When Amy Peterson was working as a sports attorney she got to know many of the women who were living at a shelter near her home. She was struck by their stories and how hard it was for them to find long-term gainful employment. Peterson took a career 180 and decided to start a social enterprise that would provide equitable opportunity and wraparound support for women facing barriers to employment. The result is Rebel Nell, a jewelry company that makes necklaces, earrings and bracelets from up-cycled urban materials while uplifting the community at the same. Today the Detroit, Michigan-based entrepreneur is proud to have successfully navigated the pandemic with her team and is working to make sure she continues to carve out enough time for her own self care every day.
Peterson’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
The idea of Rebel Nell came to life when I was working as a sports attorney in Detroit. I lived next door to a well-known shelter and became friends with many of the residents. The women would tell me their stories about how they left challenging, and often abusive situations in search of a better opportunity for themselves and for their families. I was eager to start a company that provided a supportive employment opportunity for these women along with wraparound support to assist them during their transition to an independent life.
How do you define success?
I appreciate this question. Success should be a personal metric and not compared to anyone else’s portrayal of success. We live in world where we are forced to compare ourselves to everyone else and I am working on shifting my own mentality. For me, success is the ability to be a good mom, run a profitable business with huge impact, be free of worry, trust the process, and surrender to the things you can’t control.
Tell us about your biggest success to date
Starting Rebel Nell as a social enterprise – meaning that we put our mission first and foremost and every product sold has a direct impact on the incredible women we serve. But more specifically I always think about a former employee, Karen. She was one of our first employees and graduates and Karen worked really hard, taking all of the classes we offered. We assisted her in finding her dream job. Now, she serves on the board of a non-profit Rebel Nell started called Teach Empower Achieve. It is a beautiful full circle moment and a lot of why I am continuously inspired by the women we serve.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
Running a business is filled with obstacles and challenges, but running a social enterprise is even more challenging. There have been more challenges and hurdles than I care to count. As a social enterprise our people, and our profit, are equally as important. This can be challenging because our goal is to scale the business in order to provide employment to more women in need. It is difficult to get funding because a lot of investors are focused solely on their financial return. We are arguing that not only do you get a financial return, but you also receive a return on human capital. As a general rule, funders are not there yet. However, we are starting to see investors who are pioneers in this space. I am optimistic that this will become the wave of the future.
Another challenge we have faced is being a small business during the pandemic. We put a priority on caring for our people first and this was very challenging at times when we were shut down and couldn’t manufacture. I am proud to say that we were able to cover all of the lost wages for our team members during the shutdown. We also ensured they had laptops to stay connected to us and the resources available to them.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
The year 2021 was a really hard year both personally, and for the business. There were some losses in my family and scary moments that impacted my mental health. Many small business owners were tasked with carrying the entire company on their backs during COVID-19 and also had to be strong for their team and families which didn’t allow them a chance to experience their own feelings. I lost myself and was not the best leader. I was afraid to take time for myself but was in a very dark place. Fortunately, I came to the realization that I needed to take a mental timeout. I didn’t realize how much I needed it and the business needed it. In the moment it is hard to see it, it’s hard to step away, but it proved to be the best decision I’ve ever made. It has enabled me to take things in stride and breathe. Trust the process and things will be ok.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
My biggest recommendation for anyone starting out is to get an accountant early. Don’t wait until you “need” one because by then, it usually means you made mistakes. We are all tight on funding during the startup phase and think we can handle QuickBooks or accounting software on our own. I have seen many entrepreneurs end up having to get an accountant or bookkeeper late in the game and they end up paying more to fix the mistakes they made.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
There have been a lot of tough and dark moments. Running a business is a rollercoaster ride every single day. It is important to look for inspiration to keep you going. I find a lot of that through the amazing women that I work with and knowing how Rebel Nell has had such an impact on each of them. There are so many personal stories from each of the 34 women that I have worked alongside. I also have an amazing team that uplifts me. And I try and remember that I will get through this. You just need to put one foot in front of the other.
Who is your most important role model?
I am fortunate to have so many role models for all different aspects of my life. I am surrounded by an incredible and supportive family, women entrepreneurs, and community leaders. I really value my parents, Cindy Pasky, the CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions, and almost every small business woman I meet. ◼