Industry Watch

Maple Grove apparel company, Hands & Feet, is working to end childhood hunger

Wearing your heart on your sleeve

Maple Grove apparel company, Hands & Feet, is working to end childhood hunger

By Nate Garvis, Tom Wiese and Kolina Cicero

One in six children in Minnesota is hungry. Nationally, the number totals 13 million. Childhood hunger is a dilemma of such gravitas that sometimes it can feel like we can’t make a difference. But Studio/E member Eric Elwer has hopes as big as the dilemma itself. Formerly an executive at Prime Therapeutics, Eric left his comfortable career in corporate to pursue his and his wife’s passion: service to others. 

Eric and Susan Elwer met at Winona State University, and today, they run Hands & Feet, an apparel company that donates half of its proceeds to organizations working to end childhood hunger in the United States. The apparel is covered with inspiring messages designed to motivate and encourage, and their goal is equally inspiring: to create 100,000 meals in 2018. Eric shared with us the story of being enrolled into Hands & Feet, where he gets his drive to give back, and how others can create impact in their communities. 

Studio/E: What is the best thing about leaving corporate America?
Eric: Being able to choose who I spend time with.
 
Studio/E: What was the genesis of Hands & Feet?
Eric: Susan initially had the idea of selling apparel with encouraging messages. However, it was when she identified the purpose behind her idea that we actually moved forward. When we found out that a boy in the preschool class Susan works in had been going without lunch for the first three months of school, we decided we were going to be more than just another apparel company. Through our research, we learned that one in six kids in Minnesota faces hunger on a daily basis. Susan was one of those kids, growing up on welfare in St. Paul, and the boy’s story resonated with her. She enrolled me in her idea, and now this is something we do together. 

Studio/E: What motivates you to create impact and give back to society?
Eric: I have been incredibly blessed in my life, any way you measure it: relationships, family, experiences, financially and spiritually. We believe in the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected. Susan and I are both wired that way.
 
Studio/E: Solving childhood hunger is a colossal goal. What keeps you motivated to keep going? 
Eric: When children don’t eat, every aspect of their lives is touched. Hunger has an impact on them as students, siblings, teammates — food is a foundational part of every kid’s life. One of our core values is hope. Research shows that oftentimes, hope begins with a meal. It’s also one of those problems that are so big that we alone can’t solve it. It will take a community to make a dent in it, and that’s what we want to create.

Studio/E: What kind of community?
Eric: Individuals, families, companies, churches, schools — and not just the Twin Cities community. We are working to connect and create a national community around this effort.
 
Studio/E: How does your desire to help people do epic things manifest in your life?
Eric: It starts with where and how I spend my time. Whether that’s the work or mentoring I’m doing or the mentoring and coaching I’m receiving. It is about truly understanding what peoples’ capabilities and capacities are, then putting tools, training, resources and connections around them to make the most of their gifts. I have been a huge beneficiary of this in my life and am honored by every opportunity I have to return the favor.
 
Studio/E: What advice would you give to readers wanting to create impact in their communities?
Eric: “Be Strong and Courageous.”  It’s one of our favorite and most popular messages — start there! Fear never bites as hard as regret.

Less Thinking / More Doing.  Studio/E taught me the value and discipline of learning through short, well-defined sprints. Susan and I are living this as we build Hands & Feet. Progress over perfection!

It’s not about you. I firmly believe that. When we pay attention, the universe continually provides openings to help others. Look for the next opportunity to make an impact in someone’s life. Start small by simply buying coffee for the person in line behind you and watch your appetite grow.Just start. There is a question that Susan and I love: What hangs in the balance of your decision to act on an opportunity, problem, person in need, etc.? You can’t possibly know the significance of what is placed in front of you right now; your only job is to act!

An apparel company is not going to end childhood hunger on its own. But by enrolling passionate people and organizations into the bold idea, the Elwers are going to make a dent. And that’s as much as anyone can do. 

 

This story appears in print in our July/August issue. For a complimentary subscription, click here.