UAC 175 | Hav A Sole

 

It is not very difficult to empathize with deprivation if you had been on the same boat before. As a child, Hav A Sole Founder, Rikki Mendias spent over five years in a shelter. His mother struggled to make ends meet and couldn’t even afford to buy him a pair of much needed shoes. This early deprivation caused Rikki to develop an obsession for shoes and he started building a substantial sneaker collection. One night, Rikki realized that he had more shoes than he needed and decided to give away some of them – a pivotal moment that started a movement that has been going strong through the years. From that moment, Hav A Sole has since given thousands of pairs of shoes to those in need. Looking back, the woman who gave Rikki his first pair of Vans at the shelter would be proud at the person he has become. Listen to this inspiring story on this episode with your host, Thane Marcus Ringler.

Listen to the podcast here:

Rikki Mendias: Hav A Sole: Purpose-Projects For Good, Overcoming Self-Limiting Beliefs, Holding The Faith In Dark Times, And Caring For Others One Pair Of Sneakers At A Time

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I’m excited to share this interview with you. It is an interview with Rikki Mendias. As a Founder, he has been the driving force behind Hav A Sole, and has been involved in every aspect of his development. He is responsible for product collection, domestic distribution, national travel, organizing events, and developing strategic partnerships within the community. As a young boy, he spent over five years in a shelter. He knows what it feels like to go without his mother who is struggling to make ends meet, couldn’t afford to buy him a pair of much-needed shoes.

One day, a former resident spoke at the shelter and offered to buy him two pairs of new Vans. He never forgot that woman’s kindness or the confidence that came from having a fresh pair of sneakers to wear to school. However, due to his early deprivation, he later started collecting sneakers in every style, color, and brand imaginable. His sneaker obsession continued until his early 30s when he was a fashion photographer and found his life felt meaningless to him. One night, Rikki realizing he had more shoes than he need, decided to give away some of his collection. The next day, he loaded up the back of his car with shoes and drove the streets of Los Angeles until he found someone who could benefit from a quality pair of shoes.

He asked the recipient if he could take before and after photographs, which he posted on social media. Friends all over the country were inspired and offered to send their extra shoes to him as well. Thus, Hav A Sole was born. In ten years, they’ve given out over 25,000 pairs of shoes to shelters at-risk youth and those in need. If you were to ask Rikki what he has learned from Hav A Sole, he will tell you, “I get more from giving a pair of shoes than I ever did from owning hundreds.” This was an amazing time with him.

Rikki and I got connected through Good City Mentors and Brian Larrabee who’s been on the show and several others from that program in Los Angeles. I knew from the start that Rikki is a genuine heartfelt guy. You’re going to read that in our conversation. He is as authentic and real as they come. He is an open-hearted caring man who’s doing a lot to impact others through simple ways as giving people shoes that need them. Hav A Sole has been around for a bit now. They’ve had some great growth, but they can always use more support. Go to HavASole.com to check out more of their work, mission and find ways that you can support them. It’s a worthy cause. I’d love for you to get behind what Rikki and them are doing and the impact they’re making.

In this conversation, you’re going to find a lot of topics, including how Rikki has been using code for good, starting new projects, overcoming self-limiting beliefs. His unconventional career paths, refocusing on service, how passion is different than the purpose which is a good section, holding faith in dark times, healing, family history, developing empathy, running a nonprofit, and more. It’s chock-full of great stuff. I know you’re going to enjoy it. I’ll let you sit back, relax, and enjoy this interview with Rikki Mendias.

Rikki Mendias, welcome to the show.

Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure and it’s been a while. How are you doing?

You are your worst critic. Click To Tweet

I’m doing well. With Good City Mentors, that’s where we first got connected and got to be involved with the awesome kids there at that program. I miss being in person. I’ve been grateful for COVID in the sense that I can now be with Good City Mentors while I’m in Denver. I moved, but it’s not the same as being there with them.

I do miss it as well. Brian has put together such an amazing program that impacts the youth and we were fortunate enough to be involved with it. I do look forward to getting back with Good City.

That’s a good place to start with COVID. What effects has COVID had on you and your work? What would you say about the season in 2020? What has it taught you or how has it changed you or what impact has it had on you as a person?

COVID has been devastating to many people across the world. We came to a complete stop. It has been ruining people’s bank accounts, lives, and it’s tough. We felt that it was a call to action. We didn’t want it to slow us down. We took action right away. We were going to make an impact some way or another. We made a decision to launch a program through Hav A Sole called Stay Home & Stay Active, where we challenged our local youth partners, The Watts Rams and the Watt Skills Academy. We challenged their kids to work out and pick up a book. What this consisted of was they logged in to their workout program via social media.

