In the US, around 13.1 million children struggle with food insecurity. The mission of Hands & Feet is to help end childhood hunger in the United States. According to the company’s Founder, Susan Elwer, “We accomplish this by donating 50% of the profits to our local non-profit partners who are working to end childhood hunger in the United States. There is enough food available in the United States for everyone. The issue is how do we get the food into the hands of the people who need it and at the right time?”
Susan is familiar with food insecurity. “I grew up in a single parent household that relied on welfare for housing, food, and medical needs. Although we had limited financial resources, I never felt like I did without. When it got closer to payday or food stamp day, the contents of our cupboards would dwindle, but I don't think I gave it much thought.
“Looking back, I can appreciate how good my mom was at meal planning and budgeting. I don't think it was until around the fourth grade that I realized my circumstances were different than some of my friends. I especially remember never having the option to pack a cold lunch because I received free hot lunch at school. As I got older and realized we didn't have ‘regular’ money to buy food, trips to the grocery store grew increasingly embarrassing because we had to pay with food stamps. I would typically help with bagging or make myself scarce when it came time to pay.”Entrepreneurship Was Not in Her Life Plan
She did not grow up imagining herself as an entrepreneur. “As a child, I was quiet and shy. I did what I was told and followed the rules. I didn't rock the boat - at school or home. As I got older, I knew that if I wanted to have a different life than those I saw around me, I would need to get an education beyond high school. When I first told my mother that I wanted to go to college, she immediately dismissed the idea and said I should get a job instead. At the time her response made me angry. Now, as an adult, I realize she was speaking from a place of fear. She knew she couldn't help with college expenses so therefore to her; it wasn't an option.”
Despite the barriers, Susan found a way to complete her degree at Winona State University, where she studies Sociology and Criminal Justice.
“Until four years ago I was a stay at home mother, a role that I loved and embraced wholeheartedly,” Susan says. “When our youngest daughter was in the first grade, I decided to re-enter the workforce. For the past four years, I have worked as an assistant in a pre-school room.”Turning an Idea into a Business
How did Susan come up with the idea for Hands & Feet? “In late 2015 I was sitting in church and had a vision to create apparel with inspiring and encouraging messages to change the conversation. My vision didn't go any further than the piece of paper I wrote it on.” She knew it was a good idea, but the idea seemed incomplete. It wasn’t until November 2016, that she came up with a greater purpose for the business.
“I was working as an assistant in my pre-school classroom. One of the teachers told me that a 4-year-old student of ours had gone the first three months of the school year without a lunch. This broke my heart and brought me to tears. Immediately this brought up memories of growing up on welfare. I was all too familiar with the shame and stigma associated with being on welfare. I knew that this was my opportunity to do something.
“This was when vision met purpose. We took my vision for creating apparel with inspiring messages and combined it with the purpose of helping to end childhood hunger in the United States. In August of 2017, we launched Hands & Feet. We named our company Hands & Feet because we want to be of service to others.”
How did Hands & Feet go beyond the idea phase? “We thought we had a good idea, but we tested the concept with friends, family, and other business people. The feedback we received was extremely positive and encouraging. People agreed that we had a workable concept. From there we reached into our network of people for help on how to build a website, how to produce apparel, how to do PR, to understand who is working on hunger-related issues and more.”Challenges and Luck
What was their biggest challenge along the way? “One of our biggest challenges continues to be building brand awareness. I have decided not to return to the classroom in the fall so I can devote all my energy to building Hands & Feet.” How have they gotten the word out so far? According to Susan, “Our presence on social media platforms - Facebook and Instagram. Also, we have participated in different pop-up events. This has allowed us to meet our potential customers and tell our story firsthand and build relationships.”
They had a few lucky breaks along the way. “My initial vision for Hands & Feet was to be a retail apparel brand. Shortly after we launched, we had the amazing opportunity to create shirts for the Walk to End Hunger at the Mall of America. Although creating corporate and event-based apparel wasn't something that we initially thought about offering we quickly realized this is another way to build brand awareness.”What is Next for Hands & Feet?
“We are in the process of figuring out how to build an infrastructure to support some big corporate opportunities we are pursuing: how to supply hundreds of thousands of shirts for those opportunities. When we do this, our impact will rocket to millions of meals created. Also, we are continuing to build our retail presence organically through a variety of avenues, including pop-ups, makers markets, and other traditional retail outlets.”
Their idea seems to be gaining traction. In 2017, with just a few months of operation, Hands & Feet contributed enough money to their nonprofit partner to provide over 18,000 meals. For 2018 their goal is to create 100,000 meals.
What has been most rewarding for Susan? “The impact Hands & Feet is having in our community and across the United States. In addition, launching my own business has turned me into a dreamer and doer. I'm driven by the unwavering support of my husband Eric and the ability to give my daughters a front row seat to my journey.”Best Advice for Social Entrepreneurs
What is the best advice that Susan can pass along to early-stage social entrepreneurs? “Don't be afraid to ask for help. No one expects you to have all the answers. You will be amazed at how willing people are to share their expertise.” She adds, “Slow down and be present. If I hadn't slowed down and reflected on the need I saw in one 4-year-old boy's life - Hands & Feet wouldn't be here today. When you see an opportunity, move on it! One simple act can make an impact beyond your wildest imagination.”Social Entrepreneur Quotes by Susan Elwer
“I had a vision come to me to create apparel with inspiring messages.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“If I was going to wear apparel, I wanted that message to mean something to me.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“It didn’t go anywhere except my journal.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“One of the teachers told me, we’ve got a student who has gone the first three months of school without a lunch.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“It brought back memories of my own childhood.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“I didn’t have a why. I didn’t have a purpose.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“In 2016, vision met purpose.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“We wouldn’t know where best to spend those dollars, so let’s go to the experts.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Wherever you’re purchasing, that’s where those dollars go.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Our customers want to feel like they’re making an impact in their own community.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Going hungry, it’s a silent issue. No one wants to talk about it.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“More often than not, it’s working families.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“This is an OK thing. I can go ask for help.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“How exactly are these garments made? That’s the other part of this equation.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“We want to make sure the product itself has a good back story as well.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Now more than ever, consumers are savvy.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“You can’t build a business by yourself.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Launching Hands & Feet turned me into a dreamer and a doer.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Nothings going to get done if you’re just sitting there.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“We didn’t really have a goal. We said, let’s just put this out there and see where it goes.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Hands & Feet is an apparel company, but at the end of the day, our purpose is to create meals for children.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“It shows strength and courage to be able to ask for help.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“You don’t have to know it all.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“There are people in the world who are more than happy to share their time and expertise with you.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“If I hadn’t slowed down and reflected on the needs of this one 4-year-old boy, Hands & Feet would not be here.” Susan Elwer, Hands & Feet
“There are opportunities out there for all of us.” Susan Elwer, Hands & FeetSocial Entrepreneurship Resources:
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