Jarret Schlaff is partnering with veterans to create a leather-goods brand — and rebuild Detroit
I met Jarret Schlaff at his business, which occupies a 100-year-old bank building in Detroit — a space he shares with a prosthetics company. Immediately upon entering, I was taken by the old-era-style work environment. There are sewing stations with people at them along the windows looking out at East Milwaukee Avenue. But the main feature of the space is a central work table that takes up the majority of the floor. It’s very active. Busy, collaborative, intertwined, and swirling — but so is Schlaff.
Schlaff has been in and around Detroit his entire life. He’s welcoming and energetic and talks quickly, intelligently, and enthusiastically about both his business and his community. I attempt to work Schlaff’s personal work history into the conversation, but before long he’s back to talking about Detroit and the needs of everyone around him. By the end, I realize that, for Schlaff, it’s all personal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: How old are you, and what’s your geographical history — how did you get here?
Jarret Schlaff: I’m 31. I was born in Pontiac, Michigan, about 35 to 40 minutes away. Lived in Pontiac and Waterford most of my life, moved around a bit — moved to Detroit in 2010. I’ve lived here ever since. I lived in different boroughs in Detroit, but for the most part within four miles from downtown.
I’m the co-founder and the CEO of a company called Pingree Detroit.
P-I-N-G-R double E. We named our company after a veteran, Hazen S. Pingree. He was a shoemaker, and back in the 1890s, he was a three-term mayor of Detroit who was a champion of well-being for the people. He was just rated the third most progressive mayor in all U.S. history because of the type of social reforms [he instituted] that had never been done before.
There was a huge famine back in that era—I think it was 1894—and Pingree opened up all these huge chunks of privately held land. He negotiated with the owners to open up their land for farming. So all these people started growing potatoes. They nicknamed him Potato Patch Pingree. Then he became the 24th governor of Michigan.
Pingree died an untimely death. People thought he would become president one day because of how popular he was. He was a man of the people who put the well-being of his constituents first—above corporate corruption, all the political stuff. He tried to rise above that and challenged corporate corruption and political corruption.
We also want to maximize well-being at Pingree, so we honored him by naming our company after him.
Is this a person everyone kind of grows up knowing about?
Not really. Some do. Some history books talk about him, but I didn’t know about Pingree until I was researching.
What did you study in college?
I studied public administration, public policy, business, and environmental studies. I have three degrees.
Three degrees? Does this business relate to all those degrees?
Definitely. I did not think I was going to be a boot maker. Out of school, I was convinced I was going to be a public servant. I just wanted to help people. After realizing how much constraint there is, I decided I wanted to be actively creating solutions I wanted to see.
So I got involved in some environmental justice work, climate justice work, and realized how big that problem is and how the solutions are actually localized. It happens in communities; it happens in creating local ideas and values of resilience that can then grow. But we also want to be open source in a lot of our processes. So, what works for us, solutions that are good for all of life and should be shared, not just owned and then sued for when someone else tries to use that idea.
How early in your life did you learn and cultivate those attributes?
I definitely give props to my parents. There’s a picture of me when I was four years old holding a sign protesting an incinerator that was being built in our community. My parents were active in speaking out against things that weren’t right. I grew up learning almost unconsciously that if something’s not right, you should say something. If there’s a problem, do something about it. Or find some people and get together and do something about it. I wasn’t really active in that until seventh grade, when I started a recycling program at my middle school. Because I was like, why are we throwing these pop bottles away? I’ve always tried to do something when I felt like I had the agency and when I felt I could.
This whole company started when I was speaking to a friend in my frustration. In the same week, back-to-back, I met two veterans who were homeless. One was my age, and one was no more than five, 10 years older than me. Both were just looking for opportunity, looking to create something. Such drive, such determination. They were surviving. They had no problem surviving. But there wasn’t access. There wasn’t the kind of tribe that they experienced when they were overseas. There wasn’t the close-knit support system. They didn’t know where to go.
So, I was complaining to a friend, saying, “Someone should do something about this.” And as soon as I said it out loud, something triggered in me. Where it’s like, shit, I need to do something. I’m not going to complain. If I feel like there’s any amount of effort that I can do for something, I’m going to try and create some type of solution. Or, I guess, connect people who will.
How did you choose leather goods?
When it started, I thought I could just do a fundraiser or something. At the time, I was in the Midwest, working as the director of a nonprofit called 350.org, mobilizing young people, doing leadership development training all across the Midwest. I loved what I did—building organizational capacity.