They tagged us so that we can then retag and keep track of what they were doing, and then pick up new reading material. This was done by the honor system though because I don’t have the time to do a book report. We launched it. When they finished the program, we delivered a pair of sneakers right to their doorstep. Dash and I drove around all of LA for four Fridays in a row, gave out about 75 pairs and we were keeping them active and their minds stimulated with the reading material.

The simplistic nature in that is it doesn’t have to be crazy. It’s simple but impactful because it’s actionable. You said, you viewed COVID as a call to action and you wanted to do something with it. What has led to that disposition? That’s not a natural or maybe normal disposition for most people to have a pandemic going on and say, “I’m going to take action. I’m not going to sit back and endure. I’m going to try and bring something out of this.” Where do you see that coming from for you?

The will to connect with people. COVID was going to cause massive shutdowns and we weren’t going to be able to connect with the people the way that we’re used to because, in Hav A Sole, we provide this retail experience and the most important thing about this organization is that we get that one-on-one connection. It’s similar to Good City Mentors and how they provide their service. It’s the need to connect with a human being. We didn’t want to let up. It was a need to connect. Even though we were doing it 6-feet apart with our gloves and with our mask on, at least we were able to drop off those shoes after the workout was done. It’s tough to pinpoint where to find that need, but we were missing people. As everybody else’s dealing with this, it’s been tough.

Would you say that there have been lasting changes from COVID that you project into the future with Hav A Sole? Do you see it reinforcing the core of that human-to-human contact?

Things have changed. We’re not going to be hugging our friends and loved ones as much as we love to. I’m going to let it play out and see where we are in 2021. We’ll make decisions there. What I look forward to getting back, for the most part, is being able to hug each other and have that one-on-one connection with people.

I heard you talk about the power of a meaningful hug with someone and what that conveys, especially to people that maybe have been deprived of something as simple as that in their life, what do you see is the impact that a hug can bring? Do you have any of those hugs that have been most meaningful or lasting moments?

The first one wasn’t even my hug. It was me witnessing one of my good friends hug another, and the woman that she hugged said that she hadn’t been hugged in years. This is somebody living on the streets and having a difficult time. We’re based in LA. We do a lot of our work in Skid Row. Due to COVID, we’ve had to slow those efforts down. We’ve been focused on more youth and trying to stay safe. That hug, I remember the emotion she had on her face, tears came down her face and it was amazing for me to even witness that. A hug that I can remember giving was, we launched a new program also in COVID called Hav A Sole For Success, which is a mentorship development/paid internship program for kids.

UAC 175 | Hav A Sole

 

What they get to do with this program is they get to learn how to run a nonprofit. They get paid to do it, but then also we had amazing speakers. One of them owns their own marketing agency, NBA owner, business owner, and Harvard graduate. We brought in speakers to teach them and give them different perspectives on life. Our kids went through the program. On the last day, I gave one of them a hug and he was like, “This feels like a goodbye hug.” I said, “No. We’re just getting started.” He was like, “Can I have another one?” I was like, “I’m proud of you.” I gave him another hug. He was like, “I’ve never had a I’m proud of you hug before.” To think about that is both sad and inspirational for me. The sad part of it is no one has ever told this young man that they’re proud of him. The other side of it is, “I am proud of you.”

It’s funny that we forget how powerful these things are that are accessible and attainable by every single person. There’s not a single person that can’t give someone a hug. The caveat is COVID. Outside of that, we always have the ability to give someone something as simple as that. You don’t know the impact that something that simple can bring. If you go back to the origin of, let’s start with Hav A Sole For Success, because this is something that would be interesting to dive into. In this program, there has to be an idea and then there has to come to the execution to see it through. You strike me as someone who is willing to act even without a clear understanding of all the steps ahead. What was the origin of that program specifically, and how did you go through the inevitable obstacles that come with starting even a program like that within your pre-existing business or company?

Hav A Sole For Success was originally inspired by Good City Mentors, volunteering with Brian, Dash, and I fell in love with the young men in our group over at Bernstein High. As we consistently got to know them, you want to be there for them and get to learn their life stories. They get to learn about us. We realize that we’re not that much different. I remember one of the kids having a tough time with gangs and hustling. I remember him saying something like afterschool, he had to do some initiation where he had to rob somebody. Personally, with the relationship I was building with him, I didn’t want him to go out there and rob people.

