RIVER FALLS — For University of Wisconsin-River Falls alumnus Michael Mader, running a company is more than dollars and cents.

The 27-year-old Twin Cities area entrepreneur and co-founder of Hippy Feet is known for giving back to the community — the sock company provides employment opportunities and other support to young people experiencing homelessness and also recently partnered with former Minnesota Wild player Jason Zucker and TV/radio personality Carly Zucker on the couple’s GIVE16 initiative to support University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.

Mader's work was noticed by AACSB International, a global network of accredited business schools, which named him to its 2021 Class of Influential Leaders.

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Now in its sixth year, the initiative recognizes alumni from AACSB-accredited business schools “whose inspiring work serves as a model for the next generation of business leaders,” according to a news release.

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The Star-Observer caught up with Mader to ask him about the title and to get an update on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Hippy Feet and its mission.

Star-Observer: Congratulations on being named an AACSB Influential Leader. Why is it important for business leaders to give back to the community?

Michael Mader: We live in a world with many issues, severe inequalities and a lack of resources to go around. As a business owner, you have a platform to stand on and eyes and ears who are influenced by the things you do and say. It is my belief that this platform creates a responsibility to use it for positive change. We shouldn't (and cannot) rely on the government to address and solve the issues that we face as a society. I believe that business owners should take action against these issues and build companies that have the ability to not only maximize profits, but to maximize the impact that their business can have for people and for the environment.

S-O: How did your time at UW-River Falls prepare or inspire you to do this kind of work?

Mader: My time at River Falls prepared me for the wild roller coaster ride that is entrepreneurship. While I was a senior at UWRF, I focused my time on studying the Lean Business Model. This educational background has been tremendously valuable as Hippy Feet is not a venture-backed company and we've had to scale our business by being lean and ensuring that each dollar we spend has the ability to earn us another. Lean Startup Methodology prioritizes the need to make pivots when necessary, which has been an invaluable background to have.

Not only did my time at UWRF help fine tune my entrepreneurial skills, but it also inspired me to focus on building a business that could give back others. I had a tremendous amount of support from faculty and advisors during my time at school and allowed me to realize how fortunate I was to have a group of individuals invested in my success. This realization motivated me to align Hippy Feet with its mission to employ homeless young people so that I could invest in others and provide them with a crucial support group as they start back on the path towards self sufficiency.

S-O: The pandemic has been especially difficult for people experiencing homelessness. How has Hippy Feet adapted to COVID-19?

Mader: One of the biggest challenges Hippy Feet faced this year came at the beginning of the pandemic when the lockdown began. Up until that point, Hippy Feet was bringing our employment program directly to youth homeless shelters and employing young people on the spot. That method of creating jobs ended as we were no longer safely able to enter these shelters and employ homeless youth without exposing them to further risk. We had to come up with creative solutions for how we were going to employ homeless youth including delivering boxes of socks and packaging materials to young people who were fortunate enough to have been placed in emergency shelters during the early months of the pandemic.

Now that social distancing policies have relaxed, Hippy Feet has moved its employment program to our offices where we organize groups of three to five young people up to four times per week. In order to ensure the young people we employ aren't facing barriers that limit them from coming to work, we partner with local non profits to connect the young people with things like bus and gas cards, work boots and interview clothing.

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