24-year-old Alexis Cook was in college when she says she "felt called" to walk the Nashville streets and get to know the homeless.
"At first I walked around just to make friends, and I'd be like 'hi'," Cook explained. "(Homelessness in Nashville) was so in our faces, you know, and we kind of just become numb to it. Like you're driving down the street, and you can see people experiencing homelessness, and you kind of just shut off to it eventually. And that bothered me."
So she and 23-year-old co-founder Corbin Hooker did something about it.
The pair showed me around their modest production studio. In their half a storage unit on Elm Hill Pike in Nashville, they mold, melt, and manufacture 100% recyclable, sterling silver jewelry, creating jobs for homeless women along the way.
"If we hire them, then the first thing we do is help them getting the housing," Cook added. "So even before their first day at work, we already have a housing unit for them. And our belief is pretty strong that it's much easier to build a stable foundation for long-term growth, if you already have your basic needs like shelter met."
Non-profit partners such as Community Care Fellowship (CCF) on 511 South 8th Street in Nashville help with housing, career and financial training, and weekly mental health counseling.
Unlocked provides what Hooker calls the dignity of work.
"I think the value of a job, at the end of the day, is self sufficiency," said the 23-year-old Vanderbilt graduate. "Especially in the United States, work is very strongly tied to identity and dignity, dignity of having a job and the dignity of being able to provide for yourself through work. Because, you know, at the end of the day, our goal for our makers, is that they arrive at a place of self-sufficiency and stability--that all of their needs are being met. And at the end of the day that means you need to have income to make to meet your needs. And for most people, that means having a job. So it's the ability to provide for your needs, in a dignified way."
Each Unlocked employee pays one-third of their housing costs themselves.
"So as they continue to grow in the company and get raises and earn more hours basically, their responsibility for the housing goes up--with the goal being they're paying full rent. Our goal is within 6-12 months, each of our makers will transition into a home and a career of her own."
"It can be done in 6 months even though that sounds radical," Hooker added. "If we provide housing and adequate wages from very first day of Unlocked, they will have a stable foundation to perform rapid growth."
Pre-school teacher Gwen Johnson is living proof of what such stability and support can do.
One of Unlock's first employees, she's now working at CCF, the very East Nashville shelter where she once washed her clothes.
"It's been 18 years of being homeless sleeping in cars, you know sleeping outside," Johnson explained. "I don't have to go to the homeless shelters. I don't have to go sleep at like nobody else's house. I can actually get tired, go lock my door and lay down. I just love my apartment so much."
Johnson's dreams don't end there.
"I'm getting my master's degree in child psychology. I may be 95 years old when I get it, but I plan on doing it," Johnson said.
"It's never over. You can do it."
"Gwen came in saying she wanted to do exactly this," Cook added, "and now she is. It's humbling to see her thrive and play a role in that."
To order jewelry or learn more about Unlocked, click here.