Wow, what a really great episode on a social enterprise called Genusee. Creatively designing eyewear out of recycled single-use plastic water bottles out of Flint, Michigan. Many of you may have heard some tough stories coming out of Flint. Specific to the water crisis over these past few years. You will meet the founders and designers, Ali Rose Van Overbeke and Jack Burns. They will discuss their journey in Flint and the whole launch process to date.
For the full transcript click below
Welcome to episode 97 of the Bonfires of Social Enterprise. This is Romy, and I am your host for this episode on a really great social enterprise called Genusee. They are out of Flint, Michigan. Many of you may have heard some tough stories coming out of Flint, Michigan specific to the water crisis over these past few years. You will meet the founders and designers, Ali Rose Van Overbeke and Jack Burns. They discuss their journey in Flint and the whole launch process to date.
Oh, it feels good to be back after a mini-hiatus. Thanks for hanging in there while we made some new shows!
By the way, we have some great episodes coming up next from the east and west coasts culminating with a finale for Season 3 and our episode 100 which will be some interviews from the recent GUS awards held in Detroit.
So subscribe and stay tuned.
Now, let’s see what Natalie has in store for us on the Fun Fuel. What do you have for us, Natalie?
I’m Natalie Hazen and I am bringing you this episode’s Fun Fuel.
In today’s world, you see so many people wearing eyeglasses and on a super bright sunny day they most certainly break out their sunglasses. Glasses have become ultra-fashionable and why shouldn’t they? They most certainly are the very first thing people see when they look at your face unless they aren’t wearing theirs and they just can’t see you.
According to the website lenspick.com, the first vision correction device was invented in 1000 AD and called a reading stone. As you can imagine, it was for farsighted folk who couldn’t read properly and was basically a glass sphere used as a magnifying glass.
Now fast forward to 12th century China and you have the creation of Sunglasses. People back then used flat crystals of smoky quartz that were mounted for personal use to reduce the glare from the sun.
It is also said that these ‘sunglasses’ were used by judges while presiding cases, so as not to give away their emotions. Very interesting.
So, throughout history, mankind has made some very unique and purposeful inventions, including eyeglasses, that truly make our lives easier.
Thanks for listening and now on to the episode.
Fascinating that the first pair of eyeglasses was documented to be in 1000 AD. Thank you, Natalie, your fun fuels are always so interesting!
Let’s jump on in for a listen now to my conversation with Ali Rose Van Overbeke and Jack Burns and their really great company, Genusee.
Romy: So let’s tell the listeners about Genusee.
Ali Rose: So Genusee is making eyewear in Flint, Michigan from recycled single-use plastic water bottles that were a result of the Flint water crisis.
Romy: So is it just the eyeglass frames, or are you putting the lenses in and all that?
Ali Rose: Yeah, we’re doing everything. The frames are specifically what’s made from the recycled water bottles, but we are working with an optical lab, so we do prescription eyeglasses as well as sunglasses.
Romy: So how did you make this connection, or even have this idea?
Ali Rose: Yeah, so Jack and I both went to Parsons together, and worked in a fellowship shortly after graduation, where we kind of learned that we were good working as collaborators. Then in early 2016, I was back in Michigan, I grew up in metro Detroit area. I was volunteering with the Red Cross during the Flint water crisis. Just observing how much plastic, we were delivering cases and cases of bottled water door to door every day, and was kind of just shocked by what was happening, and the need in my own backyard. It was just … Jack and I are good friends, and it was just started as a super casual conversation of, “This is what’s happening in Flint. What can we do with the plastic?” Really just wanting to do something to support the community. Started just asking people in the community specifically like, “What do you need? What does Flint need?” And everyone kept telling us, “Jobs.” So we knew this wasn’t just going to be a charity, or an NGO, or an art project. We needed to figure out how to start a business that could actually scale, and bring living wage jobs to the city.
Romy: Oh, and so how did you begin even to navigate the process of where you were going to get the bottles? Where did you even start?
Jack Burns: So we started off looking … Generally, just asking questions, and digging down this rabbit hole further and further to find out where the plastic was going, and what it was becoming, and finding out that there was just this surplus of plastic. Then really sort of hacking the system, and trying to figure out what we wanted to make from this plastic, and what was capable. It turns out you can make … PET is the same thing as polyester; it’s a highly flexible material. So we really had a broad range of things that we could make with this plastic, but we really wanted to make something that was a product of purpose, and a product of need. We found that, with our unique design backgrounds that we … That eyewear really fit the bill for what we wanted to make because it’s both a medical device and a fashion product as well.
