Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know.
Caitlin Adler is the Founder and CEO of Project Ropa, a Los Angeles based non-profit social enterprise that hires the homeless to help the homeless. Caitlin has a background in user experience design and worked in the hospitality industry for over ten years.
Started in 2015, Project Ropa takes to the streets of Los Angeles each week to restore dignity and rekindle optimism by providing clothing, shoes and hygiene products to people experiencing homelessness. Our social enterprise employs people transitioning out of homelessness to hand-paint and upcycle premium and designer women’s clothing, all proceeds directly benefit our non-profit.
Project Ropa is disrupting the cycle of homelessness and poverty by creating sustainable living wage jobs to people experiencing homelessness and by providing wraparound services through partnerships that help employees find stable housing, affordable transportation, discounted daycare and offering scholarships to employees for continuing education.
By providing employment, on-the-job training, and life skills, Project Ropa is ensuring that the homeless individuals employed by Project Ropa can break free from the perpetual cycle of poverty and become self-sufficient, productive members of society.
Where did the idea for Project Ropa come from?
I started Project Ropa because I saw a need. Before Project Ropa the only way people experiencing homelessness could get free clothing was by going to a shelter or an organization. The problem with that was the restrictions that came along with that. It varies per organization, but some don’t allow animals inside, some are men only, some women only, and for many the hours and days are limited. These restrictions along with quality and selection that is sub-par make getting clothing quite a difficult task. With Project Ropa, we bring the clothing directly to people on the streets experiencing homelessness, offering them good quality clothing and plenty of options.
Clean clothes and hygiene products significantly impact a person’s economic well-being, physical health, and emotional resilience. Without these basic necessities, it is virtually impossible for someone to get off the street and get a job. In 2016, I began taking to the streets of Los Angeles each week in partnership with Lava Mae, a mobile shower organization, to help restore dignity, rekindle optimism and remove these barriers by providing clean clothes and other basic necessities to individuals experiencing homelessness.
But rather than simply handing out clothing, I wanted to make a greater impact on the fight to end homelessness. One day last year while out in Venice Beach I noticed a homeless man wearing a beautiful pair of painted jeans. After speaking with him about them, I learned that he had painted them himself. It was then that I came up with the idea of employing people transitioning out of homelessness to do the same thing; upcycling gently used and donated vintage and designer clothing. We provide men and women transitioning out of homelessness a living wage to produce the garments, providing them the opportunity to become self-sufficient productive members of society.
All of the proceeds from the sale of the upcycled clothing goes directly back into the non-profit which allows us to go out of the streets of Los Angeles each week to provide clothing, shoes and hygiene products to people experiencing homelessness.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I wake up at 6 am, check my inbox and then engage and post on our Instagram accounts, @project_ropa, and @shopprojectropa. Once that’s done, I try and go to the gym and then spend the rest of my day working on community outreach, grant applications or visiting various partners to collect or drop off clothing donations. I normally end the day by spending a few hours in our distribution center sorting donations and setting up for our next mobile outreach pop-up.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I come up with a lot of ideas, but I rely heavily on the advice of my team to filter through them. This helps me focus on those ideas that matter most and will have the most impact.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited that people are becoming more aware of “conscious fashion” and “zero-waste fashion” which prioritizes used, up-cycled, and recycled materials while minimizing waste in the production process. The younger generations are making it a point to support brands that are making a social impact and are transparent about the working conditions and salaries they pay their employees.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I like to section out my day into timeblocks. Every day, for each block, I like to focus on one very specific task and ignore everything else. This allows me to get more things started and completed each day.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Two things. 1) Don’t go into business with someone you have a personal relationship with, and 2) failure is sometimes a good thing.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Most people would rather complain about a problem than attempt to fix the issue. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. Complaining doesn’t solve problems, effort solves problems.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I like to constantly brainstorm and think of ways to improve on an idea. I often find that some of the best solutions or ideas simply come from just asking others their opinion on a matter.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. When I started Project Ropa I had no experience working in the nonprofit sector. I spent most of my professional life working in the hospitality industry as a pastry cook where you had to be quick on your feet and were constantly putting out fires literally and figuratively. No two days were ever alike and in order to survive in the kitchen, you had to be creative and not afraid to take risks. The same can be said for being an entrepreneur.
Being an outsider has allowed me to think about and create solutions that are bold and impactful. When I first came up with the idea, I created a website for what my vision for Project Ropa was. Shortly thereafter multiple local organizations started reaching out to me asking to have Project Ropa provide our services to their clients, including Lava Mae. That’s how we started, and we now work with a dozen organizations and companies. We have been able to leverage our partnerships to get press coverage which has helped us secure fundraising.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Being stubborn and trying to do everything myself. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Scaling a business means having faith in your team. Talk to people who have experience in your industry who have successfully grown their organizations.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
An online B2B platform for local organizations to communicate about their current needs; such as a shortage of particular clothing items; clients who are looking for jobs; volunteer needs.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
A year subscription to Spotify so I always have music and podcasts to listen to while I’m working and for when I need to take a break.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use Trello to stay organized and on top of my to-do list. I find satisfaction every time I get to mark a card as done.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Tattoos on the Heart by Homeboy Industries founder, Gregory Boyle. It’s a beautifully written book with moving examples of the power of unconditional love and that no life is less valuable than another.
What is your favorite quote?
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt
– Innovate and adapt and don’t be afraid to take risks
– Nothing happens overnight, you have to be patient and persistent to achieve your goals
– Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.