DESIGNER GOODS: Wear a piece of Detroit on your heart
Trial and error- that’s how Rebel Nell founder, Amy Peterson describes the first two years of launching the brand with her dedicated and dynamic team. Fast forward to 2016, the Detroit-based, Rebel Nell brand is carried in over 40 boutiques, art galleries and museums nationwide. Rebel Nell is an artistic, edgy jewelry brand that is dedicated to creating uniquely designed pieces made from beautiful street graffiti, sharing Detroit’s history AND empowering women to transition into new lives of independence and entrepreneurship. Graffiti project partnerships include: Dequindre Cut, Grand River Corridor, and The Alley Project (TAP).
By wearing Rebel Nell accessories, you can support the history, community and art of the beautiful motor city! Rebel Nell takes 3 factors to create one beautiful mission: To employ, educate, empower and overall to an encourage entrepreneurial spirit. The name comes from combining the idea of rebellion (helping disadvantaged women move forward in life, while using graffiti art- often viewed as rebellious), and combining it with the influence of pioneer and civil rights activist, Eleanor Roosevelt, who’s nickname was “Little Nell”. Celebrate your rebellious spirit by wearing Rebel Nell on your arms, your ears, your sleeves or on your heart.
All Rebel Nell pieces are made from collected fallen local Detroit graffiti and is made by women from Detroit shelters. The collection retails from $75-200 USD and consists of wearable art for men and women. Below I speak with Amy Peterson about the terrifying and exciting experience of starting a new business, celebrating Rebel Nell graduations and a new collaboration with the community of Flint, Michigan.
HGC: I love the entire concept of the Rebel Nell brand- especially the intentional focus to empower women while focusing on entrepreneurship. Can you tell me more about what it was like getting the brand off the ground during the first couple years?
Amy Peterson: It was terrifying and exciting starting a business, especially because we don’t ever want to let the women down that we hire, and that’s an added pressure. Trial and error is the best way to describe the first two years. Diana, my business partner, and I stuck to our vision of providing employment opportunities for underserved women in our community and educating them on financial management, business education and life skills. What has helped us develop the program is staying focused on our social mission, listening to the needs of the women and learning what obstacles they faced in the past. As far as sales growth, 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, it is very important to us that we provide a quality product that can stand independent of the story behind it.
HGC: The growth of social enterprise businesses are continuing to grow all around the world. Every business model and founder story is different, which makes writing about them incredibly rewarding for me. What have you learned about from all of your experiences since the start of Rebel Nell?
AP: Rebel Nell has taught me that believing in someone’s ability can have a tremendous impact. I’ve learned not to focus on where these women have come from, but on where they can go. Rebel Nell has really been beneficial to their overall development and transformation. I am so proud of each and every one of them and feel honored to be working with an incredible group of women.
HGC: The employment, education and empowerment mission of Rebel Nell is incredibly smart and admirable. What do you envision for the company next year? And in the next five years?
AP: Thank you! We believe that education is paramount to the overall success of the women we hire. Our focus is quality, not quantity. So it’s important to keep the focus on the individual – we don’t want to lose the supportive environment by scaling too quickly. We have seen how important that is for personal growth and success. For 2016, we are already in the process of interviewing 2-3 more women from the shelter. Our dream is to be sold at major retailers – that would be a tremendous success for us! We also want to introduce more educational programs. Currently, Rebel Nell offers financial advising and management, women empowerment classes, business startup and continuing education, building your brand, vision boards, life coaching, etc. We want to explore other areas where we can offer supportive services based on the requests of our ladies.
Over the next five 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 them stabilize and focus on how their dream looks. We recently helped one of our ladies launch her first business. Knowing that Rebel Nell provided her the tools she needed is incredibly rewarding, and we are so excited to watch her grow as an entrepreneur.
HGC: Can you tell me more about how you chose to partner/work with Dequindre Cut, Grand River Corridor (GRCC) and TAP projects?