I didn’t think, “I’m going to create a business.” That wasn’t my path. A group of veterans and I got together and started exploring what these folks actually want and need. What are the needs? What are the gaps?
We spent some time sitting with veterans’ nonprofits and homeless shelters and speaking to veterans in these shelters. We asked, “What kind of work would make you just come alive and thrive? What would really make you feel good about work?” A lot of guys and women wanted to work with their hands. They wanted to be a part of a mission-driven environment again. They wanted to have a purpose. They wanted to make their neighborhoods better, make their communities better. These beautiful things that we all solve and strive for, and yet there wasn’t a means to them. Some people had jobs—they were working security, or they were punching numbers.
Where we’re at right now, where you’re sitting, is one block from a veterans’ shelter with 45 men. Veterans. In transition. We’re four blocks away from a veterans’ hospital and 150 veterans in subsidized housing. That’s where Glenda lives.
I would say easily 10 percent of those folks are ready to work, just looking for an opportunity. And you can’t find more deserving human beings who are driven, who would thrive in an environmental structure, than veterans.
How did the light go off about the specific product?
After I identified, okay, we want to create work, we want to create some type of manufacturing, I asked, what hasn’t been done in Detroit that we could do, or what could we do better than is currently being done? What would make that sustainable and add value to the neighborhood, the community, the environment? Just getting a temperature check on what’s being done, what are the needs. Neighborhoods and communities.
In sharing that commitment, an elder in my neighborhood said, “You know what, it sounds like you’re going to be the boots on the ground in Detroit.” And that’s when it’s like, boots. I got it.
So that was the moment, right there? When he said the word “boots,” it just sparked something for you?
I’d explored footwear; I’d explored 3D-printing footwear. At the time, the tech wasn’t there. It’s now getting closer. There are still some elements as far as scale and quality and longevity. It’s not quite there, but yeah.
I spent the next six to eight months seeing if there was any type of market entrance that made sense. Was this something we could actually employ people with? And what kind of model do we want to create? Do we want to create a nonprofit, or do we want to create a for-profit? We landed on an L3C [low-profit limited liability company], which is a social impact designation by the IRS that means we equally balance our social mission with profit. And so we kind of quadruple our social mission. So, it’s sustainability; it’s neighborhood resilience; it includes worker resilience; it’s also the resiliency of a company.
What was the investment, and how long did it take to get up and running?
We started this in 2015. January of 2015 was when we launched and incorporated. In the beginning, we did some crowdfunding. We had 167 individual donors, from $5 to $100. We got a few small grants—you know, $5,000, $2,000, $1,000. I put $15,000 of my own money into it. It was all the savings I had from my last two careers.
And then just small steps—really, creating the team we have now was the biggest hurdle. I didn’t know anything about manufacturing, let alone shoemaking. And every person I talked to said it’s impossible: “Told you it’s too hard. You can’t do it. Boots are too hard. There’s a reason we haven’t done boots in Detroit, Jarret. Don’t do it. You need $1 million-plus in capital to start.” We’ve done it for under $200,000.
The majority of equipment upstairs was donated by the auto industry. Some of the leather was donated; some of it we paid for. Some of the expertise that we literally couldn’t afford—relationships have been our main currency. People hear about our story, they hear what we’re about to create, and they’re like, “You know what, let me give you some legal support.”
Right now, our accountant, God bless his soul, he literally volunteers with us. We have a CPA who’s volunteering, doing the books with me every month to make sure we’re doing them the right way, that we’re keeping the level of professionalism we’re committed to creating.
We couldn’t do what we’re doing without community. Although I’m the only technical founder, I call myself a co-founder, because the company has been founded in the community.
Talk about Detroit. What has Detroit gone through, and what is this new kind of business model?
We see our business as community-supported production—meaning, what does it look like when our business is inextricably woven and intertwined with the community? How do you maximize the well-being of the worker, and the neighbor, and have them be a part of the design of your business? How can a neighborhood be more elastic?
In Detroit right now, even today, there are thousands of families getting their water shut off. Thousands—30,000 last year. Little babies who can’t brush their teeth because the water got shut off, because their parents were late on their taxes, and they couldn’t afford their taxes because the taxes are higher than places all over the county. When you’re surrounded by the world’s greatest source of fresh water and you’re still getting your water shut off in the United States because you need to pay back a bank, something is wrong there.
