Sock company helping homeless brings ambassador program to St. Thomas

Hippy Feet, a Minneapolis-based sock company dedicated to providing support to people affected by homelessness, has expanded its brand ambassador program to St. Thomas.

For every pair of socks sold, the brand donates one pair to a local homeless shelter. They also provide employment to young people experiencing homelessness through a program they call “pop-up employment.”

“I realized that hey, we can donate a million socks but that’s not going to end homelessness,” Hippy Feet founder and CEO Michael Mader said. “What is, is going to be giving youth that have a ton of opportunity and a lifetime ahead of them the chance to make money and to provide them with … a job so they can get back into full-time employment elsewhere and transition into the workforce and contribute to society.”’

Hippy Feet does that by partnering with local nonprofits and creating jobs, such as packaging and sales, that are simple to teach and easy to learn.

“We give them immediate cash, and it’s the safest and healthiest option for them to get immediate cash so they can live day-to-day,” Mader said.

Mader started Hippy Feet after suffering a traumatic brain injury during his senior year at University of Wisconsin – River Falls. He was unable to attend school or work for a semester, and after seeing a quote about socks being one of the most requested but least donated items at homeless shelters, he decided to take action.

He started Hippy Feet in September 2016 and currently has four full-time employees. The company has created short-term job opportunities for eighteen young people so far.

Its brand ambassador program first began at the University of North Dakota in January 2017. UND, the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and St. Thomas currently have the most active brand ambassador programs. There are plans for the program to reach colleges in Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

(From left) Juniors Amy Meuwissen, Tyler Hayes, Lauren Knisley, Reed Wawrzyniak and sophomore Maddie Harvey participate in a promotional photo shoot for Hippy Feet. Hippy Feet first implemented its brand ambassador program at the University of North Dakota in January 2017. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Knisley)

“We want to give college students a voice in how we use our platform and our model,” Mader said. “We give them creative abilities to find ways to give back directly to their community. So if they’re selling socks on campus, we’re going to be donating those donation pairs to a shelter of their choosing.”

The St. Thomas group of Hippy Feet ambassadors currently has eight members. Most of the ambassadors got involved through personal connections with Hippy Feet employees.

Brand ambassadors and juniors Lauren Knisley and Renee Simonson designed a St. Thomas-themed pair of socks for Hippy Feet called Tommie Tubes.

“After designing it, seeing a drawn up version of it, and then having it actually for sale online, it was really cool and rewarding to see I made that,” Knisley said.

The group is currently prohibited from selling the socks directly on campus, so they are focusing on marketing the socks to students instead.

“Because of the limitations that St. Thomas gives us, we’re more trying to sell the socks through word of mouth, through social media, and we’re hoping to get some advertising going on on campus,” brand ambassador sophomore Maddie Harvey said.

The Hippy Feet ambassadors at St. Thomas chose Women’s Advocates, a domestic violence shelter in St. Paul, to receive their proceeds.

“One of our duties is to be advocates for Hippy Feet, so not only telling others about it but wearing the socks and believing in the brand and what it is that we do and why it’s important,” Knisley said.

The group is not currently accepting any new members, but will potentially expand in the future.

“I think that we’re probably going to start running an application process,” Harvey said. “Maybe set up a series of interviews, that kind of a thing, just to try to get more people who are really passionate like we are involved.”

Solveig Rennan can be reached at renn6664@stthomas.edu.

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