This ethical jewelry brand employs women transitioning out of homelessness
From design to polish, ethical jewelry company Unlocked is creating new opportunities for creators in Nashville.
Meet Unlocked, a social enterprise jewelry brand based out of Nashville, Tennessee, that employs women who are transitioning out of homelessness. They have created an opportunity to uplift their employees by providing transitional housing, career counseling, financial training, and more.
Currently, they are working on a rebrand which includes, melting down recycled metals to create beautiful designs for their jewelry. These designs will be personally crafted by Unlocked’s employees, who are called “Makers.” Pre-orders can be made through their website.
Below is an inspiring interview with Alexis Cook, co-founder of Unlocked.
Q: What inspired you to start a jewelry brand that helps employ women coming out of homelessness?
Unlocked’s founding story is unique, to say the least. In the summer of 2016, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease and had to take a medical leave of absence from Vanderbilt. During that time, I felt called to begin walking around downtown Nashville, my hometown, and befriending people experiencing homelessness.
Through those conversations on the streets, I began making genuine friendships and became increasingly convinced of the need for a business that would provide employment and steady wages while addressing barriers that people experiencing homelessness face. Inspired, I began meeting regularly with Corbin, a friend from Vandy, to explore the idea of such a company.
A few months later, one of my dear friends, Ray, called to ask me to meet him at the hospital. Ray had been homeless most of his life and was now in his mid-sixties; we had met years prior while I was volunteering at a local transitional home. In a conversation that would become one of our last, Ray announced to me that he had a duffle bag of money that he wanted me to have after he passed.
Corbin and I used the money to file for an LLC and began building the structure of the company, deciding to go full-time with Unlocked upon graduation in 2018.
Q: How many women do you usually employ?
So far, Unlocked has worked with five women coming out of homelessness. Our goal is that each woman we work with will move on to permanent housing and stable employment, and we work with local nonprofits, career counselors, mental health counselors, and housing case managers to help make that a reality. Our goal is to be able to help 20 women transition into housing and employment this coming year, which is why we’ve completely re-imagined our production processes and designs to scale the company.
Q: How have you seen your brand grow in the last couple of years?
Barely over a year ago, Unlocked was little more than a milk crate of wires and beads, and Corbin and I would sit on a park bench and work with a single Maker. Now, we’ve had the incredible fortune of growing to the point where we have our own office and workshop in East Nashville, where we’ve been able to elevate our production processes and offer higher quality pieces.
More than that, we’ve been able to form partnerships with incredible nonprofits that allow us to offer transitional housing, weekly career and life counseling, financial empowerment classes, and more. By pairing employment and steady wages with foundational resources like these, we’ve deepened impact on the women we work with.
One of our first Makers, Gwen, actually has an apartment of her own now and is a pre-K teacher at the Dare To Dream center in East Nashville, fulfilling her goal of working with kids. She even has a car now and is going to come back to Unlocked as a mentor for future Makers. Leticia, another graduate of Unlocked, is now working at Trevecca University.
Q: For this rebrand, why did you decide to use recycled metals?
Our recent rebrand had a few different components. First, as a social enterprise, the scale of our social impact is a direct function of the scale of our business. Our long-term viability and scalability depends on net revenue, so we must create high-quality products that respond to legitimate market demand.
While we have been able to grow this past year as a local, small batch, craft jewelry company, we knew that to create the long-term impact we desired we needed to build a comprehensive, e-commerce, ethical jewelry company. Of course, a large part of this shift includes higher quality production processes to render higher quality products. After performing market research and competitor analysis, we invested in machinery that allows us to melt down metals and cast them into original designs.
The recycled metals component is a result of our larger ideological shift of taking greater responsibility for our environmental impact. The jewelry industry is dirty, and we want to prove what business can do both for people and the planet, all while offering great products. It’s important to us that we do what we can, making it easier for consumers to “do the right thing.” Because we control everything from design to polish, we also are able to offer unprecedented transparency, and we are continuing to work on things like our energy and water usage as we grow.
Q: Where do you obtain these recycled metals?
While we were prototyping new designs, we actually collected brass bullet casings from a local shooting range to cast recycled brass jewelry. In fact, I still wear some of those designs. However, now that we are ready to sell to customers, we work with a recycled metal supplier who provides us with purified, recycled sterling silver. We also offer 24K gold vermeil (a thick gold plating on our recycled silver designs), but the gold itself is not recycled, meaning that those pieces are not 100 percent recycled.
Q: How would you like to see your brand grow in the future?
Our vision for the next 5 years is to grow Unlocked in breadth and depth, allowing us to impact more people and go deeper with our services for life-long change. Eventually, we envision turning the Unlocked brand into an umbrella organization that houses multiple for-profit social enterprises, including our established jewelry company. As we see it, each new enterprise will have its own leadership under the “Unlocked” umbrella, providing connections and structure that budding enterprises alone may not have.
Mainly, each employee of one of the Unlocked enterprises will have access to our nonprofit resources, including housing, counseling, financial training, and more. For example, the Unlocked umbrella may house the current jewelry brand, along with a home goods manufacturing brand, a lawn care company, and a window cleaning company.
Each of these social enterprises will be a for-profit company with separate management, but the employees of each company will be a part of our 6-8 month program and will attain transitional housing, counseling, financial empowerment, and other resources through our program and affiliate nonprofits in the area. Using the success of Unlocked’s multiple social enterprises as proof-of-concept, we are working to eventually be able to consult and advise other companies to incorporate elements of our program, pairing employment with housing and resources.
Above all, our goal is to grow the movement of using business as a vehicle for financial and social inclusion for people experiencing homelessness, using employment to uplift our socially displaced neighbors.