AP: The Dequindre Cut was the first source of inspiration for creating the Rebel Nell brand. During my runs, I would find bits of graffiti that had fallen off the wall, and I’d marvel at their unique beauty. We have a strict “no touch” policy until it has actually fallen on the ground. We have a lot of respect for the graffiti artists. As for the Alley Project, we love supporting this neighborhood program that helps at-risk youth channel their creativity through street art. It is beautiful to see how an entire neighborhood can come together in the name of art. Once the graffiti gets thick, they will donate it to us, and in turn we give them a portion of the proceeds from the pieces sold in the Alley Project collection. They have never asked for anything in return, but we feel it is incredibly important to give back to your community in as many ways possible. The GRCC is our current home and a place that has become known for its beautiful outdoor murals. The GRCC attracts people from all over the world to paint on the walls like a rotating exhibit. It is so inspirational, and we are lucky to call it home.
HGC: What are your personal favorite Rebel Nell pieces?
AP: Personally, I love the pendants because I can see the personalities of each of the women reflected in the pieces. My favorite part is seeing the women transform from timid individuals to confident jewelry designers. Their visions are all so unique and beautiful.
HGC: I love the The Alley Project and Young Nation initiative- what a cool way to give back! What are some of your top sellers from the TAP collection?
AP: Our top sellers from any collection are the signature silver pendants. These are truly unique, not only because of the graffiti, but because of the women who made it. They have complete creative freedom to cut and design whatever speaks to them, which in return builds their confidence. They are able to transform their vision into something beautiful that people are proud to wear.
HGC: What has been the most memorable part of starting this socially conscious brand?
AP: Hands down the most rewarding part of starting a social enterprise is to see it truly working and being a part of the growth for each of the women that we hire. I am proud that we are able to help them move out of the shelter and into a permanent home within 1-2 months of working with us. I love seeing them become strong and confident women. One of the greatest moments for me was when we our first employee graduated last July. She had been with us for two years and really listened and paid attention to all of the information our classes offered. We also helped her narrow down her dream job and honed in on the strategy she needed to execute to obtain that job. When she landed the job, it was one of the proudest moments in my life. Yes, we were going to miss her, but the feeling was happily overshadowed by the tremendous amount of pride we had in her accomplishments. It was then I knew we had something special. Social enterprises can really work.
HGC: What unique personality trait does each member of the Rebel Nell team bring to the complete/empower the RN family?
AP: When we interview the women from the shelter, we look for four things: Do they have a desire to change their situation in life? Are they willing to learn? Can they work well with others? Does their personality fit in with our environment? It is vital that their personality matches with our family environment and dynamic. We have fostered a sisterhood where the women look out for one another and are invested in each other’s success. It is important that whoever joins us can add to that support system. We also make sure the focus is not on their past, but where they want to go.
HGC: What are some potential Detroit based neighborhood/community partners you might be working with in the future?
AP: We are very involved in our community and are constantly meeting with community partners to explore new and fun ways to work together. We want to do more with the Alley Project and Southwest Detroit. We are also in the process of launching a new graffiti collection from Flint, MI, where a portion of the proceeds will go to a women’s shelter.
HGC: At House of G&C, the lifestyle mission is to look good, do good and give back. On a personal level (in addition to founding and running Rebel Nell) how do you do good? And give back?
AP: I really make a conscious effort to support social enterprises. I believe in them and the change they can make. This sometimes means spending a little more, but I know where the money is going and how it is impacting people’s lives. I also believe in volunteering, finding ways to get involved in your community and being a team player. You never know what kind of assistance or help you can lend someone. Always keep an open mind and remember that even the smallest of contributions can make a huge difference to someone.
HGC: What does Rebel Nell have in store for 2016?
AP: We are in the works to do a collaboration with another social enterprise in the Detroit area. We are still working out the details, but it should be a huge hit and a great way to connect and empower women across companies. We hope to add more product options and will be updating our signature sterling collection. We will be going through a rebranding to help refocus our message for our continued growth. We will also be employing two more women by the end of February.
All photos provided by Rebel Nell