BABE #291: ALEXIS COOK - Co-Founder, Unlocked
Today’s babe learned the power of listening to others and helping each other when we can from a young age. Her business journey had a by-chance start when her diagnosis of Lyme Disease then a passing of a dear friend led her to a storage container holding the resources to co-found Unlocked — handcrafted jewelry that isn’t just beautiful, but made by people transitioning out of homelessness. Alexis has a heart of gold and empowers more than just the employees of Unlocked, but her local community in Nashville, TN. Her refreshing story and genuine business model encourages us to keep believing in the power of kindness and and fighting for real, positive change.
Hometown: Gallatin, Tennessee
Current city: Nashville, Tennessee
Alma mater: Vanderbilt University
Degree: B.S., Human and Organizational Development
Very first job: Veggie salesgirl at a local produce store
Hustle: Co-Founder + Co-President, Unlocked
Babe you admire and why?
This requires a brief story. Before attending college, I took a gap year to travel to five different countries and have an internship in each. While living in Rwanda, I befriended my host family’s nanny, Doreen, and still consider her one of the most hardworking and earnest people I’ve ever met. Doreen is soft-spoken, kind, and humble. Originally from Uganda, she travelled to Rwanda when she was 18, looking for work to send money back to her family. She began working for my host family 16 hours daily and sleeping in a small room adjacent to their house. Doreen was 20 years old when we met, only a year older than I was at the time. We would wash dishes together late at night, singing and laughing at funny stories. Although I haven’t been able to speak to her since I left Rwanda five years ago, I still consider her a good friend and pray she’s been able to return to her family in Uganda. I hope to mimic even a fraction of her work ethic and loyalty in my own life.
How do you spend your ‘free’ time?
I am a big fan of yoga, dance, and travel — preferably all together. I recently went to Colombia and was able to do yoga on the beach in the mornings, dance at local clubs at night, and explore a new culture. It was incredible.
Current power anthem?
GIRL by Maren Morris.
What’s something you want to learn or master?
Surfing or playing guitar. I would love to be able to strum a guitar with friends around a campfire. Seems very fitting for a Nashville native.
What’s your favorite piece of jewelry you own?
Growing up, my grandma (who I call MamMa) and my grandpa (who I call Pop) were very poor. At the time, Pop worked at the Coca-Cola factory and began saving a nickel a week to be able to buy something for MamMa. Over a year later, he saved enough to buy a small sterling silver necklace with a heart pendant. It was the first gift he was ever able to give her, and she cherished it from that moment until she gave it to me on my 16th birthday. Now, I’ll cherish it until I give it to my own daughter or granddaughter. I love how jewelry can become a tangible symbol of emotions and stories, and I hope to transfer that same sentimentality in every piece at Unlocked.
Tell us about your hustle.
Unlocked is a social enterprise jewelry company that employs and empowers people transitioning out of homelessness. Each product is handcrafted by one of our Makers and includes their signature and bio, connecting others to their stories of hope. By providing wages, job training, community, and necessary resources like housing and counseling, we work to create a sustainable pathway out of homelessness, empowering our Makers towards permanent housing and employment. My Co-Founder, Corbin, and I manage everything from employee training to e-commerce. I focus mainly on partnerships, HR, and sales, so I work with local nonprofits to provide wrap-around services for our Makers, interview potential new Makers, develop wholesale partnerships with boutiques across the country, plan events, run our social media, blog, and newsletter, and manage interns and brand ambassadors.
What does your typical workday look like?
