The road that Sasha Plotitsa took to launch his one-year-old San Francisco furniture company is not for the faint of heart. In March of 2020, after two years of planning and quite a few twists and turns, Plotitsa launched Formr. Within a few days, San Francisco would institute stay-at-home orders and the COVID-19 pandemic would change everything, everywhere.
“It was practically the worst timing that could have occurred,” said Plotitsa. “I considered closing the business when the epidemic began and the economy became so uncertain. But I realized that I couldn’t do that because I had invested too much financially, and just as much energetically. So I decided I need to persevere.”
Another motivating factor was his commitment to the unique mission of his new business: Formr designs beautiful and functional furniture from materials reclaimed from construction debris, and employs formerly incarcerated individuals to make it.
“We thoughtfully design and craft clever objects, empower formerly incarcerated folks with opportunities, and reincarnate construction debris,” said Plotitsa.
After a career that spanned industrial design, interior design, and owning and remodeling a cannabis dispensary, Plotitsa had spent the previous few years developing ideas for a business that would leverage his skills while also having a positive social and environmental impact.
“I decided I wanted to move on to something new, an industrial design-related, socially responsible venture,” said Plotitsa.
He researched various options before landing on the concept for Formr.
“Coming up with the name Formr — which comes from the term ‘formerly incarcerated’ and connects to the word ‘form,’ symbolizing design — was one of the first of many steps it took to get this social enterprise off the ground,” he said.
The first pillar of his mission would be to reclaim construction debris to create Formr’s products. He had always bristled at the waste he saw on job sites when he worked as an interior designer.
The second pillar was the workforce: he wanted to provide an opportunity to formerly incarcerated people. His experience at the cannabis dispensary opened his eyes to the struggle that they experience when trying to begin a new life after serving time, and he knew that many prisons had woodshops that provided skills training.
“I saw firsthand when I was at the dispensary the failure of the war on drugs and its many negative impacts on society, including the incarceration of people for drug-related offenses who would struggle to make a stable life for themselves after being released,” said Plotitsa.
Much of the two-year buildup before launching Formr was spent reaching out to potential partners in the construction and workforce sectors. Plotitsa was able to leverage his existing contacts in the construction world to identify contractors who were willing to let him sift through the waste at their project sites. But he had no relationship to anyone involved in the prison system, so he had to start at square one to figure out how to recruit his future employees.
He began by asking a friend who worked with the California prison system. That person referred him to someone else and so it went, until eventually he was connected to the Center For Employment Opportunities (CEO) in Oakland. The CEO program assists the reentry population in securing employment, so it was an ideal fit for his mission. That’s where he first met George Colón, SFMade’s Workforce & Youth Program Coordinator, who worked at CEO at the time.
Plotitsa now has a network of 60 people and organizations, including SFMade, that he can turn to when filling a job opening or seeking guidance on growing the business. Colón invited him to present his story to the trainees in the Next Generation Manufacturing Training program, and one of the students is now helping him set up a CNC machine for fabricating future products.
Now, almost a year after launching Formr, Plotitsa is enjoying recognition from publications like Fast Company and Business of Home and is working on developing partnerships and searching for retail space (the company is e-commerce only for now). He’s learned a lot about his workforce and the challenges that come with hiring people who have been involved in the justice system. The pandemic has only exacerbated those challenges. In the past year, Plotitsa has had six workers come and go and is in a perpetual state of recruitment.
“The aftermath of imprisonment can be unstable,” said Plotitsa. “After prison, people are often released into communities far away from where they live, and eventually they want to go back home. Employees tend to last no more than three to four months.”
Despite the many challenges he has faced in launching and sustaining his new business through a pandemic, a through-line in Plotitsa’s story has been his resilience, commitment to Formr’s mission, and an ability to lean on organizations, like SFMade, that share his goal of improving job prospects for people in the San Francisco Bay Area with barriers to employment.
If there are any silver linings in launching the business in a pandemic, it may come in the form of the overLAP, Formr’s best-selling product.
It’s a stylish lap desk with a slot for a mobile phone or tablet, inspired by Plotitsa’s own experience of working from home throughout his career.
“It makes sense that it’s our number one product because so many people are working from home now,” said Plotitsa. “I usually worked from home from the couch with my laptop, sometimes with a pillow under it. I decided to make a lap desk because it feels so good to have your laptop elevated to be ergonomically sound. It’s a convenient way to work.”
Also resonating with customers is the opportunity to make a purchase that not only results in having a clever, functional product for your home, but also helps provide opportunities to people who face many obstacles to employment.
“When a customer buys a Formr object they can feel good about their purchase because they are supporting a brand that is doing something to give back, not only to the environment but also to people who could use an opportunity,” said Plotitsa. “That sentiment–of doing something that has a positive impact–keeps me going.”