citybiz+ Citybiz+ Interview: Pallet CEO Amy King on Work That Brings Purpose to Life

Amy King started out as a child psychologist and transitioned through several other jobs before choosing what she terms as “work that gives you life and purpose.” That job is that of the CEO of Pallet, and the purpose — to end unsheltered homelessness and give people a fair chance at employment.

King and her cofounder Brady King derived seeds of their idea after watching the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 Atlantic storm as far back as 2005. About 1.25 million people were forcibly evacuated from their homes, as the hurricane claimed over 1,800 lives and cost economic damage estimated at $125 billion. Thousands of evacuated people were housed temporarily in the Superdome football stadium, but King believed that such victims deserved better options. Over a decade later, when King put together her plan for Pallet, she sought to address not just broad homelessness crisis but also transitional housing for victims of natural and other disasters.

Twin Goals

In 2016, King cofounded Pallet in Seattle, Wash. Pallet has developed an inexpensive, and quick, way to build temporary cost-effective housing. In many instances, a house could be erected in a matter of hours.King has set up Pallet as a for-profit public benefit company, because she thinks that is the right business model for success.

The socially conscious firm runs on a twinengine. On one hand, it addresses unsheltered homelessness, and on the other, provides jobs to a non-traditional workforce consisting of people who have experienced homelessness, served jail terms and suffered substance use disorder. Pallet has raised $17.5 million in venture funding, including a small amount in debt. Its most recent Series A round in March was led by Citi Impact, a unit of Citi Bank, and DBL Partners.

The Tech

Pallet partly emerged from King’s previous startup, Square Peg Construction. King says she learned of the high cost of building homes when running Square Peg. That set her off to explore low-cost, and easily portable, housing options.

“It was very specific. It needs to be lightweight, so you can airdrop it by military helicopter. It needs to be panelized, so it’s easy to set up. It’s got the foundation built-in, so you don’t have to pour a foundation or excavate the site,” King said. “I said, ‘That’s actually a really good idea. What you’re talking about makes a lot of sense. We should build it.’”

King engaged Zane Geel, once a director of engineering at Pallet, to build a prototype. Geel came up with one at a cost of $40,000, cleverly replacing heavier and more expensive wood with lightweight, alternative materials.

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The Growth

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Pallet set up its first shelter village in Tacoma, Wash., after King concluded that it would be wiser to use a disaster as an entry point into the marketplace, rather than address the far bigger challenge of homelessness at the outset. In 2017, Tacoma had just declared a homeless state of emergency. Pallet gave the city leaders ademonstration and a week later, Tacoma placed an order for 40 Pallet shelters.

Today, there are over 75 Pallet shelter villages in 11 states from Oregon to Arkansas, housing over 4,000 individuals. Most are on the west coast but there are a few on the east, notably around Boston area. The company has upped its staff to 100-plus, and produces 50 shelters a week.