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This social startup is empowering women in Detroit through graffiti jewelry


Amy Peterson and Diana Russell founded Rebel Nell with one goal in mind: empowering disadvantaged women in Detroit. Besides wanting to help prop up their local community, they also happened to share a jewelry-making past.

After much strategizing and planning, the stars aligned for Peterson and Russell and they were able to secure seed funding. With that, they started Rebel Nell and began hiring women and teaching them how to turn pieces of graffiti fallen from city murals into cool wearable art.

"The whole reason we exist is to employ, educate and empower women who are transitioning out of homelessness and into an independent and self-sufficient life," Peterson told Circa. "We really wanted to take a 'teach a woman to fish' mentality... and make something that pays tribute to our city."

The entrepreneur duo launched Rebel Nell in 2014 as a way to give back to the city that, Peterson says, gave them a chance at their dream jobs. The startup is set up as a social enterprise, and besides paying employees a livable wage and providing training in jewelry design, Rebel Nell offers housing, legal and financial resources to its team.

"I've never had a job like this before," Azzie C., a jeweler at Rebel Nell, told Circa. "I came to Rebel Nell through... I was in a halfway house and I had went to prison; I've been here 16-18 months. It seems like it's been longer though because our bond is so strong."

At Rebel Nell, women are taught to cut, weld and craft kaleidscopic jewelry out of fallen graffiti. (Circa/Natalia Angulo-Hinkson)

The women who work at Rebel Nell learn how to cut, weld and craft kaleidoscopic jewelry from the graffiti they collect every couple of months.

How they actually make their accessories is proprietary information, but Peterson explained it involves treating the graffiti using a special process that reveals all of its layers. After that, the jeweler cuts the piece into a color combination and shape of her choice, before adhering it to silver or brass. Each piece then goes through another series of steps that help blend out and smooth the edges before a finishing resin coat is put on it. At this point, they stamp "Rebel Nell" on it and attach any additional elements, such as a chain for their signature pendants.

Rebel Nell sells their jewelry online and in boutiques.

"Every piece is unique, not only because of the cross-section of graffiti, but because of the woman who made it," Peterson said.

Each Rebel Nell piece is unique because each designer has full creative license. (Circa)

Business is blooming in Detroit

Detroit's startup scene is flourishing. In the last three years, the city has seen a 50 percent rise in venture capital-backed companies, according to a Michigan Venture Capital Association report cited by TechCrunch.

Since opening up shop, Rebel Nell has hired seven full-time employees and graduated five others. Part of the program is designed to help women fine-tune skills they can easily transfer to other jobs and continue building their resumes.

"You know, everyone here takes on a lot in order to see the individual succeed, and that’s what we’re all about," Peterson said.

For Azzie, creating jewelry has been cathartic.

"With jewelry you have to have a lot of patience because it's a lot of little bitty utensils, and it’s very tedious," she said. "You have to want to do it, you have to want something beautiful to come out of what you're creating."

Rebel Nell collects graffiti that has fallen off city murals and then makes jewelry out of the pieces. (Circa)

The company has almost called it quits a few times, but those near-failures, Peterson says, are what have made Rebel Nell all the more successful.

"This is a tough business. I think there are challenges with working with this workforce. There are challenges with working in a startup," she said. "It's far easier to shut it down; it's easy to just close the doors."

But pushing through those tough moments and seeing the fruits of their labor have only made them want to work harder.

"I'm not a quitter," Azzie said. "I have to keep fighting the fight."

See more related Circa stories:
Here's how Detroit Bikes is transforming America’s car capital into a bike town
Got two degrees? That might not be enough if you're a person of color looking for work in Illinois.
Silicon Valley is a boys club. This woman-led startup is doing something about it.

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