Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Sam Harper & Hippy Feet Decided To Change Our World
…I see homelessness as a symptom of a broken system. To fix the root of the issue, we need to take steps towards fixing systemic issues that keep people in poverty or limit their economic mobility.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Harper.
Sam Harper is one of the founders of Hippy Feet — a sock and apparel company on a mission to provide jobs to homeless youth. Sam launched Hippy Feet in 2016 alongside co-founder, Michael Mader. Since its launch, the company has been able to provide transitional jobs to over 120 young people affected by homelessness while producing all of its products in the United States using eco-friendly materials. Previously, Harper has held leadership positions across a number of technology organizations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I’m originally from Hudson, Wisconsin, a small town on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul.
I like to say that I’m the most easily inspired person in the world. I’d see someone play piano well and then I’d want to play piano. I’d watch a great basketball player and then I’d wanted to play basketball. As a result, I’ve found myself as a master-of-none, but dabbling in just about everything.
My parents did a great job of fostering that curiosity, and I have an older sister who helped make just about any pursuit a competitive one. My parents are both extremely hardworking and humble people that put both of those qualities at the forefront of our family’s values. These values, plus that competitive bug, always had me interested in the business world.
When I started my freshman year at St. John’s University, a high school friend was starting a cause-brand at another Minnesota college. I helped out in a number of different roles as we grew the company quickly, unintentionally giving me exposure to the world of social entrepreneurship. Throughout that time, I held a seat on that organization’s board of directors and had some great learning experiences leading up graduating in 2016. That following fall, I launched Hippy Feet with my business partner, Michael.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
In its most basic form, Hippy Feet’s mission is to combat street homelessness. We recognize that through no control of their own, some people will be born into circumstances where they have a support system and ample opportunity while others will not. We’re looking to empower a generation of young people who have been affected by homelessness and provide them a support system that may be missing from their lives.
We feel that we can have the greatest impact when we give a young person the tools and resources to change their own outcome. Rather than handouts, we provide employment opportunities, basic job training, and when possible, a reference to a full-time position outside of Hippy Feet.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I believe that everyone has a responsibility to have a positive impact on the people around them. Many people have certain life experiences that influence the causes they support, but I haven’t been able to choose one that is more worthy of support than any other. We need to continue to make strides in medicine AND poverty alleviation AND with climate change. The list goes on. Caring for the homeless community allows me to direct my effort towards a cross-section of people who are in the most need. Homelessness has a number of root causes and as a result, a wide range of people are homeless.
I look at homelessness as not just one issue, but a degree of severity for many issues.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I originally came together with Michael to start a buy-one, give-one sock company. At the time, socks were one of the most requested but least donated clothing items at homeless shelters. We created Hippy Feet with the mission to meet this need while keeping American made, eco-friendly products a priority.
The real “Aha Moment” came after we had already launched. We got a lot of support once we launched and we were able to donate over 20,000 pairs of socks. We would go out on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul handing out socks to the homeless community. Every week we would come back and hand out more socks, but we were giving them to the same people. It felt like a band-aid fix. They had worn a hole in their previous pair of socks and needed another, but their position hadn’t improved at all.
I actually had quite a bit of guilt from this. It felt superficial. We were trying to do this great thing, but nothing was changing. When we talked to the people we were meeting on the street we found that there were a number of reasons someone might experience homelessness. Many of the issues were things that we didn’t have the ability to change, but we could help provide opportunity.
We developed a program we call “Pop-Up Employment”. Through this initiative Hippy Feet brings jobs directly into homeless shelters, working with ages 16–24; we are eliminating many of the barriers that young people face when looking for work. To date, we’ve been able to provide transitional job opportunities to over 120 homeless youth.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I see people agonize over business and organizational plans without actually ever getting their idea out into the world. Rather than trying to perfect every aspect of your plan before you launch, get your idea out quickly and be ready to pivot to meet the needs of the group you’re trying to help. Most people aren’t very good at anticipating exactly what their end-recipient or customer is actually going to want, so getting in front of them and getting feedback is much more effective than thinking you know what they need.
From there, take chances and test out different ideas. Take these risks at a small scale and do it quickly so you can recover from individual failures.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I’m likely in the middle of this moment right now. Hippy Feet is a Minneapolis based company, and our community has stood up to demand justice on an unprecedented scale after the murder of George Floyd. Serving the homeless community, we disproportionately work with marginalized communities and people of color.
We now have to understand what role we have to play in rebuilding our community, and how we do that in a way that is more representative of all people and puts equity at the forefront of everything we do. We need to help elevate and amplify the voices of those with vastly different lived experiences than us.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When we first started, we had no idea how to find suppliers to actually make our socks. We reached out to dozens of different companies that more or less laughed us away or hung up the phone. I can’t really blame them for not wanting to take a chance on a couple 22 year olds that didn’t know what they were doing. Everything else for Hippy Feet was ready to go, we had a launch date on the calendar, but we didn’t actually have a real pair of Hippy Feet socks yet. I told my business partner Michael, “Next person you get on the phone, tell them that you’re showing up to their factory on Monday.”
