Obion County’s unemployment rate has hovered around 12 percent this year, extending persistent high unemployment since Goodyear closed its Union City Plant in 2011. One woman in the small town of Troy is trying to make a dent in that number while giving new life to her products and a new perspective to her employees.
Downtown Troy sits less than 10 miles south of Union City. A handful of shops sit on Westbrook Street, including a hardware store, bakery, fitness center and OutsideIN.
Inside three women are busy stitching at sewing machines and slicing apart old t-shirts making new clothes out of the discarded items. Meanwhile, owner LeEllen Smith welcomes customers and volunteers wearing a new t-shirt emblazoned with the shop’s name.
Smith started this small clothing line in response to the high unemployment rates in Obion County that have been well above the national average since Union City’s Goodyear Tire plant closed in 2011.
Smith aims to provide employment for women who adequate education, live with disabilities or struggle with an addiction.
“When the job market is all of a sudden flooded with very capable skilled responsible employees, then the people whose skills are not as good like the target population I had already felt the need to work with have to compete with those folks for jobs,” she says. “ Then their situation becomes very drastic and very dire all of a sudden.”
Meredith Brown is OutsideIN's longest serving employee. The tall, blue-eyed blonde had another career before coming to the non-profit.
“I have been with LeEllen since Day 2,” Brown says. “ I can’t say Day 1 because Day 1 is the day she had the idea, but Day 2, I’ve been here ever since.”
But like many of the women working here, she did not want to explain what led her to this job.
In starting the non-profit, Smith wanted to create an environment that gave people not only a new job, but also the skills for future jobs. All of OutsideIN’s employees just finished a workbook on skills that help them be successful in the workplace like accepting and dealing with mistakes. Smith also sets some of her own guidelines for her employees.
“You don’t use four letters words and those kind of things,” she says.
While Smith outlines the basics of working for OutsideIN, the employees cut t-shirts into pieces and turn them into dresses, skirts and tunics. Smith says the idea is to take rags most see as worthless, and turn them into new clothing and accessories.
“If we get a shirt in that has a few problems, and we all have problems so we understand problems. We take those and we give them a little extra TLC in the form of a tie-dying treatment or a reverse dying treatment,” Smith says. “ It’s a little bit of a metaphor for what we do because we take something that’s not perfect and had a little bit of brokenness to it and make something really neat out of it.”
Each piece of clothing runs at about $50, but everything at OutsideIN comes in pairs. The wear one share one policy means that every person who buys a piece of clothing chooses a second piece for free to give to someone else like a friend, sister or cousin.
Smith is making almost enough money through sales to break even, which is about $2,500 a month. The rest of her income for wages and overhead comes from donations and grants.
One such grant from the Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneur Center paid Smith’s workers’ first wages after she participated in a six-week entrepreneur workshop. But, Smith doesn’t consider herself an entrepreneur.
“I’d rather call myself a momtrepreneur, because that’s really what I am,” she says.
Smith has four children, three adult sons and an adopted 12 year old girl from China. Her daughter is often the model in many of the shop’s photos.
OutsideIN’s workers stand around a makeshift cutting table that was actually made for ping-pong. Employee Jessica Lyon stands at the corner of the table slicing t-shirts around a plastic pattern template.
Before working at OutsideIN, she lived with her grandfather and did odd jobs. After just a few months at the clothing shop, Lyon says it doesn’t feel like work.
“It’s like a time for fun and enjoyment with others and really getting to know everybody,” Lyon says. “It’s like something I don’t dread doing. It’s a part of who I am now.”
While Lyon cuts up t-shirts, a mother and her two daughters visiting Troy from Chicago stopped in to pick up clothing they ordered earlier that week. The family left after saying the shop might soon have a box of old t-shirts straight from the Windy City.