Interview: Ali Rose VanOverbeke, Founder Of Genusee
This week we’re excited to feature Ali Rose VanOverbeke, founder of Genusee, the first US-based eyewear brand built for the circular economy. A Detroit native and graduate of Parsons Design School, Ali founded Genusee in 2017 after volunteering with The Red Cross at the peak of the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Each pair of Genusee glasses upcycles 15 single-use water bottles and helps create living-wage jobs in Flint.
We chatted with Ali about her journey to starting Genusee, her advice for other entrepreneurs and business owners on integrating social impact into their business model and how she supports the circular economy as a consumer.
You started Genusee without a formal business background. What gave you the confidence that your vision, both in creating job opportunities in Flint and creating a closed-loop product, would be of interest to the market?
My parents are both small business owners. My mom owned a hair salon her entire life, and my dad is a lawyer who’s started a ton of different businesses, so I grew up in a household that taught entrepreneurship. I saw firsthand what it takes to run a business, and it was something I was very interested in.
During the pre-launch of Genusee, we did two different accelerators. XRC Labs in New York was great because I felt like I learned a lot in terms of the business side — what a startup is, how to fundraise, how to form a corporation. I also participated in an accelerator called the Elaine Gold Launchpad which is a partnership between the CDFA and the Accessories Council. Through that, we received grant funding and mentorship that was really instrumental in navigating the early stages of the business.
I think I just also have that “entrepreneur hustle” where I just figure things out — knowing what my limitations are and being able to network and ask for help. I have a really great support team of people around me and sometimes it comes down to saying, “Hey, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. Can you help me?” It’s really important to not be intimidated and know that it’s okay not to know something. Sometimes you need to hustle and figure it out yourself, but there’s so much where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and you can ask experts for their best practices.
One of the things that sets you apart from other entrepreneurs is that Genusee was intentionally founded in Flint to create jobs and integrate single-use plastics back into the system through the circular economy, which isn’t a very mainstream idea. What gave you confidence that founding a company on those values would be of interest to people?
I’m not sure if it’s confidence or just conviction about what we’re doing. I was working in the fast-fashion industry in New York for billion-dollar fashion retailers as a designer, and I saw the ins and outs of how unsustainable the fashion industry is at that scale, both from an environmental and social standpoint, but also as a business model — to knowingly over-produce inventory is fundamentally outdated and flawed.
I knew I wanted to do something impactful and meaningful and that I had a unique skill set and way of thinking about things, so I just started living my life and trying different things. I went to India and volunteered with a social enterprise — they work with women in domestically abusive relationships by training them with sewing skills. And I’m like, “this is the kind of work that I want to do.”
When I came back to Michigan, I volunteered with the Red Cross. I was following things that I was passionate about, and I’m passionate about people and passionate about justice. With Flint specifically, I personally felt a lot of conviction and a call to do something here in the community. At the time I didn’t have any idea what that was going to be, but it was a response to seeing a problem and wanting to help be a part of the solution.
It was really important to me to know what was actually needed in the community. I’m from Michigan but I didn’t grow up in Flint, so I was an outsider. It was important for me to build community organically, and I started asking people “What does Flint actually need?” And every single person said jobs. So I decided to start a business that created jobs — specifically for the structurally unemployable and individuals coming out of incarceration. Learning about the injustice and socioeconomic issues in Flint, it was glaringly obvious to me that if we were going to start anything, a commitment to environmental and social justice needed to be in our DNA.
Around the same time, I was reading Let My People Go Surfing by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, and I just knew if I was going to start a business, I wanted it to be like that. I don’t know how to solve a water crisis, but I know how to make things. I’m a maker. I had all these contacts in New York and started asking “How can we build a bridge from New York to Flint and bring attention to larger issues through fashion and design?”
People often ask why we started with eyewear. First and foremost, it’s a product of purpose and need. It’s a medical device while also being a fashion product. But it’s also the most personal accessory — you wear it on your face, and it’s one of the first things you notice about someone, so it’s a conversation starter. My favorite feedback from customers is “Someone complimented me on my glasses and I got to tell them the story.” It’s like, “Yes! That’s the point!”
You've obviously done an incredible job designing a system of operations that re-integrates single use products, offers a buy-back program, and supports job creation and community initiatives in Flint. Are there any aspects of your business operations that you're challenging yourself + your team to make even more socially impactful?
The main focus for us right now is scaling our current operations — we’re still a small business, so it’s using what we have in front of us to make more impact. But we’re looking at other product categories, and how we can expand our manufacturing capabilities. At the end of the day, the more glasses we sell, the more impact we can make.
People often ask why we don’t donate ALL of our profits back into Flint. But we’re a for-profit business. The profits that we make we can re-invest into the business to scale and grow, which helps to create more jobs and re-use more plastics. It’s such a win-win.
As a socially impactful business do you ever find yourself stuck between being a for-profit business and pressure to operate more like a non-profit?
I feel very strongly about this. An investor asked me the other day whether we’d also open a nonprofit. I think it’s more important to show that for-profit corporations can function in a way that is ethical. Whether you’re a for-profit or a non-profit, if you don’t have the right values and you’re not using the resources you have to make an impact, the structure doesn’t matter.
Genusee was born out of your vision to address a pressing social need: economic inequality in Flint and a broken economic system. What words of advice do you have for business owners who might not have started their company with such a vision-driven focus, but still want to move their business towards a more sustainable model?
Know your why. That’s so many different things for both businesses and individuals. But every year, set one goal, an area that you want to make an impact in. Maybe you’re going to stop using single-use plastic in the shipping of your products. Maybe you’re going to start hiring those who are structurally unemployable.
Set small goals that matter to you, your organization, and your community, and start executing them. In six months, a year, you can increase those goals. At Genusee, we started with some baseline goals, but we’re always looking for areas to improve. At the end of the year, we’re looking at triple bottom line returns — what our financials were but also what our environmental and social impact was.
We’re setting new goals the same way we would with financial projections for our social and environmental impact and learning how we can do better. You have to start measuring so you can look back and discover where you need to grow.
What are some other brands that inspire you? How do you decide as a consumer to support a circular economy (and how can others do the same?)
I’m incredibly inspired by Kristy Caylor and her team at at For Days, which is a circular economy t-shirt brand. They’re nailing it. In terms of business models, I really love what Rent The Runway and The RealReal are doing. I think that’s the future of the resale market, the secondhand market.
To be honest...I’m a horrible consumer. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for ten years! I’ll make some purchases throughout the year, but they’re usually vintage, secondhand, unique pieces that I’ve fallen in love with. I really subscribe to the philosophy of only owning things that bring you joy. Having a minimal wardrobe doesn’t mean you have to just wear basics. For me, a minimal wardrobe is crazy vintage floral dresses from the seventies!
In terms of food, I love to shop locally. We have a local grocer where I can support local farmers, and I’ll collect food scraps in a bag I stick in my freezer and the store turns that into compost that goes back to the farms. It’s really cool that I’m participating in the growing of the food in that way. As far as other things...I support local stores and makers when I can. But at the end of the day, the most sustainable thing you own is something you already have.