He thought it was funny to get an 8-year-old high. Her story changed my life.
Now I’m in the business of giving second chances.
I thought people who struggled with addiction were just irresponsible. They were people making poor choices and wasting their potential. I never thought about the catalyst for substance abuse — that people start using drugs and alcohol because something bad happened to them.
I always believed that it was my hard work and tenacity, along with a bit of blessing and a little luck that made me successful in my career. I never considered that my privilege as the eldest child from a white, stable, economically-sound home also contributed to my professional success. And there was one other thing. My dad’s belief in me. Without any fanfare, he simply expected that I dream big and aim high. And that’s just what I did. I became an engineer and then a corporate executive by the time I was thirty-five.
I spent 16 years charging up the traditional corporate ladder until I had an unusually empty Tuesday evening on my calendar. That night, I attended a women’s event at my church and heard a woman in a recovery program share her story of addiction. As a child in a single-parent home, she was caring for her ailing mother when her 15-year-old neighbor thought it would be funny to see her high. She was just 8 years old.
Emily wound up homeless and most of the time high. She says her lowest point was sitting on a bench outside of a grocery store, in a downpour, with no place else to go. Nobody would even look at her. Here’s the truth: I wouldn’t have either.
A Shift in Perspective
Emily’s story changed my mind and, as it turns out, my life. Two years after hearing it, I left my career and founded Unshattered, a 501c3 nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to employing women in recovery and ending the addiction relapse cycle.
At Unshattered, our mission is to provide pathways for women in recovery so that they can maintain their sobriety and achieve economic independence. We’re celebrating the amazing work our employees are doing and their decision to wake up each morning and choose sobriety.
The staff at Unshattered make gorgeous premium handbags and accessories (including products for men) from post-production, reclaimed materials. Those handbags are a direct reflection of our employees’ lives — discarded and purposeless, and remade into something beautiful and full of purpose. We include three secrets in each bag — one of which is a gold seam. This seam is our nod to the Japanese art form of Kintsugi. In this process, gold lacquer was used to heal broken pottery. The term “Kintsugi” means more beautiful for having been broken. That’s what we believe about our team, too. It’s their experiences of brokenness that have made them stronger.
The Best Employees
September is National Recovery Month — something I would have scoffed at had I considered it a few years ago. Celebrating recovery? Better to have never used in the first place. But I‘ve learned a few things since then. My team has taught me that drugs and alcohol were not the initial problem. They served as a solution to a problem. That problem, most often, was unbearable pain that they were desperate to numb. Sometimes, the drugs were provided to these women by a trusted authority as a tactic of abuse or perverse declaration of love, making it even harder for them to stop using.
Here’s what else I learned.
- 9.1% of the US population has resolved an alcohol or other drug problem according to the Recovery Research Institute.(1) That means you and I know more people in recovery than we would have ever dreamed. There’s nearly a one in ten chance that statistic includes you.
- Through my 16 years in a Fortune 20 company, I worked with some of the world’s most intelligent and influential people. But I’ve never worked with a more amazing group than the women in recovery that I work with now. Being in active addiction is hard. To survive this, you must be tenacious, creative, and strategic. Those skills can be harnessed for incredible workplace impact. That work ethic, when channeled in the right direction, makes for one incredible employee.
- Hiring people in recovery makes economic sense — for business and for the community. Hiring someone in recovery saves a business nearly $10,000 in the first year. The National Safety Council reports that employees in recovery miss 13.7 fewer days of work per year than their peers according to the National Safety Council.(2) According to former Surgeon General Dr. Adams, “The rhythm and community of work is so important to people in recovery that they are rarely absent.” Recently one of our employees cried on the way home from vacation. Not because she was sad that it was over, but because she was so glad to get back to her community of peers at work. As we solve the addiction relapse cycle that is so common, we can conservatively demonstrate a positive economic contribution to the community of nearly $150,000 annually for every woman we employ. In addition to the financial impact, it is reported that people in recovery are twice as likely to serve their community as a volunteer than their peers.
People coming out of recovery programs often lack the skills and resources to maintain the sobriety they worked so hard to achieve. Job readiness typically isn’t the main issue for women in recovery. Instead, it’s their inability to move out of the communities where their addiction began. Without money for an apartment or transportation, many women leave their recovery programs only to end up right back where they started.
The addiction relapse cycle is real and deadly. Relapsing is common due to a lack of non-destructive support systems. Even with the desire and determination to remain sober, the relapse rates are devastating. For opioid users, they are estimated as high as 91%.(3)
But Unshattered is proving that this doesn’t have to be the case. In June of 2021, we celebrated 5 years of employing women in recovery and we’ve had ZERO relapses for our employees. One hundred percent of our team has been able to move out of transitional housing and into independent living within 12 months of employment.
Unshattered provides second-chance employment opportunities for women who have experienced addiction and come out the other side. Gainful employment is a critical factor in enabling women to remove themselves from dangerous or risky environments. By providing employment and job skills training in a community of like-minded women and continued dedication to ongoing personal and professional development, we’re seeing women remain sober and reach their full potential.
The average age that the women on our team began using substances is 11 years old, with one woman beginning as early as five at the hands of her father. Addiction is hard to overcome and maintain because it means confronting overwhelming traumatic experiences from the past. However, this hasn’t stopped our Unshattered women from continuing their journey of personal growth. Many of our employees even hold managerial positions.
Amanda is now our Creative Lead & Product Manager. Her downward spiral began as a preteen with experimental drug use. The over-prescription of painkillers after a car accident led to heroin addiction. But Amanda overcame her addiction. She advanced and grew at Unshattered through hard work and dedication. Today, Amanda is a mom, leader, and talented custom handbag designer. She’s spoken at the White House and is on track to be the first in her family to achieve a college degree. She was recently named 40 Under 40 for Dutchess County, New York.
After enduring abuse from a trusted adult through her childhood, Jenn turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with self-esteem issues and isolation. Since joining Unshattered, she is proud to call herself four years sober. She’s our Production Manager leading a team of women who are finding community and purpose through their work. She recently received her certification in Manufacturing Leadership from the Council of Industry.
Recovery is for Us All
Those in recovery have to make a conscious decision — every single day — to choose sobriety. It is an honor to be a part of a community that enables women to choose wisely — to learn from their humility, and to succeed together as a team. The principles of Unshattered are not just for those in recovery. We can all:
Start with humility.
Recognize our gifts.
Find a community of people to grow with.
Bring others with us.
Whether you’re recovering from a substance or, like me, from judging those who are, there’s so much more to gain when we start from a place of positivity and possibility. See yourself and others for what’s ahead rather than what’s behind.
This National Recovery Month, celebrate by finding someone you believe in and letting them know they are worthy of a second chance. That person just might be you.
Ambassador of Possibility