or so will be challenging, but it’s worth it to see the long-term impact on the lives of others, and to see the fruits of your labor have meaning.

What do you look for in your hiring process?

We look for women who want to change their situation. Do they have a willingness to learn? Do they work well with others? We teach them everything else they need. When we were designing the jewelry-making process, we wanted it to be teachable. We also wanted to build in opportunity for creative input, which serves as a major source of empowerment for the ladies we hire. They pick whatever colored patterns and shapes speak to them. Each piece is one of a kind, not only because of the craft action and graffiti, but because there’s an individual who made it.

How hard is it to teach jewelry making at that level? How long does it take?

To be really expert takes about six months. That’s about the average time it takes for our employees to learn how to perfect the edges and the jewelry-making process, and get the pieces to a point where it is approved for quality control. The women we hire are typically coming in with little to no experience in jewelry making, so there is a learning curve.

What’s the hardest part?

Rounding out the edges with a Dremel. It requires kind of a trained eye.

What are the other parts of Rebel Nell, in addition to jewelry making?

Rebel Nell offers financial advising and management, women empowerment classes, business startup and continuing education, building your brand, vision boards, life coaching, etc.

How long did it take to get Rebel Nell up and running?

We started in March 2013 with the concept and came up with our product a couple months later. We sold our first pieces in September, and by December we found a spot to work. It was a very basic startup — just Diana and I making jewelry with our husbands. After about a year, we hired our first three women, with limited hours and limited pay. But they loved it and stuck with us, and fortunately we were able provide more hours and increase their pay pretty quickly, within six months. Now we’re in about 35 stores nationwide, and we’re constantly growing. And tweaking! We’re still a work in progress and probably always will be.

Any advice for makers who have a skill and want to merge it with a social mission?

You really have to be passionate about the social mission. It adds a totally different dynamic to your business. For instance, we’re not working with trained artisans and jewelry makers, and we understand that. The jewelry is important, but our focus is on helping individuals who are trying to get back on their feet. That’s a very different approach to business. But I encourage people to do it, because you really can make a difference in people’s lives. And not just individuals’ lives but their families.

Any resources that you can recommend?

My best advice is to find social enterprises in your area and take the owners out to coffee. You’ll be getting real advice and input, and they may be able to direct you to other local resources.

What organizations did you find inspiring?

The Empowerment Plan. Better Life Bags. Lips and Hips. Lifeline Consulting. We partner with Lifeline Consulting and Lips and Hips to teach our Women’s Empowerment and Business Education courses, respectively.

What have you learned about the jewelry industry?

The retail industry as a whole is pretty fickle! Social media and online advertising are incredibly important for reaching younger people — and it’s really important to capture them!

How many people are on the staff?

There are six: four making jewelry, and two working on marketing and sales. Rebel Nell is funded entirely through sales. It takes a lot of hard work and hustle to inform buyers about our product. Our goal is to increase our revenue every year so we can hire more women. In order to do that, we have to come up with unique and innovative ways to share our story online, through grassroots efforts and on social media.

Where do you think you’re going to be in 5 years?

I hope that we continue our pattern of growth, while at the same time helping women who are ready for the next step in their professional path. We want each woman to be able to realize her dreams and watch them come to fruition. Rebel Nell is an opportunity to help these women stabilize, and focus on how their dream can be made into a reality.