Romy: Yeah, and so are you guys designing the frames yourselves?
Ali Rose: Yes.
Romy: Okay, wow that’s fun. That’s really fun. How do you test that? How have you been prototyping your design?
Ali Rose: I’ll let Jack continue with this.
Jack Burns: Yeah, I actually just got out of a meeting during this right now, so.
Jack Burns: So what we do … How we started off, you know we were very much on a shoestring budget, early on. We invested a lot of time into this, rather than funds in the earlier stages. We’re still knee deep in time, but now we have a little bit more funding, so we can allocate that towards prototyping a little bit further. When we first began, we started off just like taking photos of friends, and drawing on top of them, and seeing what sort of face shapes, what sort of shapes worked best with face shapes. So what frames worked best in that regard. Then we laser cut heavyweight paper mockups that we could hold up to our friends’ faces, photograph, see what works best. So really trying to find these democratic shapes that could fit anyone and everyone. Then we received some grant funding, and we allocated that funding towards creating 3D printed prototypes. So we’ve been 3D printing to really flesh out the nuances of the design, and how that fits on the face, and the ergonomics of it all. That’s really where the progression of prototyping and design has led us to today.
Romy: That’s amazing, I love it.
Ali Rose: Jack touched on it, but we really set out with wanting to create something that was democratically designed, because we were going to launch with … We knew we only really had the funding to be able to launch with one style, and we wanted to also … I think customers are so overwhelmed by choice often that it’s a bit debilitating. And creating, streamlining, the choice for the customer, and creating a really classic, democratically designed frame that would work as both prescription optical, but as well as sunglasses, and really working from what the median range of measurements of the face are. To be really particular about the design and the shape, so that it could fit as many people as possible.
Romy: Yeah I love it. It’s so true. We’re overloaded with choices. Even as simple [inaudible] here…especially when people are drawn to a social mission behind a product. They’re already kind of excited, and they’re likely to do it. It’s just easier to narrow it down. How has the local community so far there in Flint, responded so far to what you’re doing there?
Ali Rose: So we started … Obviously, this started really through working with the community when I was getting involved with the Red Cross, and started building really early relationships just through other people that I’d been volunteering with who grew up in the city, and are really ingrained in the culture there. For the past two years, our focus has really been building more community relationships. That’s been one of the most important parts of what we’re doing. We’re working with the Community Foundation in Flint. MADE Institute, which is where we’re doing our hiring through. So MADE Institute works with individuals who are structurally unemployable, those who are displaced workers, and returning citizens, so people who are coming out of incarceration. They’re doing really amazing work, and that’s who we’re going to be partnering with to hire our first employees. We’re working with St. Luke’s New Life Center, which is where our polishing bags are going to be made. Everyone that we have been building these relationships with has been really supportive, really excited, very welcoming.
Ali Rose: You know there has been some community members, who rightfully so, have been very skeptical of neither Jack or I are from Flint. I’m from Michigan, but I don’t have long-term roots in Flint, and the city has been extremely taken advantage of … through the water crisis. There’s a lot of distrust, and there has been some individuals who have been a bit skeptical, but you know it’s all about engaging in conversations. We’re extremely open to sharing our process, and our plans, and what our supply chain is, and the immediate, and what the long-term goals are. We’re mission-driven, and the whole point of the business is to be able to give back to Flint. It’s really important that we are listening, and engaging in conversation with the community, and doing what’s good for everyone.
Romy: Yeah. I love what you’re doing. In my opinion, partnerships are fun. When you’re really are able to get in relationships, it’s fun to be part of a team. Sometimes when you’re doing your own thing in social enterprise, it is really difficult to do it and do it well. Honor both your mission and your business, because sometimes they conflict. In terms of profit, sometimes you’re going to spend some extra, because of your mission, or … Which is just the nature of it? So it feels good to get into partnership with other organizations because you can feel part of a team. Which I think is really important for all of us out here.
Ali Rose: And Flint’s so rich in art. The entrepreneur community there is really growing, and we’ve really started building relations with a lot of the other businesses and artisans down there. There’s Article One Eyewear, GoodBoy Clothes, Sutorial … Tim at Sutorial makes handmade leather boots. It’s encouraging not just to be partnering with other organizations, but other makers in the city who’ve been there forever, and are really rooted.
