When you think of the immediate needs of the homeless, clean socks may not be the first thing that come to mind. But they’re essential, says Ira Gooch, a program coordinator at Bridge Over Troubled Water, a shelter for homeless youth in downtown Boston. “We’re dealing with a real sock shortage,” he notes. “We’re not allowed to accept used socks. And when you’re homeless, socks are a really big deal.”
Socks are an afterthought to most people, but they are the most requested item at homeless shelters. Gooch explains that when you’re homeless, your socks wear out easily, since you’re walking a lot. It’s hard to keep your socks clean because you don’t have easy access to a washing machine. As a result, many people on the street develop foot problems. “We see cases of frostbite in the winter,” he says. “Kids come in with blisters and bleeding feet, athlete’s foot, and other infections. It’s not pretty.”
In 2013, entrepreneurs Randy Goldberg and David Heath stumbled across a Facebook post that mentioned a serious need for socks at homeless shelters around the country. They decided to launch a sock company called Bombas that would follow the one-for-one model pioneered by the shoe brand Toms and adopted by brands like Warby Parker. Bombas has worked hard to develop a line of premium, high-tech, fashionable socks, between $12 and $18, that customers would want to buy. Some of Bombas’s best-selling socks are dapper polka-dot dress socks for men and pastel color-block crew socks for women. Four years later, they have sold–and donated–nearly four million pairs.
Last week, when I visited Bridge Over Troubled Water, three employees from the Bombas headquarters in New York had come to donate socks. While the brand sends thousands of socks to 750 organizations around the country, they occasionally drop them off in person. “It’s a great way for us to bond as a team,” says Emily Hofstetter, who was employee number three at Bombas and is now the brand’s head of communications. “We also think it’s really important to connect with the people we are serving as a company, because it reminds us about our mission.”
The Bombas team has come with a big bag of socks, but they’ve also come with a picnic. Fifty young people are expected to show up for a special lunch prepared by Bombas, so the team spends two hours cutting up watermelon, laying out lunch meats, and cutting up tomatoes and lettuce leaves. Kelly Cobb, Bombas’s VP of community and giving, has spent the weekend baking cupcakes with her mother for this event.
At noon, young people begin streaming into the shelter’s games room. The Bombas employees form a line to serve them deli-style, making individual sandwiches to their specifications. “Dijon or honey mustard?” Cobb asks one young man. They spend a minute discussing the merits of each and he settles on the Dijon. “Good choice,” she says.
Hofstetter says that these interactions have helped Bombas better serve the homeless. It was through the feedback they received from the community that they decided to reengineer the socks they would donate to the homeless. “At first, we firmly believed that those experiencing homelessness deserved the same exact socks that we sell to our customers,” Hofstetter says. “But then it became clear that the homeless community have different needs, so our regular collection wasn’t serving them well.”
While regular Bombas socks have a special seam that eliminates the bump at the toe, for added comfort, the donation socks have a reinforced seam to make them more durable. The socks are treated with anti-microbial technology, so they don’t need to be washed as frequently and deter fungus. Also, these donation socks only come in black, which is more stain resistant. “We know we’re not solving the problem of homelessness with what we do,” says Cobb says. “But our goal is to solve an immediate need. And right now, that need is socks.”
But Hofstetter points out that these visits are also reinvigorating to employees, since it puts a face to the people they are trying to help with their business. It also gives meaning to their everyday tasks–like making spreadsheets and calling suppliers–when they return to the office.
Now, Bombas is trying to pave the way for other companies to have in-person giving experiences. Bombas is uniquely equipped to do this, since it has built relationships with homeless shelters and the nonprofit sector. Many companies have time and funds set aside for employees to contribute to charitable causes, but it can be hard to know exactly how. “Whenever we talk to other companies, they always say they want to increase their social good initiatives, they just don’t know where to start,” Hofstetter says.
This year, Bombas has been creating ways for other brands to dip their toe into the world of social good. In February, they created an event called “60K day,” which was based on the concept than on any given night, 60,000 people in New York end up at a homeless shelter. The plan was to bring individuals from 60 of New York’s hottest companies to visit a shelter and hand out 60,000 socks. Among the brands that showed up were startups like Birchbox, Thinx, Kind, Casper, Classpass, Harry’s, Maple, and Spring, among more established brands like Gap, LinkedIn, Shake Shack, and Kenneth Cole.
For people who haven’t interacted with vulnerable communities before, the process can seem daunting. Bombas helped bridge this gap by offering some guidelines about how to chat with people experiencing homelessness. For instance, it is important to be warm and friendly in conversations, but it is best not to ask where someone is from, since this might be a painful issue for them to talk about.
“The goal was to make it really easy for them to participate in the sock donations,” Hofstetter explained. “But it was also about starting a broader conversation about homelessness, and providing a model for these companies to replicate about how to get involved with their communities.”
The event was a big success. Employees from the various brands mingled and felt a sense of community, but it also spurred conversations about how each company can use their own particular areas of strength to contribute in their own unique ways. Birchbox, for instance, has been donating boxes of beauty products–from shampoo to nail polish–to homeless women. Harry’s has been donating razors to people in need and funding charities that serve veterans. Shake Shack has been enlisting its staff to donate food to the hungry after work. These discussions spurred other, less socially involved brands to consider how they can help.
This summer, Bombas launched another program called “Skip Day,” where it invites New York-based companies to take advantage of Summer Fridays and flexible summer hours to volunteer to serve the homeless community. Bombas makes it easy for individuals at companies to jump right into the work. Employees from different companies can gather and assemble bags of products that the homeless need to get through the hot summer months, such as cold bottles of water, ice pops, and wipes. They then go out into the streets to hand these out.
Right now, all of these programs are taking place in New York, where Bombas is based. But soon, Bombas wants to bring this model to other cities around the country.
“We don’t want Skip Day to be a one-off chance for people to help,” Hofstetter says. “We’re trying to lay a foundation so that they feel comfortable continuing to do this work on their own. There is so much need, we need all hands on deck.”