Next thing we knew, Michael was on a plane to North Carolina. Later that day, we had someone willing to make our socks. Hippy Feet launched on a small budget and hasn’t taken on outside investment, but we learned that we sometimes had to act bigger than we actually were to be taken seriously.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
The story of Hippy Feet’s growth is really a story of a community coming together. When we set out to create this company that helped the homeless, we were fortunate to have friends and family there as cheerleaders through each step of the process.
Starting anything, especially when you’re young and inexperienced, means dealing with a lot of ambiguity. In that sense, all of our friends became our mentors and sounding boards for our ideas. My older sister, Maggie, was particularly influential. She knew exactly what we were hoping to accomplish and would make me think through every decision in terms of its impact on the homeless community.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
In 2018, we started working with a young woman named Christina (name changed for privacy reasons). When we first met Christina she was experiencing homelessness, waiting for a spot to open in a nearby transitional housing program. Hippy Feet began by providing Christina with a legitimate source of income. Our goal is to financially support young people so they don’t have to resort to a survival cash situation — doing something that is unsafe or illegal in order to survive.
The income from working in Hippy Feet’s Pop-Up Employment program originally provided Christina with the cash to buy food and basic necessities. Once she was pulled into transitional housing, the income from working with Hippy Feet, became used to stabilize her life a bit: pay bills, get her cell phone turned back on, etc.
We were able to refer Christina to a job at a local restaurant where she began working full time. She’s moved out of transitional housing, into an apartment, and is now in trade school to become an electrician.
Christina did all the work to improve her own situation, Hippy Feet just gave her a chance when others had given up.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I see homelessness as a symptom of a broken system. To fix the root of the issue, we need to take steps towards fixing systemic issues that keep people in poverty or limit their economic mobility.
Nearly every community has aspirations of progress, but rising tides don’t necessarily raise every boat. We need to give and support one another in a way that empowers others rather than simply dropping a bag of canned goods or old clothes off at a local homeless shelter. The intentions are well placed, but we need to provide better support to those in need.
As a society, we need to continue to look at the systems that either don’t serve or outright oppress entire communities. We need to understand that all of these issues are interconnected. Climate change impacts impoverished communities disproportionately. Systemic racism keeps non-white communities impoverished. We don’t simply get to pick one problem to tackle — we need to address all of them.
Politicians are in a position to effect meaningful long term change, but also help triage the situation in the short term. In the short term, we need either a legislative or market-based solution to increase the availability of affordable housing.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Ideas are worth less than the paper they’re written on.
When you’re first starting out, it’s fun to think about all the possibilities of what you can create, but they don’t mean anything unless you actually go do them. Almost everyone has good ideas. Doing them is the hard part.
It’s scary, and it won’t stop being scary any time soon.
As we’ve grown Hippy Feet and had some success, the challenges never end. I’ve talked to mentors and friends running larger companies; they echo this. Even when things happen at a larger scale, you’re just as invested in your mission as the day you started. You want to see it be successful, and the fear of failure doesn’t go away.
Getting your idea out quickly is more important than perfecting it.
I’ve found that I’m much more likely to get a successful result in something if I start doing it and course-correct as I’m going, rather than trying to get everything right from the beginning. I see a lot of people get hung up on trying to get the perfect name or perfect logo for whatever they’re trying to start, then never actually get their business or social cause off the ground.
It’s a marathon — whatever you’re doing, do it sustainably.
For the first couple of years of Hippy Feet, I would push myself to exhaustion every day. I would spend time working on vacations and holidays because I was so consumed by what we were doing. Burnout is real, and it prevents you from accomplishing as much as you could have if you had backed off the intensity and worked sustainably towards your goal.
Investing in people will always have the greatest ROI
Some of the most impactful relationships I have are from when I’ve given selflessly and not asked anything in return. Showing up and being truly supportive of another person without any expectations is the most fulfilling thing you can do.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The world, and all of the good or bad things in it, are created by ordinary people. Once you realize that, you recognize a new level of responsibility for your actions. You’re accountable to take care of the planet and the people on it.
The biggest problems we have won’t just magically resolve themselves. They require ordinary people to step up and find a solution.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would like to have a meal with Bill Gates. I admire his pragmatism when choosing which social issues to tackle. Many of these causes aren’t necessarily things that make for the best Instagram posts, but they move the needle for human beings and they improve outcomes for those in need.
How can our readers follow you online?
The best way for readers to stay in touch with me is via Instagram at @notsamharper Twitter at @maybesamharper.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!