UNLOCKED – BY: ALEXIS COOK @unlockednashville
Have you ever had a moment that completely changed the trajectory of your life? One that threw out all your plans and put you on a new path? Mine came in the summer of 2016. I had just come back from an internship in Madrid and was gearing up for my junior year at Vanderbilt. When I felt like the world was at my fingertips, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease and watched it all slip away. My social life, academics, athletic endeavors, leadership roles, and organizational involvement. Gone. Forced to take a medical leave of absence, I felt called to use my newfound free time to wander the streets of downtown Nashville, my hometown, to befriend people experiencing homelessness. Although I was a longtime volunteer at local nonprofits, I was interested in meeting others outside of formal organizations. Person to person. The ensuing conversations and friendships convinced me of the need to expand employment opportunities specifically for the unhoused and impoverished.
One night during my medical leave, I went to visit friends at Vanderbilt and lost my car keys. An old friend, Corbin, happened to walk by as I sat patiently on the curb, waiting for a spare key. Over the next hour, we began brainstorming ways to provide employment opportunities for those in need, eventually landing on handmade jewelry as a manifestation of our belief that everyone can add beauty into the world. When I returned to school in the spring, Corbin and I entered and won a business pitch contest, giving us a little bit of start-up money and a lot of confidence.
Beginning to consider the unnamed company as a post-grad option, I occasionally bounced ideas off one of my best friends, Ray, whom I had met a few years back while volunteering at a local transitional home. He had been homeless for decades before moving into the complex, and we formed a quasi-grandfather-granddaughter relationship over the years. Diagnosed with cancer when I was diagnosed with Lyme, Ray named me his Power of Attorney, and I began transferring him between appointments and live-in clinics. One evening that spring, Ray called and simply blurted, “I’m dying. You need to come to the hospital.” He was never one to mince words. Hours later, I found myself perched beside Ray’s hospital bed, listening to him reflect on his life. When I got up to leave, Ray leaned in closer and quite matter-of-factly stated, “Alexis, I have a storage unit. And in this storage unit, I have a duffle bag of money. I want you to have it when I pass.” Although the revelation was shocking, I had always trusted Ray, so I simply believed one of the most absurd things I’d ever heard. A few months after Ray passed, Corbin and I cleaned out his storage unit and invested the cash in our budding company, making Ray the sole investor. We decided to name the company “Unlocked” as a tribute to 1) unlocking wages and opportunities for people transitioning out of homelessness 2) unlocking meaningful dialogue and gorgeous designs for our customers 3) unlocking Ray’s storage unit. I will forever be thankful for Ray. His steadfast wisdom and humor changed my life, and he continues to influence those he’ll never even meet through his legacy at Unlocked.
After graduating Vanderbilt this past year, Corbin and I began working full-time for Unlocked, and we have been blown away by our rapid growth and community support (including Molly Green!!). Over time, we’ve been able to expand our products and services to include living wages, job training, self-esteem, and wrap-around services like housing, career counseling, and financial training through our nonprofit partners. Our Makers express pride in their work and joy in the community we cultivate. Connecting our customers to our team, each product is handcrafted and includes a signature and bio of the Maker. With every purchase, we invite others to empower our neighbors and help us build a more inclusive, beautiful community.
The past few years have been a whirlwind, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. My experiences through Unlocked have taught me that life often has plans you could never imagine. That people are mostly good. That relationships matter, stories matter, kindness matters. That the world is brimming with possibilities when we have the chance to think beyond our immediate plans and desires. Although I often felt like Lyme Disease was stripping me of my identity and my future, I have since found that it gave me the freedom and confidence to explore my deepest passions, and for that I’m thankful. Ironically, some of the most debilitating times of my life led to a company that strengthens everyone it touches. I still miss Ray, but his memory inspires me to follow his example and live of a life of creativity, laughter, and empathy. I know he’d be proud.
PS- I still wander downtown Nashville and befriend those I meet! You can get a weekly story and photo by signing up for our newsletter here.