Back in 2008 Derek Evans and Matt Blinco were just a couple of young college grads trying to start their careers. If you recall, 2008 was right in the middle of the Great Recession – the worst financial crisis in the United States since the Great Depression. Companies were not hiring. It was dire times, and landing a job was challenging – even for two ambitious and educated young men.
But life is funny. Tough times force us to look for solutions in places that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, which is what happened with Derek and Matt. One night over pizza and cheap beer, Derek and Matt decided to take their future into their own hands and start their own business.
Derek: The first idea was to move to Los Angeles and write comedy! Then we talked about writing books about basketball. Finally, we decided on t-shirts. Matt is a graphic designer and I had a lot of marketing experience. At first, we were making shirts for private sports leagues, schools, and churches, but we realized that wasn’t as fun as creating our own designs. The idea to make our own graphic tees sparked pretty early.
So, Derek and Matt started a very modest t-shirt company, but life intervened once again when their local church was going on a trip to Los Angeles to help feed the homeless on Skid Row. Skid Row is one of the nation’s largest homeless communities. In fact, it is estimated that Skid Row is home to between 5000 and 8000 homeless people at any given time. Derek and Matt, not yet the busy entrepreneurs they are today, decided to go.
The Church Trip
Derek: I thought, I’ll go; I have nothing else to do. Matt came with me and we spent a lot of time on Skid Row and saw how these people lived. We couldn’t believe people lived like that, and we wanted to help. We also met people on the other end of the spectrum who had transformed back into society: the pastors, business owners, and the people reunited with their children. These people are clean and sober. We thought, Wow! It would be great to be a part of this forever – professionally. Then we thought, what if we combined this experience with the t-shirt company we are trying to build?
And just like that Project 615 was a purpose-driven business with a mission to help get homeless men off the street and rehabilitated into the community. For the first 7 years the duo teamed up with a local ministry, Set Free, Nashville. Set Free helps men recovering from homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. They were able to provide shelter and resources, while Project 615 provided jobs and opportunities to stay off the street.
Derek: We’ve employed fifty-four men over the years. Sadly, the turnover is a little higher than we would want for this demographic, but we also have a few guys that have been with the organization for years, and we’ve seen a significant transformation in their lives. We’ve been able to hire 54 men, and that was always part of the mission: to give men a second chance.
The Evolution of Good
Recently, the company decided to pivot and expand its work with other non-profits. They have minimized their “mission to hire” and now focus on developing more diversity within their partners. This has allowed the company to pour more of their funds into other causes.
Derek: About a year ago we launched a campaign to build an orphanage in Uganda. Through that, we were able to provide homes for 18 orphaned young boys. Now they live in this very cool home in Uganda, where before they were literally living in bushes. That’s how we utilize our profits.
As you can see, Project 615 is not just a t-shirt company. In fact, the tees are just a means to achieve a greater mission in philanthropy, spirituality and community service. It’s a company with compassion at its core. But there are plenty of companies who struggle to turn a profit at all, let alone give so much back to the community. So how do t-shirts actually enable Project 615 to give back in such interesting ways?
Derek: I think we got lucky because ours wasn’t the average business. We started a company to, in fact, help people. A lot of people start a business to make money. Money is great, I like money too. But it was more of a spiritual calling for us. We realized this was our lives’ mission. We needed to do this. It’s easier to make giving back to the community part of the business because it was always there. And, the business wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that.
You Can Change the World Also
Derek believes we are all here on this Earth with a purpose, and that we each possess natural-born talents that help us deliver on our lives’ purpose. He also believes each of us CAN change the world. That’s why Derek felt compelled to write a book about how his calling to help people led him to do something extraordinary and important.
Derek: It’s called, “Made Change the World: How Ordinary People Are Called to Extraordinary Work”. It’s the story of our company and my personal journey: my upbringing, about being laid off, and how I was running in circles trying to figure out my purpose in life. Then all of a sudden having that “Ah-ha” moment and learning how to use my gifts and talents to start this company. I’m just a normal blue-collar kid from the Mid-West. No one in my family had experience [starting a business], but with the help of others I am able to do extraordinary work.
If you hate your job, go do something you love! We are all wired with something that comes so natural to us, but most of us aren’t using that gift. This book encourages all of us to find that gift and put it to use to change the world. We are all made to change the world somehow.
If you are interested in learning more about Derek’s journey and Project 615, you can preorder the book here. “Made Change the World: How Ordinary People are Called to Extraordinary Work” officially launches July 9th.
Oh! And for all of us who don’t reside in Nashville, 615 is Nashville’s area code. You pronounce Project 615 as 6 – 1 – 5, Not 6-fifteen or 6 hundred fifteen.