To Top

Life & Work with Leellen Smith

Today we’d like to introduce you to Leellen Smith. 

Hi Leellen, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself
I started OUTsideIN in 2013 in response to my county’s unemployment rate that was in excess of 11% due to the fact that our largest employer pulled up stakes and closed their plant taking 2000 of our best jobs with them. I wondered if I could create jobs and could I do it for the most marginalized of workers, those with addictions, lacking education, coming from a background of poverty or those having been incarcerated. I had been a stay-at-home mom and was approaching 50 but decided to start a social enterprise that up-cycled T-shirts into all kinds of products. Six years ago, we moved away from these products and processes, pivoted, and began to make fabric bags that we call travel gear. Our aim is to bring our workers into a healing-centered workplace where they can be nurtured and encouraged to overcome some of the destructive cycles that plagued their lives. 

In the 9 years we have been a business, we have learned so much. We have worked with over 25 women and completely changed our product line. We’ve rebranded twice. We went from sewing on old home-use sewing machines in a metal building in my yard to renting a small workshop in our tiny town to restoring and moving into a beautiful historic old store on our town square. Our product line has grown from a garment bag to now include tote bags, purses, and smaller accessories, all made from new upholstery fabric that we buy just before it becomes textile waste. We operate an online store called and also sell from the front section of our store that we have carved out as a retail space… We are strong women on a journey making travel gear for yours. 

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
It has not been a smooth road but we’ve rarely taken a step backwards. Growth has been slow but steady. One of the biggest struggles we’ve faced has been rebranding from the T-shirt product stage. I once read a book called “The Lean Startup” and it said, “if you’re not slightly embarrassed by the first products you take to market, then you spent too much time in product development.” Well, I do have to smile a little at this statement and the fact that I am slightly embarrassed at our first products. I simply claim that as part of our story and how we built confidence in ourselves. And since confidence-building and empowerment is really our mission, I just embrace it. 

Learning how to manage our website and understanding the importance of social media and consistently paying attention to it have also been challenges. Since we’ve now got two commercial sewing machines, troubleshooting mechanical problems with them has been more of a struggle. 

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I have always loved to sew. My mother taught me when I was 10 and I made most of my clothes in high school. The machine we started OUTsideIN with was the one my dad bought her to teach me on. I grew up on a farm and sewing is what I did to entertain myself and I realized that I not only had a gift for the mechanics of garment construction but also for color and fabric and what worked when it came to designing clothing. I believe the intersection of what I’m good at (sewing) and what I’m passionate about (empowering women) is where OUTside in was birthed. 

I am really proud of the products we make. I’ve been able to find good fabrics and created simple designs that our workers can create. Let’s face it, no one is empowered by something they cannot do, so it’s important that we make things that are doable for us. My superpower is patience. Our workforce comes to us usually with absolutely no sewing experience. It’s my job to find tasks they can accomplish right away then bring them up to the jobs that we need them to be able to do. Our bags are strong and beautiful, just like the women who make them. 

I think the thing that sets me apart from others is that I see potential in everything and in everyone. 

Can you talk to us about how you think about risk?
I have never considered myself to be a risk-taker and was not taking a financial risk at all in beginning this venture. I started it with $900 that was a distribution from an IRA. We used old worn our sewing machines and our first cutting table was a makeshift ping pong table. The rent on our first workshop space was $100 a month and we purchased the historic store we have now for $27,000. However, while there was little financial risk, the risk to my own reputation was very real to me. Let’s face it. Starting a non-profit for the population I work with, using T-shirts as a raw material seemed an unusual thing for a woman my age to do. I’m sure there were many who thought it was downright strange. 

It is still very hard for me to take on risk and I do think it has impeded our progress at times. Currently, we are finding it necessary to buy larger quantities of fabric in order to scale and I still find myself wanting to hold back. It’s something I’m working on. 


  • Weekender Bag – $95
  • Tote Bag – $75
  • Garment Bag – $75
  • Commuter Bag – $65
  • Smaller Accessories – under $35

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Ashley Collins

Suggest a Story: NashvilleVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in Local Stories