That’s not resiliency. That’s not community. To me, that’s not the United States of America that I believe in. My neighbor, three houses down from where I live, is 90 years old, and she got her water shut off. Owned her house her whole life. Her husband was a veteran, and yet here’s this 90-year-old woman getting her water cut off. So, you’ve got these systemic challenges. Are we prioritizing debt service to banks, who created the financial crisis that created instability in the first place?
There are a lot of reasons why Detroit became what it became. It went from this amazing industrialized city — Paris of the Midwest. We put the world on wheels. We were the arsenal of democracy. We were held as an example of what industry can do—here’s what we can create. But over time, things changed. For a variety of reasons, from redlining and segregation and intentional displacements to the globalization that we’re still experiencing, where they’re saying, “You know what, I can maximize my profit by paying cheap labor over here at the expense of the American worker and at the expense of the community and the neighborhood.”
In Detroit, what we’re experiencing now is a bit of a renaissance, where all these people see an opportunity to take all those problems and turn them into solutions. From pop-up coffee makers to folks who are creating apparel lines. People who are making coats for the homeless while employing folks who’ve overcome homelessness. Rebel Nell is taking graffiti that was literally peeling off the walls, falling the ground, and turning it into jewelry and employing single mothers and women coming out of domestic-abuse situations. Thirty-plus employees. So you’ve got these examples of this spirit of resilience.
More than anything, Detroit is a comeback story. Detroit is this amazing, unstoppable group of human beings who just won’t quit.
How do you scale?
Scaling, to us, comes from a couple different perspectives. One, it involves bringing in some machinery. The beautiful thing about our model is that in most manufacturing scenarios, you bring in automation and scale down your workforce. You lay people off and become more efficient, more profitable as a company.
Well, our model is to equally balance the well-being of our workers, the neighborhood, the community, and the bottom line of the company. But with us, because the workers are co-owners of the company, we have the ability to say, “You know what? We only have to work 20 hours a week now.” Same wage; same work getting done. Or we can say we’re gonna work 30, 35 hours. We’re gonna have five hours off, we’re gonna get a raise, and we’re gonna increase our output so we can provide more to more people because people are demanding what we’re creating. So we have the ability to do things a little differently, where with the current paradigm of globalization, consolidation, and mechanization, the trend is to lay people off in favor of computerization.
Well, if the workers own the company, they just do better. It actually adds value versus fighting against.
How does it work? When you hire someone, do you make them an owner?
No matter where someone’s at when they come to us—a lot of folks are overcoming some challenges, some are amazing leaders from the get-go—we use entrepreneurship as a means of social uplift and to create the results you’re gonna see in our neighborhood.
As soon as someone starts with us and becomes a full-time employee, after one year of getting leadership development training, of learning everything from governance to how Pingree does what we do, embracing the culture, the owners get together and we decide, “Do you wanna invite this person on as a co-owner as well?” And then we invite them on and they become a co-owner. They are more involved in decision-making. They are more involved in profit-sharing.
For every dollar that comes into Pingree, 77 cents is shared with the workers and 14 cents is shared with the investors. After a decade, the company can buy those shares back. It’s a model that really invites participation and innovation and maximizes well-being.
What are your days like now?
I don’t know if this makes sense or not, but I’m the one unpaid employee right now, which means that I don’t pay myself. I make my money bartending, which at the moment is necessary. We don’t have sales yet to justify the current size of our team. But we need the current-size team to ramp up, to build what we’re about to create.
On Saturdays, I’ve been working 21-hour days, where I work at Easter Market from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then I work another market from 5:30 p.m. to about midnight. That’s my Saturday. Then, Monday through Sunday, I’m doing Pingree. Some days I’ll take some time to rest. I used to get a half-day on Sunday, but I do a mix of partnership developments, all the finances, sourcing, research. A lot of emails. I’m on spreadsheets, doing projections and updating and looking at sales, looking at new markets.
Since 2007, the U.S. economy has been in recovery mode, but it would seem we’re on the upswing. Are you feeling any of that?
I feel that our current economy leaves too many people behind. There’s a large portion of folks that want to contribute, that want to work, but can’t find the opportunity. So, I think there is definitely a crisis of values in our country.
We live in a system right now that is growing at all costs, just to grow. It’s not growing to maximize well-being. GDP doesn’t measure progress. It only measures growth. Exploitation is celebrated in that model. That doesn’t work for me. I want to be a part of creating a paradigm shift that leads us toward an economy that maximizes well-being.