Romy: Yeah, I’m glad you started to talk about Flint. I’m only there about once a week, but I absolutely love Flint. For many of the listeners, they may be somewhere around the globe, and all they may have heard about Flint is maybe some negative news or watched a negative Netflix show about it. Could you speak to your view of the people of Flint, and what your experience is, at kind of a higher level?
Ali Rose: Yeah. Flint is, first and foremost, the people in Flint are some of the hardest working, most resilient people, I’ve ever met. That’s I think one of the main reasons that I was really attracted to wanting to not just start a business there, but live there, and move there as well. Media loves a good story, and a lot of times, sadly, somehow that becomes a negative story because there’s more drama in it. I don’t know. I see … Media did this with Detroit for a really long time. Just always focusing on the blight, and the negativity, and the crime. Now Detroit’s a global brand, and I’m not to compare Flint to Detroit at all, but just how the media recently has been so focused on the negative things that are happening in Flint. I think there also needs to be the same amount of attention to the positive things that are happening, and because the city has really, truly been kind of abandoned by the government, in being able to help them through the water crisis. You’ve seen a lot of local organizations, and local individuals, really step up to the plate. It’s been the people in Flint who have really been the ones leading the way, though not just the water crisis, but the last couple of decades as well.
Romy: Right. This has been going on a long time. The people of Flint are so resilient; it’s extraordinary. Well, thanks for speaking to that, and just for many of our listeners who … Just to orient, Flint, Michigan is approximately 70 miles or just over about 110 kilometers north of Detroit. Just to anchor some of our listeners. Let’s zoom you out even further. You’ve had a lot of press, and had opportunities to be in some amazing publications. Let’s talk about this because you’ve really gotten the attention at a national level.
Jack Burns: Yeah, we’ve been really fortunate. It has not come without hard work. It’s really just been contacting people, friends of friends. So much of it is just networking, in order to talk about the story, and then it really has had a bit of a snowball effect. Which is then great. We only want to continue that, and to … fulfill on all of what we’ve been talking about and putting forward. We’re really excited for all of the press and attention. Although our real mission, and why we do what we do, is really human focused, and focused on the benefit of the planet as well, so. While the stories are great, and the exposure is great, really the thing that we really want to do is make a difference, so.
Ali Rose: And you know-
Romy: Right. Of course, yep. But it helps to get exposure because it gets more customers. So it does, right?
Jack Burns: Yeah, yeah. And we can make a larger difference. Yeah, exactly.
Ali Rose: We’ve been … the one fortunate thing about the fact that Jack and I both went to Parsons, and have lived in New York, and … Jacks currently in New York, and I’ve just transitioned back to Michigan is, we’ve made so many amazing connections in press and media, and the creative world in New York. Obviously, there’s the recent press that we have received. We’ve really been able to capitalize on those relationships that we’ve built in New York. What’s exciting about that is being able to … I think a lot of times press can be kind of … Media attention can be kind of siloed and being able to bring those connections with us to Michigan, and to Flint. Sharing … Bringing more attention to even other businesses, and the other positive things that are happening in the city, I think, is been one of the really exciting things for us. Just kind of creating a bridge between the creative relationships we have in New York and bringing those to Flint as well.
Romy: Yeah. Awesome, yeah. Relationships and connections, it all helps, and it’s really is a smaller world at the end of the day than what it seems. So, it’s all about people’s trust in us, and how we deliver, and execute on that. Let’s kind of go back down to your business. You guys, along your development and funding stream, you were able to launch a very successful Kickstarter campaign. For those of you who might want to look up their website, you’ll be able to see … The campaign is still on your website right? The video link. Was that true, or?
Ali Rose: Right now our website links to … so the Kickstarter ended about a month ago, but we’re still taking pre-orders through Indiegogo. So there’s a link right now on our website, it says, “Buy Now” and it’ll link you to the Indiegogo. Which has a lot of the same content in the videos from the Kickstarter.
Romy: Okay. It’s really good. I’d encourage all the listeners to get on there. It’s genusee.com. It’s G-E-N-U-S, like Sam. E-E.com. Yeah, so get on, and check this out. What’s the plans, and what is the stage of business that you’re in right now? You’ve come of this Kickstarter. You’re in the design mode and getting partners. What is the phase that you’re in, right at this moment?
Ali Rose: Getting our manufacturing up and running. We did a Kickstarter because we needed the funding specifically to fund this first initial production run. Now that that’s been successful we’ve … Jacks been working on finalizing all of the design details of our frame, so it’s perfect when we ship it out. Then we’re going into our tooling, and our molds will be made. We’ll be hiring our first employees either late July or early August to start manufacturing and assembling the frames.
