Amy Peterson, a Detroit lawyer, envisioned Rebel Nell—an enterprise that creates unique jewelry from scrap pieces of graffiti—after moving next to one of Detroit’s shelters. While walking her dog, she began talking to women she met, and after listening to their stories and challenges, Peterson started a social enterprise with a vision to help women transition to an independent life. Peterson engaged friend and fashion retailer Diana Russell to launch Rebel Nell and design “defiant jewelry with a purpose.” Rebel Nell is one of sixty designs featured in By the People: Designing a Better America, a Cooper Hewitt exhibition currently on view through February 26, 2017.
Cooper Hewitt: What was it that moved you to begin Rebel Nell?
Amy Peterson: Hearing how incredible and courageous these women are. They realized that they needed to get out of whatever situation they were in and walk away. A lot of them are brilliant, but in bad situations. They’d lost their jobs after moving to the shelter and needed an opportunity. In addition to hearing stories of physical and emotional abuse there were stories of financial abuse. Many of them had had jobs but someone else controlled their paycheck. I figured I could provide some assistance with getting these women a better understanding of finances. That was really an aha moment for me.
CH: How long did it take for you to get up and running?
AP: We didn’t wait long at all—Diana loved the idea and wanted to volunteer. I asked her to join with me as a co-founder. We met with some caseworkers at the shelter and they loved our idea. To get funding, we entered a pitch competition called Detroit Soup where we won fourteen hundred dollars. We took that money and made the first round of jewelry ourselves. The first round of sales helped us get some seed money so we could start hiring.
CH: Where did the idea for graffiti-based jewelry come from?
AP: We believed the jewelry should be Detroit-centric. On a run on the Dequindre Cut underpass in downtown Detroit, a shard of graffiti caught my eye. Back in my apartment I started playing with it, and I was able to reveal all these incredible layers. I thought this would be such a cool way for women to have a voice. Diana and I spent four months prototyping. We wanted the jewelry to be high quality. We wanted them to be pieces that people wanted—something they really were proud to wear—and then it just so happens it also has this amazing, empowering story. The craft of making the jewelry was teachable yet also allowed for creative input. Each piece is truly one of a kind, not only because of the cross-section of graffiti, but because of the woman who made it.
CH: Can you talk about the structure of Rebel Nell and how it has grown since 2013?
AP: We started with just Diana and myself and then hired three women from the shelter as Creative Designers. Financially speaking, we should have only hired one. But we took a big risk—and they also took a big risk on us, because we were a startup with really no idea what we were doing. Now, we fluctuate between five and eight on the team at all times. We’re constantly trying to graduate women out so we can bring new ones on board. What has worked best for us is to focus on the individual and their personalized growth. If we get too big we lose our culture. We are housed in a small twelve-hundred-foot space accessible to the shelter. One of the reasons we took the space is because it is on a main bus route.
CH: What do the financial literacy programs look like?
AP: We provide an opportunity to earn as well as provide access to financial literacy, business, education, life skills, legal aid, and housing resources. We keep our group small to focus on each individual and her various needs. There is a step-by-step support and learning system. For instance, working with the individual to build up her credit so she can eventually get a car involves many steps. We have tremendous relationships with community partners that provide services. A local bank provides financial education classes. A financial advisor comes in once a month to provide personalized advice, particularly because many of them have heavy debt loads.
CH: What other kind of support does Rebel Nell provide?
AP: We’re constantly evolving and learning as we grow even after doing this for four years. We just held a seminar to understand what the individual strength is for each woman. What makes us unique is our holistic approach. Rome was certainly not built in a day and neither is their change, which is so systemic. So really, teaching a person how to break through the cycle of poverty isn’t even going to be with us. We’re just part of the learning curve. We actually think the real impact is going to come with the children of the women.
CH: Did you come into this with that vision?
AP: I can’t honestly say that I understood exactly what we were going to be doing when I started it. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I had no idea to what extent, nor did I have any idea how deep the problems are and and how badly the system is broken. That has been eye-opening to me. One thing I realized is I was very, very blessed to have an incredible support system growing up. If you don’t have that, it’s amazing how quickly and how fast you can fall. We are a support system. We are here to give a hug, have your back, encourage you. That’s it. Yes, we provide employment, but what really works is this atmosphere of love and support and family that we give everybody who walks in the door. I hope someday we will have cleaned all women out of shelters. I hope that there’s no one left to fight for, and as a result we close our business. That would be an absolute joy.
CH: What are the barriers for entry in other cities?
AP: The barriers to entry are affordability and space. The maker community is growing and credit goes to consumers who are coming back to appreciating handmade products. People are willing to pay extra for understanding that jobs are being created locally.
CH: Why do you think Rebel Nell is viable now?
AP: We have an incredibly supportive community that’s been able to help us grow. Word of mouth about us and our mission has been overwhelming as has support for our initiatives. I don’t know if I’d be able to do this in any other city as quickly as we did it here.
CH: Can you talk about the name Rebel Nell?
AP: Yes, we love it! Diane and I were trying to come up with a powerful name, and we wanted to pay tribute to a woman who was a trailblazer. We adore Eleanor Roosevelt and everything she stood for—she was an incredible humanitarian, women’s rights advocate, and civil rights advocate. Her dad nicknamed her “Little Nell.” We thought she was worthy of a stronger nickname, and that’s how we came up with Rebel Nell. We also think it works because the women that we hire are rebelling against what society has dealt to them, and we are working with graffiti, so that’s rebellious, too. That’s how we got our name.
This interview is excerpted from the Cooper Hewitt’s Fall 2016 Design Journal, available to Cooper Hewitt members.