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Detroit nonprofit launches footwear line manufactured by local veterans

Jarret Schlaff

It's been nearly two years since a chance meeting on the streets of downtown Detroit left Jarret Schlaff inspired and searching for a way to help empower homeless veterans. What resulted is Boots on the Ground, the nonprofit arm of Pingree Manufacturing. The boot-making organization employs and benefits veterans, focusing on worker well-being rather than profit margins.

After months of wrangling designs and logistics, Schlaff and his line of multipurpose urban utility boots, Boots on the Ground, opened its first round of pre-sales on FridayVeterans Day. With only 500 pairs available and around 2,000 orders already pledged, the first round of boots should go fast. Luckily for those interested in purchasing a pair, a successful first round of sales means that Boots on the Ground will be able to keep manufacturing and selling their boots well into the future.

Schlaff started Boots on the Groundand its parent company, Pingree Manufacturing, named after former Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingreeout of a desire to address the difficulties many U.S. veterans face in finding employment. Currently in its beginning stages, Boots on the Ground employs two veterans on a part-time basis; more opportunities for employment will open up as the non-profit grows. All of the boot material is made in the United States, including many Detroit-made materials, and the ultimate goal is for all of the materials to be made in Detroit and in a sustainable way.

The idea for Boots on the Ground arose out of a chance encounter. Schlaff was walking around downtown Detroit when he got in a conversation with a veteran seeking employment. Though he may have been homeless, that veteran was more than qualified for employment, possessing a master's degree in engineering. Inspired by their meeting, Schlaff decided he would help that man and others like him.

"We want to create these jobs, we want to create employment for veterans. What can be handmade, what can we make? And I literally said this in a conversation, I said, what can be the boots on the ground in Detroit?" Schlaff says, snapping his fingers as the thought is triggered. "And then I said: boots."

Armed with good intentions but a lack of know-how, Schlaff began to research manufacturing boots. He was told it couldn't be done. Production would have to occur abroad if they were going to keep the boots affordable. But thanks to some helpful partnerships along the way, Schlaff figured out how to make Boots on the Ground happen. He put about $10,000 to $15,000 of his own savings and an additional $15,000 from donations into the project, he says. Schlaff estimates that Boots on the Ground has also received nearly $250,000 in in-kind services.

In starting Boots on the Ground, Schlaff says he's encountered a chicken-and-egg scenario. While there's been plenty of interest in the concept, Schlaff hasn't had the funds to get it off the ground. He's turned away investors because he doesn't want to give away equity and control. Also, investors haven't been incredibly interested in a worker-owned company that puts the emphasis on employee well-being over profit margins.

So Schlaff figured out a way to do it himself. Once the first round of 500 boots sell, Schlaff will take that money and operate Boots on the Ground full time, moving into a manufacturing facility connected to the Avalon Bakery building on Bellevue Street.

Instead of investors, it's been local partnerships that have helped Boots on the Ground get up and running. A storage facility in Pontiac has donated space. A retired engineer from Chrysler with a passion for shoes and a workshop in his basement offered his assistance. Southwest Solutions, Michigan Veterans Foundation, and local VFW halls are among those who have partnered with the organization. Bates Footwear of Rockford has acted as a sort of mentor, and without asking for anything in return.

"How do we find a way? It's allowing for the best kind of collaboration, which is that relationships are our main currency. It's been a lot of volunteers, a lot of people seeing an opportunity to support our work without necessarily a return on funds," says Schlaff.

"We've gotten where we are because of the relationships we've built. It's inspiring."
 
Name and title: Jarret A. Schlaff, co-founder and CEO Pingree Mfg & Project Boots on the Ground

Years business has been open: 2

What is one interesting job you held before owning/running your own biz: In 2009 I worked for Sen. Carl Levin in Detroit supporting veterans with their disability claims. I was introduced to the maze called the VA that veterans have to navigate and fight through to get the support they deserve.   

Favorite book: It's a tie between Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell 

Advice for new non-profits: Anything is possible. Remind yourself at least once a day what you're committed to and what's possible because of you and your team's unique contribution. Embrace relationships as your primary currency and since we're all in this together, seek out opportunities to amplify the people, groups, and organizations around you doing good work without expecting anything in return.
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