Romy: And do you see, Ali and Jack, that that’ll probably be your primary types of roles there at your business? Assembly and manufacturing roles for jobs?
Ali Rose: Starting out, the first employees that we will be hiring, the focus will be on assembly, manufacturing, logistics, but the more the business grows, and the more glasses were able to sell, we’re going to be able to hire more employees. It’s been really important for us to not just create one kind of job, or just manufacturing jobs in Flint, but to be able to create diverse jobs. There’s people with different kinds of interests and skills, so being able to create creative jobs, even in marketing, and social media and design is really important for us.
Romy: Yeah. That’s fantastic. So do you guys let yourselves dream really, really big? With what you know right now, what could this look like, someday?
Ali Rose: Jack, do you want to …
Jack Burns: What could this look like someday … I mean it’s … So yes, we are making glasses now, and I definitely perceive this being a fully integrated facility where we can manufacture, do the injection molding, do all the post-processing. Have customer service, have people working on all levels, and … with positions that have real growth potential to them. Then slowly branching out into other product spaces. Things where we can really upcycle single-use materials into products that have a much longer lifespan. That’s really our aim behind a lot of what we’re doing, is this single-use lifestyle just is not sustainable. So how can we leverage our knowledge of materials, and design to elevate these products, and these materials to a place that is almost endless or is endless? The product that can live and be with people and integrate themselves into everyday life. Then hopefully people will begin to really shift ideals in to, why are we using these materials that last forever in a single use platform. It just doesn’t make sense. Slowly shifting away from this single-use lifestyle, and more towards upcycling.
Ali Rose: We’ll be the largest global upcycle of single-use plastic.
Romy: Yeah, there you go. That’s fantastic. Did you guys kind of land on this single use upcycling, because I liked the way you phrased that, that’s very clear to what it is? When did you kind of learn about that concept, or when did it occur to you that it was … it had such magnitude for us on our planet?
Ali Rose: I think for us, it really did … Jack and I have both been really interested in sustainability through our time at Parsons and that part of the curriculum. The overall focus at Parsons as well in your education is really just thinking not just about designing stuff but designing products of purpose. That have integrity and thinking about not just product design, but systems design, everything in the system. I think it was kind of a natural progression from the education that we had received, and both of kind of our personal interests, and lifestyles, and just moving into … Launching Genusee, and seeing the surplus of plastic really localized in Flint, that the city’s been forced to use because of the water crisis. Seeing the fact that not anything was being done with it.
Ali Rose: It’s not just a Flint problem, it’s a global problem. You’re seeing a lot of talk around ocean plastics, and there’s a lot of amazing work that’s being done there. Single-use plastic, and most garbage, often does end up in our water system, and then filtering into the ocean.
Ali Rose: We knew we wanted to design a circular economy product in business, and for us, that kind of meant that we needed to think … not just of where the material supply was coming from, but single-use plastic was designed to last forever. We use it in a lot of single-use products now. So how do you take something that was disposable, and doesn’t have a lot of integrity, and repurpose, and upcycle that material into products that we use much longer? Like when you think of eyeglasses, usually you invest a bit of money in your glasses. It’s something that you have to wear in your daily … You treat that product with a bit more respect and integrity, and you usually wear them for at least one to two years. Sometimes longer, so it’s thinking about, how do we turn water bottles into these objects that we kind of show a bit more love to, and use for longer.
Romy: Yeah. Well, this has been so awesome. We’d love to stay in touch with you, and do follow-up episodes on your journey. If you’re open to that?
Ali Rose: Absolutely.
Jack Burns: Yeah. Totally.
Romy: We’ve got some amazing, loyal listeners out there who like to keep up with the entrepreneurs and hear their story as they’re moving along. It’s encouraging for all of us. So why don’t we just take a run through, and give the listeners your social media? So they can look up … Let’s give them your website again, and any other place they might be able to find you.
Ali Rose: Yeah. Our website is genusee.com. G-E-N-U-S-E-E.com. You can find us on Instagram @Genusee_official. We’re on Twitter at Genusee_tweets, and that’s it, right.
Jack Burns: We’re on LinkedIn.
Ali Rose: Yes.
Jack Burns: Yeah, so.
Romy: Okay. Well, good. That’s great. Well thanks again, you guys.
Jack Burns: All right. Thank you.
Ali Rose: Thank you. Oh, and our Facebook too, sorry. Facebook/Genusee.
Romy: Okay, perfect.
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