I told him this, “What are you going to rob the person for to get the money? If it’s about the money, I have an opportunity for you. Come work at Hav A Sole headquarters and I’ll pay you $50 an hour. I can max you out at two hours. I’ll give you $100 to come work. The flip side of that is you can’t go out there and join a gang and beat anybody up or rob anybody. Stick to the book and we can make this work.” He came in and worked for us for two hours and cut them a check. That was the start to it.

Without even knowing that I wanted to do a full program, this was something I wanted to do for him. High school people talk, a couple of other kids came up to me. It was like, “I’d like to work for Hav A Sole. I might have some opportunities.” I was like, “What if they have to submit a resume to Hav A Sole, go through an interview process, dress up, and learn about this?” The idea started to form. I started to put it all together. I was sitting in the Bernstein office, getting ready to work with some of the kids that we’ve been working with.

The name came, Hav A Sole For Success. It’s a simple play off of our already established nonprofit. I’m a visual person so that I could see what this could do for people. Originally, similar to what Good City is doing, we drop into a school, bring in 30 kids, run them through the program, and then we hire five of them for the paid internship. COVID was closing down schools all over America. I was like, “How are we going to do this?” That’s when we handpicked five students and brought them into the program.

It was like, “How are we going to get the money to operate?” I put together a budget and proposal for one of our biggest supporters. I said, “I need your help with this.” He was like, “I’m in.” He cut the check and we were able to run the pilot program in July 2020. Through COVID, we gave five employment opportunities. We kept it safe and socially distanced. It was a learning space and it was amazing. You’ve got to go out and do it.

Me and Dash were joking around, I’ll call him Dr. Dash and me Professor Rikki because we had the opportunity to teach these five kids. I didn’t graduate from high school and never went to college. For me to come in here and have some good things for these kids to learn, it meant a lot. In 2021, I want to go out there and get my GED. That’d be twenty years after I was supposed to graduate. It’s my twenty-year anniversary. I’m going to celebrate that by getting my GED. A lot is going on and we’re trying to do the best we can.

Why go back and get your GED? What does that mean to you?

If I can be completely honest, it doesn’t mean anything to me. It means more about the credibility and the story of it all. For me to step into somebody in high school and say, “You need to graduate.” They could easily point the finger at me and say, “You didn’t.” That’s true. I believe that you don’t need to be a college education or a high school diploma to make it, but if you do look at me, it took me 15 to 20 years to get where I am. I do truly believe that at least a high school education will get you closer to your purpose sooner. A college education simply for the experience of leaving town and being able to meet new people and see new places. That’s important as well. Dealing with each individual, you figure out where they are. School isn’t for everybody. I understand that. I can relate to that. I try to give them both perspectives.

Service gives us the experience of human connection that we all live for. Click To Tweet

If you look at the pilot program of Hav A Sole For Success, in the lessons learned, what particularly worked well and what maybe didn’t work well?

I would start with what didn’t work that well is the engagement through Zoom. Having an MBA on a Zoom call and being able to engage the monitor. That’s tough, even for me. We had to remind our youth that, “You’ve got to put your game face on, be engaged, ask questions, think about questions.” That was one of the toughest parts. We were able to bring in one speaker safely, and we talked about financial literacy with him. Ed Barnett owns four Buffalo Wild Wings here, and he’s also a money manager for professional athletes. He came in and taught them all about assets versus liabilities, credit versus debit.

The main thing I remember from what he talked about was, “What does it cost to be you?” That was a good question for our eighteen-year-olds to break down. They’re all getting ready to get to work and jump into the workforce. Having an understanding of, what it costs to be you? It was a great question I thought that had been proposed to them. We broke it down, “What car do you want? Do you want that Honda Civic or Ford Mustang?” One of our kids wanted a Rolls-Royce. “That’s going to be $1,800 a month.” On the low end. That’s way more than that.

The kid that wanted that car ended up being in debt. We explained that, and it was amazing too. Dash and I are learning too. We get to sit here, see and learn from these amazing people. Those are some of the great things that happen. Give and take a little bit. Zoom and virtual learning are not easy. Some of my good takeaways were the impact that these people had on them and being able to provide an opportunity during the summertime where they would have to stay home all day, every day. That was special for us. One of our kids, through our resume workshop, built his resume and submitted it, and got an interview.

It’s his first interview ever. He sat down here and I was listening. He had the interview and seven hours later, he was offered the job. He’s got his first-ever job at Nike The Grove. That was huge for not only him but us too. It lets me know that we’re heading in the right direction with this program. I have to say that you can’t just go to a company like Nike with a relationship. I can’t go to somebody and say, “Get this guy a job.” It’s impossible. He has to go out there and get it. He did the work and made it happen. We were excited about that for him.

