“When I was fourteen years old I started running. My sister said, ‘You have talent. Go run.’ So I joined the cross country team and after my first race, I sucked. I thought I was going to quit the team because I had no idea what to expect. But as I was getting on the bus to compete in my second race, my coach gave me a card that said, ‘I am proud of you.’ That was the first time I was introduced to the word ‘proud.’ My heart was racing, my stomach was going nuts because I didn’t understand it, but I understood it enough to go, ‘This means something special.’ She believed in me when I didn’t know how to believe in myself.”
Rachel Smith grew up in a seven-person family that was, as she puts it, “super, super poor.” Both of her parents are Deaf; only her father worked. Resources were scarce. “Among many things, we fought over socks,” she explains. “If there was a brand new pair of socks, we’d hide them from each other so we could have a nice pair. We shared all our socks. They were a hot commodity in our house. We all had obsessions with certain things.”
Rachel learned throughout her childhood that a little bit of encouragement can go a very long way. As an adult, she practiced this dogma as a high school special education teacher, working mostly with kids with emotional behavior and learning disabilities. “They struggled with the same thing on an academic level that I had suffered on an athletic level [while running track and cross country]. These were the kids that were told, ‘You’re stupid. You can’t, you won’t, and you never will’; that’s how they were brought up. Knowing this, I would create lessons modified to lead them to success. Once there, I’d explain what they were feeling and talk about self pride and accomplishment. I was my coach but for my own students. It was the best feeling to give back.”
But her sock “obsession”–something she shares with her older brother–soon came back into prominence. Rachel continually asked to work for her brother until he told her to do her own thing. “Finally,” she said, “Okay, I will.”
Pride Socks–one of our choice shops from SXSW 2018–exists at the intersection between necessary commodity and necessary inspiration. Its biggest goal is to share stories of people’s inspirational proudest moments and use those stories to be a catalyst for others to make positive changes in their own lives.
Rachel designs the socks, which are made at a family-run manufacturer in Alabama. Rachel visits at least a couple times every year, driving from Pride Socks’ home base in Austin, Texas. “I know who my main contacts are, but I want to meet everyone… I like to see who my people are – those making and touching my socks. Everyone’s job there means a lot to me.” As opposed to manufacturing overseas, Rachel feels that working with a quasi-local business allows her to really connect with the company and its community. “I like being able to get in the car and drive. When I go, I stay with the owner, …have dinner with his family… it’s important to me that my people know how much they mean to us.” She also enjoys treating the workers to lunch to show her appreciation. “We wouldn’t have it any other way,” she adds.
Obviously, it hasn’t been easy. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘If you had known how much hard work it would’ve been, would you have done it?'” says Rachel with a smile. “A few years in, [I would say] “No.” But now, after eight years of Pride Socks, Rachel says, “Absolutely, I would have.”
She emphasizes her “bicultural background”: that of a white woman, and that of the Deaf culture, which “is less than 1% of the population.”
“People don’t know that I have the Deaf culture in me. Before I’m hearing, I’m deaf,” she explains. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time just listening to people… That was when I became aware that the way that I thought was different.” She spent time and effort “absorbing” the difference between ASL and English to be able to navigate between worlds. This challenge, however, has helped Rachel in becoming extremely passionate, determined, and resilient.
While she credits her challenging childhood for her dedicated and driven mindset and has objectively been very successful Rachel emphasizes–and clearly demonstrates through Pride Socks’ benevolent causes–that she in no way feels superior or “better than.”
Custom for a Cause is Pride Socks’ partner project. The first campaign, which launched in November, features nine-year-old Japanese skateboarder Sky Brown, whom Rachel has been sponsoring for about four years. Further collaboration with Sky simply made sense for Pride Socks: Rachel says, “We have the same mission, we just execute it differently. Her mission is to empower girl skaters–you can do this, you can do anything. Our mission is pretty much the same, but on a broad scale based on the individual.” Proceeds from the “Sky’s the Limit” Custom for a Cause campaign go to ISF and help struggling kids in Cambodia by encouraging them to attend school.
The next Custom for a Cause collaboration will be with seven-year-old Ruby Plachta, whose organization Ruby’s Rainbow provides college scholarships for adults with down syndrome–or, as Ruby’s Rainbow says, those who “rock that extra chromosome!”
Future plans for Pride Socks include continuing to work with non-profits by donating socks, and launching a shirt line with carpe diem inspiring sentiments, “reminding people it’s a new day, a new beginning, with new opportunities.” Rachel is also working on a subscription box service, with monthly deliveries based around a sock’s name/theme: “Fearless,” for example. Rachel wants to create a “Back to School Box” with two of every item, so “the receiving child can take it to school, meet a new friend, and pen up that conversation.” Rachel knows from personal experience that all it takes is one sentence, one phrase to completely change a child’s mindset. Socks may seem like a strange method, but sometimes it’s best to start from the ground–or the feet–up.