I grew up in a suburb of Flint, Michigan, and spent my early twenties renting an apartment right in the heart of downtown where I was a part of the diverse, colorful community that exists there. Flint has a less than stellar reputation to outsiders—most think of the Flint Water Crisis or the high crime rates. Yes, Flint has seen some rough years, but you know what else it has? Heart and soul. I moved out of Flint in 2016 to explore life outside of my hometown. Since then, it’s changed and evolved, giving way to new creative ventures and projects started within the community. One small business that’s garnered my attention in recent years is Genusee Eyewear. This is one of Flint’s most unique businesses, offering the first-ever circular economy business model for eyewear, and made sustainably from the plastic accumulated as a result of the Flint Water Crisis. Genusee creates jobs for disenfranchised residents, gives back to the community, and uses their platform to bring awareness not only to the Flint Water Crisis, but also the resulting local environmental crisis from the plastic. I was fortunate enough to speak with Ali Rose VanOverbeke, the Founder and CEO of Genusee.
Green Living: Tell me a little about yourself? Are you from the Flint area?
Ali: I grew up in Metro-Detroit—graduated from The Roeper School in Birmingham, Michigan (we actually named our first frame shape The Roeper), went to Parsons in NYC for fashion design, and worked in the fashion industry in NYC as a designer and stylist for 10 years. I volunteered with the American Red Cross during the Flint Water Crisis and fell in love with the community here. I moved from NYC to Flint when we started the business in 2018 and have lived here ever since.
GL: What was your driver for wanting to start this sustainable business? Why in Flint, MI?
A: Genusee was founded on the principles of doing good for people and the planet in response to the Flint Water Crisis. I’m a Michigan native who worked in NYC in mass-market fashion. I eventually started to resent fashion as it wasn’t aligned with my personal values anymore. I realized how unsustainable and unethical the industry was. After taking a sabbatical in India and volunteering with women who had been in abusive relationships, I realized that was what I wanted to be doing, making an impact. When I flew back to Michigan from India, it was in the middle of the Flint Water Crisis so I began volunteering with the American Red Cross delivering cases of bottled water. I hadn’t really thought much about plastic waste until it was in my face like that. Not only was the city facing a man-made water crisis, but with the surplus of plastic being brought into the city now, there was a localized environmental crisis. It was a perfect example of environmental racism and injustice and was hard to look away.
At first, I thought I would do an art project or installation in Flint that made a commentary on environmental justice, the water crisis, and plastic—but the more I started talking to people in Flint and asking the question “what does Flint actually need?” every single person said JOBS. I don’t know how to solve a water crisis, but with my background in fashion and design, I know how to make things. We landed on eyewear because it’s a fashion product but also a medical tool—it’s of real need and has a longer lifespan than something that’s single-use. It was an industry that could use some disruption and apply a circular economy business model. We employ a circular economy through our Buyback Program—every first Genusee eyewear purchase comes with a lifetime buyback membership, good for 20% off future purchases and you send your used glasses back to us at any time to be upcycled back into our material stream. Typical eyewear manufacturing creates a lot of waste but at Genusee if there is any breakage or wastage during our manufacturing process we collect it and reuse it in our material stream—focusing on being as zero-waste as possible.
GL: How are you involved with the community and what is your perception of the community? (I’m always trying to highlight positive things about Flint since it has a notoriously negative reputation)
A: Flint is a diamond in the rough. There’s a ton of creativity here and a lot of resilience and innovation. The community has learned how to make lemonade out of lemons and had to do it with no resources or support. People are innovative out of necessity & I really personally connect with that as a designer. I think design should solve real-world problems, or at least be a part of the solution. I also love working within limitations and resources because I think it inspires creativity. Flint has its own unique vibe—it’s a small town for the most part but it’s quickly become home to me.
Flint is a city like many others in the midwest that was disrupted when the automotive industry and other blue-collar jobs left. It’s a city made up of predominantly low-income people of color just trying to make ends meet. Businesses like Genusee see the potential of Flint. They invest in the city and in the community, and that will have a lasting effect and preserve the soul that exists there. I will always root for this community—it’s my home. A synergy exists and just like Ali said, the people are innovative and I believe their stories should be amplified. A community like Flint faces unique challenges that are multi-faceted, but they continue to move forward and that itself is inspiring. We should say nice things about Flint.
For more information on this small business out of Flint, Michigan, visit their website.