Diamonds in the Rough
When Amy Peterson MBA ’06 met homeless women in Detroit, the handwriting was on the wall
Whenever she walked her dog, Amy Peterson would see the men and women who lived at the shelter next door to her Detroit loft. Her dog, which Peterson describes as “incredibly friendly,” would trot over to the people, and soon Peterson began having conversations with them, especially the women. Their stories of abuse and hardship, she says, made her feel “compelled to do something” to help them. Last year, Peterson, an associate counsel for the Detroit Tigers, co-founded Rebel Nell, which employs disadvantaged women and teaches them to make jewelry. While attending Suffolk, Peterson had a small jewelry business that helped pay her tuition. “So it was a natural fit for me to start another jewelry business. I didn’t know what kind of jewelry I wanted to do, but I wanted it to be a creative outlet.” She found inspiration in the colorful chunks that flake off the city’s many graffitiscarred buildings, and uses the actual bits in the jewelry.
With a business designed to empower women, Peterson and her business partner, Diana Russell, wanted a name that would “pay homage to the strong women who have come before us.” One in particular resonated for them: Eleanor Roosevelt, whose father had nicknamed her “Little Nell.” As for “Rebel,” Peterson says it represents “these women rebelling against what society has dealt them.”
To get started, Peterson and Russell used a $1,500 micro-grant they won to make jewelry they then sold for $8,000 at an event. They raised their additional startup funding from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, surpassing their $25,000 goal. Peterson and Russell collaborate with caseworkers at the shelter to find women “ready for this transitional opportunity,” and, so far, Rebel Nell has hired three women. The salary starts at $8 an hour (higher than Michigan’s $7.40 minimum wage); after two months, it increases to $10 an hour; at six months, workers earn $12 an hour. There are also money management classes for employees, complete with monthly meetings with a financial adviser. “We set them up with bank accounts and simple IRA accounts,” Peterson says. “Just because you have money doesn’t mean you know what to do with it, and being financially responsible is really the backbone of Rebel Nell.”
So far, Rebel Nell has sold $100,000 worth of pendants, cufflinks, and rings through its website and some stores. All of the money goes right back into building the business, which is a collaborative process among all employees. “This is more than just a business,” Peterson says. “This is a sisterhood.”