A day at Unlocked can vary pretty widely. I start most days at our office, where I check emails, work with our Makers and plan with my co-founder, Corbin. I always have projects that I’m working on — a big event I’m planning or a new program I’m rolling out. We just launched our Unlocked Parties, where anyone can host an Unlocked sales event at their home or office and earn 10% commission. For parties in Middle TN, our Makers will personally come and share their stories and sell the products. Similarly, we have Philanthropy Partnerships, where we send sororities across the country a box of our products, displays, and sales equipment so they can host a trunk show, earning 20% back for their philanthropy. Both of those were fun projects that took quite a bit of logistics planning. I also have days that are almost entirely composed of meetings with nonprofits, boutiques, and other companies and social enterprises. My business strategy is to collaborate and learn from others at every opportunity. Especially as a young business owner, I try to look at every conversation as a chance to learn.
Has homelessness always been a cause you’ve been passionate about? What experience(s) led you here?
Actually, yes. I distinctly remember my 4th grade teacher telling me that I would do something related to homelessness because she noticed that I prayed for people on the streets every day. I think homelessness has always shocked me because of how visible it is. The first time I had a real conversation with someone living on the streets was when I was 18. As I was walking to a concert, a man stopped me and asked for food. His desperation was so compelling that I went home, made mac-n-cheese, and came back to share a curbside meal. Listening to his life story changed my life by opening my eyes to the hardship of poverty. I’ve also been very involved as a nonprofit volunteer, specifically forming close friendships with people living in a local homeless transitional home. The more I’ve interacted with people living in poverty, the more I’ve come to believe that change is possible.
What was your initial vision for Unlocked? How has it evolved over time?
Oddly enough, I actually began imagining Unlocked when I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease and had to take a medical leave of absence from Vanderbilt. I decided to use my newfound free time to explore the streets of Nashville and befriend people experiencing homelessness. The conversations I had convinced me of the need for employment, specifically for people transitioning out of homelessness, and I began dreaming up a company that would provide employment alongside services like housing, counseling, and financial training. As I was considering the potential of a company, my “adopted grandpa,” Ray, passed away and left me a duffle bag of money in a storage unit. Ray was an unexpected benefactor, given that he had been homeless for decades prior to moving into the transitional home where we met. Corbin and I used the cash as the primary investment to found the company, which we named “Unlocked” to symbolize unlocking the storage unit and unlocking wages and opportunities for our Makers. As we continue to grow, we’ve begun planning to expand our products by making 100% recycled metal jewelry and even moving into other sectors like home goods and lawn care. We’ve also begun thinking even bigger by looking towards advocacy for city and national policy around homelessness. We hope to partner with others to promote housing and employment first as a way to give people the tools to create sustainable change. That being said, we still remain true to our relational roots, and I continue to wander downtown Nashville and strike up conversations with people on the streets, featuring direct quotes and photos on our blog (Unlocked Voices) and our weekly newsletter.
What’s the impact of giving women transitioning out of homelessness a job and a support system?
I think one of the biggest things I’ve heard from our Makers is how thankful they are to be able to develop self-sufficiency. Gwen, one of our Makers, said, “I’m blessed to where I can make money working with Unlocked. But most of all, my self-esteem is so high; I’m up there! I’m able to pull some more women up there with me.” I love that our Makers are able to support each other and others in their lives. There’s a ripple effect of positive change when people are able to determine their own destiny through dignified employment.
What is something you wish everyone knew about homelessness? What are some ways we can all do our part to decrease homelessness in our communities?
I think it’s important to know that the causes of homelessness are multiple and complex. It’s simply untrue that everyone on the streets is lazy or has a mental health problem or an addiction. The reality is that structural and individual causes can trap a person in poverty. Something everyone can do is look people in the eyes and smile. Instead of defining those experiencing poverty only by the things they lack, we can acknowledge the best in others, giving them the space and respect to create their own change. We can also donate and volunteer with local nonprofits, support social enterprises, advocate and vote for Housing First and affordable housing, and even employ people through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC).
How have your past professional and academic experiences and lessons prepared you for the work you do today? How have they not prepared you?
