Sock entrepreneur Marisa Sheff is helping the homeless, one pair at a time

Marisa Sheff selling her socks

Marisa Sheff wants to “sock it” to the cold, bare feet of the homeless.

In August 2019, the Toronto-based entrepreneur launched Sock Footage, a company that sells boutique socks, online and in vending machines. But the shtick isn’t just that the socks have fun designs: ice cream, bourbon, poker hands, rubber ducks, etc. It’s that Sheff has integrated charity in the transaction, giving the customer a complimentary pair to gift to someone in need.

She reached a major milestone this October with 10,000 pairs of socks donated.

The stars aligned to inspire her to start the business. In her previous job, she worked for a large sock manufacturer for five years. During her time there, she learned socks were one of the most needed items, yet least donated, to homeless shelters.

“And as you can imagine, if you’re a homeless individual, you’re on your feet, all day long. It’s your primary mode of transportation to get you from point A to point B, whether that’s your next meal, or your next job interview,” she notes. “And if you only have one pair of socks, which in some cases, they don’t even have one pair, you’re going to move through them quickly.”

Sheff had also volunteered at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, where she played board games with patients. “My biggest takeaway from that experience was that I think people were coming in because they craved connection and conversation, and they obviously weren’t getting it out on the street,” she says.

“It gave me a new perspective. And so, when I decided to start this business, I wanted to incorporate some sort of angle that would allow people to connect with that community, while trying to reduce some of the stigma associated with being homeless. Part of my model, is I give the consumer the opportunity to give face to face, so they can be involved in the final donation.”

“You get to see the reaction of the person on the receiving end. You get to see how grateful they are. You get to have, in some cases, a conversation with that person. Maybe they’ll share a bit of their story.”

She explained that story can vary, as there is a “wide assumption homelessness is always related to mental health, or addiction issues.” But in some cases, she says, it can be domestic violence, becoming an orphan, or another series of life-altering events. “You never really know what someone’s going through.”

The project is partnered with Ve’ahavta, a Jewish humanitarian organization, which has handed out thousands of Sock Footage socks to those living on the streets of Toronto.

“For the almost 800 people living outdoors in the city who do not have access to laundry facilities, clean, dry socks are a critical piece of clothing to ensure their health and safety,” notes Cari Kozierok, executive director of Ve’ahavta. “We are incredibly grateful to Marisa for undertaking this initiative, and so grateful for our partnership with Sock Footage.”

In the fall of 2020, Sock Footage placed a sock vending machine at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto. With any purchase, a second pair dropped for the purchaser to donate. Another vending machine has recently been placed at Dufferin Mall, and will remain there until Oct. 31, 2022. A bin has been placed next to the machine for on-site donations, which will be delivered to Sistering, an agency for at-risk, socially isolated women and trans people in Toronto, who are homeless or precariously housed.

Sock Footage’s sock vending machine

It’s a full-time gig for Sheff, who’s now even busier as she receives requests to accommodate bar and bat mitzvah “mitzvah projects.”

A recent one included a Harry Potter themed bar mitzvah, which was tied to the character of Dobby, who is gifted several pairs of socks. Two hundred guests left with Sock Footage novelty socks, and a pair to donate.

“Sock Footage is a perfect example of how to use the mitzvah process to give back on a higher level,” said Jian Magen, president of the Magen Group, which provided the entertainment at that bar mitzvah. “When I saw the display and initiative, I instantly felt that this needs to be a staple in all of the community’s simchas.”

In Toronto, the public can purchase Sock Footage wares from Dec. 17-22 at the Evergreen Brick Works’ holiday market.