MSU Alumnus Founds Retail Company With Aim to Help the Homeless

a group of people working in a warehouse

MSU alumnus Josh York first became interested in creating his own clothing when he was in middle school. He started by making T-shirts with his mom and sold them to his classmates. A few years later while attending Schoolcraft College, York, then 19, hand-stitched his last name into a beanie and began selling them at local music shows. That marked the beginning of the York Project, a Detroit-based “Social Streetwear” company York founded in 2012 that follows the one-for-one model where a donation is made to the homeless with each item purchased. 

York started the company prior to enrolling at Michigan State University, but it was at MSU where the business really took off. As an MSU student majoring in Supply Chain Management with a minor in German, York became involved with Conquer Accelerator, a 10-week program at MSU that gives entrepreneurs resources and funding to develop their startups, which helped get the York Project off the ground. 

a man working with fabric in a clothing factory wearing a black hat and a jean jacket
MSU alumnus Josh York at the York Project garment factory in Detroit

“Michigan State helped turn it into a business rather than being something out of my bedroom,” York said. “They helped me build it into something sustainable. The networking from MSU also has been really helpful as we’ve grown the business.”

In August 2019, the York Project opened its first store in Detroit, Michigan, a few weeks later in October 2019 it opened another store at Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, Michigan. 

One-For-One Model

At the heart of the York Project are its donations to the homeless, which have been a part of the company model from the very beginning. After the company made its first 40-50 sales in February 2013, it donated 50 beanies to Detroit Christian Services homeless outreach center. 

I have been donating since the beginning,” York said. “It was always a part of the model that we were going to be a brand that does good in our community and that gives back.

MSU Alumnus Josh York

“I have been donating since the beginning,” York said. “It was always a part of the model that we were going to be a brand that does good in our community and that gives back.” 

In March 2013, the York Project partnered with PB&J Outreach and learned there was a great need by the homeless for socks, toilet paper, gloves, and underwear. The York Project started to include those items as donations. 

Currently, for each product it sells, the York Project makes a donation kit that includes a durable tote bag, toilet paper, socks, and bottled water that is donated to a homeless person. Seasonally, the company also includes gloves, underwear, and other toiletries. 

group of people holding donations outside
Josh York at one of the York Project donation days

“The kits started when my business partner came to us and gave this idea of putting in needed items like toilet paper and underwear,” York said. “Through our ongoing donation efforts, we have discovered that these are the items that men and women need most but are often forgotten when donating.”

Since 2012, the York Project has donated more than $104,000 worth of in-kind and monetary donations to help the homeless across the country. 

Helping Others During COVID-19 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the York Project has had to shut down all its retail operations and has shifted to producing masks and hospital gowns through its sister business, Soft Goods Detroit. 

“Soft Goods Detroit is a brand we started a year ago and its main goal is to help manufacture for other companies,” York said. “Anything that doesn’t say York Project on it is considered a Soft Goods Detroit product since there are some customers who don’t want to pay the extra to help the homeless during these tougher times.” 

The production of masks at Soft Goods Detroit started on March 27 with the goal of helping others, but it also has helped make sure employees still have jobs. 

group of people working in a warehouse making masks
Production of health care worker gowns by Soft Goods Detroit, the sister business to the York Project

“We already had all the fabric to make masks. The fabric was either from our shop that we were using for T-shirts and sweatshirts or there is also woven fabric that we are using from our friends Detroit Denim,” York said. “All our machines were already set up to use these fabrics, so it wasn’t that bad of a transition.”

York partnered with Detroit Denim to get more fabric for the masks at the beginning of their mask-making journey. The York Project then continued to make masks for major companies like Shinola and Footlocker. The company also partnered with ISAIC (Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center) for fabric to produce gowns for health care workers.

During the pandemic, some York Project employees are working from home while others have continued to work safely at the Detroit shop.

If you want to start your own business, start it. There will always be reasons and excuses to not do it, but if you use those excuses, you never will do it.

MSU Alumnus Josh York

“We have three full-time employees working from home. One makes some of the masks from home and another who does our embroidering has stuff shipped to her and the embroidery machine was sent to her as well so she can work on the product from home,” York said. “We also have 12 people working at our Detroit shop. We actually hired six people since the pandemic since we have gotten so many mask and gown orders.”

Through these hard times, York wouldn’t trade his business for anything and inspires others to do the same. 

“If you want to start your own business, start it,” he said. “There will always be reasons and excuses to not do it, but if you use those excuses, you never will do it. You have to just start, and you will never know all the answers but starting and asking for help will help you get over the next hurdle and get you to where you want to go.”