Like I mentioned earlier, I took a gap year in between high school and college, and that was one of the most pivotal decisions of my life. My international internships gave me a deeper empathy and understanding of social issues, and they solidified that I want to spend my life working towards equality and poverty alleviation. I also am thankful for my education at Vanderbilt and the management and economic theory that I can now tangibly apply to my work. Admittedly, I felt unprepared for many day-to-day technical skills of running a company like filing corporate taxes, creating a website, and managing wholesale accounts. I’ve said before that I feel like I’m getting an experiential MBA on the fly.
What would you say is your biggest career milestone to date and why?
This is tough! Almost all of the milestones that come to mind have to do with our Makers. One memory I love was when one of our Makers, Miss B, saved part of her paycheck each week to buy herself her very first laptop. After a few months of saving with us, she was able to buy a laptop and even had enough for a new phone and hotspot. It was a huge moment of pride for her, and it truly improved her quality of life by allowing her to communicate with doctors, family, and friends. She earned it, and that’s exactly what we set out to do: empower others to create sustainable improvement in their lives.
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience? What can we do to create more equal, uplifting (and well-paying!) spaces for women in your industry?
In some ways, I think being a woman has actually been an advantage for me. I’m able to network easily with potential customers, boutiques, and even sororities for our Philanthropy Partnerships. In other instances, I’ve been in the minority as a young, female business owner in larger C-level networking events. I think necessary steps for creating equality are supporting women-owned businesses and creating more mentorship opportunities for female entrepreneurs.
Are there any female-specific challenges you face in your work? How about female-specific victories?
When I tell others that I walk around downtown and talk with people on the streets, people often ask me if I get scared or feel like I’m ever in danger. The truth is I’ve almost never felt threatened, but I also know that there’s always heightened risk as a single female, regardless of what socioeconomic status the people I’m interacting with belong to. That can be a very real challenge. A female-specific victory is 100% how other women have supported Unlocked, our Makers, and our mission. Specifically, other women-owned businesses and boutiques have wrapped their arms around us, and it’s a privilege to join their community.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
Although fashion is considered a female-oriented space, a recent study of over 191 top fashion companies found that only 14% of the largest brands are women-run. Just as shocking, another study found that women make up 75% of nonprofit labor, but only 18% of large nonprofits have a female CEO. I like to think the power gap at large is diminishing based on increased visibility and widespread support for gender equality, but there is still much to be done. To be honest, my experiences in small business and social enterprise seem far more equitable, even skewing towards female leadership. I’m constantly surrounded by incredible female role models in the jewelry and social enterprise sectors, and there seem to be more women founding and running these businesses than men. To me, that signals a coming shift, since many of these organizations will continue to grow over time and change ratios for larger brands.
What are some of the principles behind Unlock’s company culture? How do you encourage community and growth within the group of women you work with?
Our five core pillars are community, dignity, empathy, opportunity, and sustainability. We host monthly bonding activities for our team (ranging from bonfires to Topgolf), financial training courses, group meetings for company vision casting, and personal goal setting and sharing. I also love celebrating birthdays, so those are always a team event. We have a lot of fun.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
I’m inspired by my friend, Lindsey Krinks, because of her empathy, passion, and knowledge about advocacy and outreach. She co-founded Open Table, which is a homeless outreach nonprofit that Unlocked collaborates with. Lindsey and I actually met at Ray’s deathbed (my adopted grandpa turned primary investor), as crazy as that sounds. I also look up to Brittany Merrill Underwood, who founded Akola. Just like me, she started her employment-based jewelry company as a sophomore in college, and she now employs over 500 women in Uganda and Dallas, TX. She’s been able to scale both the product side and services side, which is very impressive.
Career and/or life advice for other babes (both inside and outside of your industry?)
Take calculated risks. If you believe the payoff is worth it, fight for it. Consciously get to know people with radically different life experiences than your own. In an age of echo chambers and insulated arguments, take the time to expose yourself to those with whom you feel you have nothing in common. It will challenge your worldview, deepen your convictions, and potentially provide you with a whole new set of friends (or compel you to start a company!).
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