Treger Strasberg, co-founder of Humble Design, tells SEEN why she started helping the homeless and how she launched a nonprofit that’s touched over 900 families and is expanding nationwide.
By Rachel Schostak
Co-founder of Humble Design, Treger Strasberg, shares her story on why she was so compelled to help people in need and how her nonprofit is making a positive impact on the homeless community, one house at a time.
1. Tell us more about yourself. I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and raised in San Diego. I grew up in a household where it was extremely important to get a good education and to choose a field where you could succeed in life. When I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, they double-gulped but, ultimately, got behind the idea and sent me to art programs. My parents also instilled in me the value of giving back — always emphasizing the importance of having empathy — walking in other people’s shoes. I suppose that’s part of the reason big transitions and decisions have never been hard for me to make. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to go to Israel, and as it turned out, I stayed for my entire senior year. In Israel, I felt connected in a way I had never been before. I graduated and went to New York City to study painting and drawing at the School of Visual Arts. One day, I met an artist on the street selling these amazing paintings for just $200. And it dawned on me, even if I could replicate the quality of his work, I’d never make it as a painter. So I switched my major to graphics. And that was the best move I ever made because the first class I signed up for was advertising, where I met my husband, Rob. Rob moved down to Miami for a job; I stayed in New York and graduated, then followed him to Miami where we both worked in advertising for nine years. I moved to Michigan in 2008 with my husband Rob and two children, Henson and Tuesday. We instantly felt a strong kinship to Detroit and the desire to help the community was none that we had known before.
Since its inception in 2009, Humble has turned almost 900 empty houses into clean, dignified and welcoming homes — a simple but powerful idea. We have been featured on ABC, NBC, CNN, The New York Times, Fast Company, Upworthy, Ford Go Further, The Meredith Vieira Show, Mitch Albom’s Heart of Detroit, Motor City Rising, the Radiant Project and many others.
I have had the honor of accepting awards from the TCH Diversity Program, the Lighthouse Salute America, the TBE Mitzvah Model, the Optimist Club’s Ruby Award, the Girl Scout of America’s One Tough Cookie Award, Make your Marc award by Marc Fisher, Oakland County Executive’s Elite 40 Under 40, Governor Snyder’s volunteer of the year and ABC Nightly News Person of the Week.
I feel so lucky to be able to work with my husband on Humble Design, including our recent national expansion. I am also grateful for my staff of 16 employees who work hard to make Humble Design successful every day. After the success of opening in Chicago last year, we have decided to expand to Dearborn, Seattle and San Diego in 2018.
2. Can you share a bit about how you got started with Humble Design? It all began in 2009 with one previously homeless family in need of home furnishings. I was looking to get back into the workforce after having children, and I started working for a Forgotten Harvest for three hours a day. I quickly became friends with a woman who worked at the front desk. One day after getting our morning coffee she expressed to me that she was sleeping in a homeless shelter with her children. My heart dropped into my stomach, and I could not allow someone I knew to fall so far. In all my years of charity work, I had never come face-to-face with homelessness. So I said no, that can not happen, how are we going to fix this?
She found a house she could afford, but there was nothing left over in the budget to furnish it. The children were making nests on the floor where they were going to sleep. I cried my eyes out on my way to picking up my children from day care thinking about those kids sleeping on the floor that night while I was tucking my children into their big beautiful beds. While in line at carpool, I started asking people if they had extra items they could donate. I went around with my friend Ana in her pick-up truck and started collecting items to furnish this home. We called our friends, our neighbors, called people we didn’t know — asking for beds, linens, kitchen items. It took us six weeks to gather all the furniture for the house she found and to decorate it. It was exciting work, but it was a project and, when it was done, I went back Forgotten Harvest. But still, the furniture kept coming. I would come home and somebody would be delivering a crib to my garage, or leaving towels on my front porch. So we called the shelters, (COTS, Haven, SOS) — nine shelters in total — and we said we have all this stuff, and we don’t want it to go to a place where people have to purchase the items, we don’t want it to be resold to fund programs. We want our donations to go directly to families who are in need in Detroit, and we don’t want them to have to pay for delivery.
We called all these places, and they all responded, “Hey that’s really a great idea, there’s nobody out there who does that!” By the ninth phone call, Ana and I looked at each other and knew we had found a hole in the system.
3. How has Humble Design grown over the past few years? Humble Design was up and running for about a year. Our waiting list was growing. Tossing and turning in bed one night, I realized I couldn’t sleep because we had 100 people on our waiting list and that was 100 people sleeping on the floor that night while I tucked my kids into bed and lay in my own comfortable bed. I thought, “We need to grow! We can’t do one house every six weeks. There’s so much more need that we’re not addressing.”
Humble Design has grown by leaps and bounds. We furnish three homes a week out of one location and have furnished over 900 families to date. We have created a remarkable partnership with U-Haul which donated warehouse and trucking in all the new cities we expand to. We opened in Chicago this past year and are thankful to have partnered with CB2 (Crate and Barrel) to provide the much needed funding. We are working on our newest site in Dearborn, which will service veterans exclusively. Recently, a Microsoft employee held a fundraiser which provided us funding to expand to Seattle as well. San Diego is our fifth city and is expected to be up and running by the third quarter of this year.
We have partnered with DTE to build out an expansion manual and standardize a very well oiled system. If we don’t keep to our schedule, it doesn’t work. We have two movers, a warehouse manager, six designers and office staff, but we count on our volunteers to help our warehouse stay organized. We also count on corporations to adopt the houses and send their employees down for a day of service. They clean and decorate the home and get to watch the moment when the family comes home.
4. We are so inspired by what you do. Did you face any challenges when starting the business? If so, how did you overcome them? Of course funding is a challenge for most nonprofits, but our biggest challenge was that Humble Design became a logistics nightmare. We recycle 500,000 pounds of furniture a year out of our Pontiac location alone. Our challenge was simply managing and moving all that furniture! We are lucky to have partnered with U-Haul who has provided their trucks and donated warehouse space. We also hire security guards during the “Deco Day” to ensure our volunteers and staff are safe.
5. Is there a special story or family that stands out in your mind? All of the families we help have amazing stories one way or another, but I remember a few that stood out to me because of the families’ untold sacrifices. One woman had three children and her husband died of cancer. When her sister died a year later she took in her three kids and cared for them as if they were her own. She never complained or pitied herself. She worked two jobs to keep the family afloat, and when we furnished her house, she gave the larger room to the kids and slept in the basement. She cried for the first time in years when she saw those kids jump up and down with happiness. The next day we posted her video online and a person commented “Why did she have six kids if she couldn’t pay for them?” I cringe at all the assumptions people make about poverty in this country. A vast population in America is just one paycheck or one emergency away from calamity.
Another particular story that truly impacted me was a young boy name Lamont. We were furnishing his family’s new home, and I asked him how it feels to sleep on the floor at night. His response was “it’s depressing,” a word a child should never know the meaning of, and when he saw his new room he started crying and said “it’s beautiful.”
6. You’ve been honored and featured in the press a lot for the incredible work you do. Do you personally have a career highlight? There has been so many moments I’m grateful for, it’s hard to pick one. One highlight had to be sitting down with Maria Shriver. What a surreal moment for me. I brought my mom who clutched her chest with tears in her eyes the entire time. I was floating. She is such an icon and a brilliant philanthropist. Another highlight would be our video of an emotional 8-year-old named boy Daerye from Detroit that went viral gathering more than 50 million views.
7. How do you find balance while running Humble? Balance is an elusive mirage on the horizon. We are all chasing it and will never stop if we love our families and our jobs. Chasing it is the important thing though — never give up drawing a line in the sand. I find balance in leaning on my husband Rob for help. I have always been a big believer that my family and children come first. I will see my kids when they get home from school. Every day. I might work well into the night after they go to bed, but I need to look them in the eye and ask about their day. I am in the unusual position of loving what I do, but not needing to do it. We don’t have a bottom line, or stockholders. We are icing on a cake. We need to love what we do with all of our hearts and take breaks when we don’t. I give this speech to all of our managers. It’s called the icing speech.
8. Who inspires you in your industry or in the business world? Hands down Nancy Fishman. She founded Forgotten Harvest and was one of the first people I met in Detroit. I told her I felt like a train without a track and she helped guide me every step of the way. I attribute a ton of my success to her guidance. David Stanislaw has been a large part of my success when it comes to growth. He helped manage all those growing pains.
9. Do you have advice for those who want to start their own nonprofit? You cannot do this without help. No one expects you to know everything, so ask for help. There is no shame in stating, ”I don’t now what I’m doing here.” In fact, vulnerability can be a point of strength. When people around you are asked for help, they become engaged in your mission and will help you carry the ball down the field. When things look bleak, look toward your team. They want to help. Surround yourself with people you like — they will become your safety net as well as your staff.
If you ever find yourself saying “someone really should do something about this,” please know that YOU should take responsibility and do it yourself. If you see a problem, be the one to fix it.
Detroit/Metro Detroit local love list…
10. What do you love most about our community? I’m not a native Detroiter, but this community embraced me with both arms. When I started this I knew nothing about the area or nonprofits. Every meeting I took with community leaders or knowledgeable individuals ended with me making one more friend. I love the way the communities take responsibility for the other’s well-being. We are a team.
12. Your go-to for a good cup of coffee? Commonwealth — I like the C latte.
Now onto your personal style…
14. Three words to describe your style? Edgy, angular and comfortable.
15. One item you can’t leave home without? My Humble Design T-shirt.
16. You’re never fully dressed without… my stacked bracelets.
17. Your most cherished item in your wardrobe/closet? My mom’s gold necklace.
18. Do you have a style icon? Gwen Stefani.
19. Who or what inspires your style? I love to set trends and not worry too much about what people think. If I can rock it, I wear it.
20. Favorite quote or words to live by? “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”