With not graduating from high school and being on the journey that you’ve been on, how hard was it to believe in yourself and your own abilities in starting something even as bold as Hav A Sole without having maybe the credibility that others would give you in having a diploma or degree or whatever it may be? What was that inner journey like for you? How was it finding your own self-worth and value even if it wasn’t handed to you by others as much?

Out of high school, going straight to work, it was embarrassing. It was always something that I held over myself, even though I wouldn’t talk about it much, but I felt like the dumbest person in the room. If you ever felt like that, you continually beat yourself up and go hard on yourself where people have said, “You’re your own worst critic.” That was true for a long time for me. I can remember not being fulfilled with working at Toys “R” Us and at a pet store. Finally, landing a job at Costco. That goes for Costco. I finally landed a cool job, thanks to my mom who has been an amazing part of this whole journey.

She got me a contact and got me a commercial audition. I ended up booking this diet Mountain Dew commercial, which got me to SAG eligible. I went from making minimum wage to $10,000 for one commercial. I was like, “This is insane.” In that same moment, she got me in a different contact to a production manager, Stacy Manzanet who I’ll never forget. She got me a PA job. I was a production assistant on commercials. I fell into commercial production. With that, I felt like, “This is something I could see myself doing.” Parallel to that was my passion for taking pictures. I always had a camera with me, whether it was like a little Canon ELPH point-and-shoot or cell phone, I was always taking pictures of friends wherever we were. It was something I love to do.

Capturing that one moment was special to me. I was working as a production assistant on a music video and I was taking pictures of the talent. This is way before social media. That was okay. You could take pictures on set. There was no non-disclosure agreement that was needed. Showing the director these photos and showing the talent in the photos, they were like, “They had an onset photographer.” A couple of them saying, “These are better than his pictures.” The director said to me, “You should get paid for this.” I was like, “I can do that?” It sparked an idea.

With that, I bought another camera and started practicing. Being on set, I’m learning now from the gaffers and the grips. I’m learning how to manipulate my life and build a fashion portfolio because I loved shooting people and landscapes. Those were things that I love shooting. I fell in love with photography. With that, at least I had something to talk about. I started to feel less dumb in the room. I had something that was becoming mine. I got good at photography and I felt like I wanted the world to see my pictures. Many years go by, I’ve had many ups and downs throughout my life where I’ve been forced to bounce back. I wasn’t happy.

This is in my early 30s in 2014. I have 150 pairs of sneakers in my collection. I have a decent camera collection and I’m not getting paid for my work. I’m still a production assistant. I’ve been a production assistant for seven years. For me, after seven years of doing the same job with not moving up and moving into a different department, I started to become sad with my work and then not being paid as a photographer. I had a chip on my shoulder because I was good at taking pictures and nobody took me seriously enough to pay me and then social media hit.

UAC 175 | Hav A Sole

 

In 2010, Instagram was a big thing and everybody became a photographer, model, comedian, and actor. They were using this as a tool. I’m stepping back and watching and like, “They’re getting paid for their work now.” I’m like, “I’m still not. I put in all this work and the chip on my shoulder was from not graduating high school. I’m feeling like a dumb person here, but then I’m becoming good at something here. That was mine and for me only.” I fell into sadness. One night I couldn’t sleep and I decided to give away my sneaker collection and take a picture of the person receiving my sneakers until they tell the story of the sneaker. That’s what happened. That was the idea before Hav A Sole was born. Give away my sneaker collection, and take a picture of the person receiving it.

It’s amazing how having a chip on our shoulder and having this feeling of beating yourself up or being your worst critic manifests itself without us even realizing it. That’s true for all of us in different ways. In starting a nonprofit or being an entrepreneur or doing whatever work we’re trying to do, even podcasting, it takes a while before you believe in yourself, stop beating yourself up or stop feeling like a poser and step into the worth and value that we have for who we are as human beings. It’s a long, hard journey. It doesn’t happen overnight.

That’s why I want to give it back. I want to give everything that I’ve learned throughout my journey back to the young people that, “It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to do this. It’s okay to do that. That’s not okay. Stay away from that.” Be there for them. Now, I think being a young person with all the social media and if a rumor went around in high school in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, only a few people hear about it. Let a rumor go around now in one click of the button, the entire school knows about you and that can change everything about your day, your character, and move throughout the school year with you. That’s why we want to give it back and make sure that we’re giving the youth what we’ve been through.

When you look at your childhood or the generation since and what the youth are facing, what do you think is needed on a core level of maybe it’s a skillset or competencies, or even mindsets for our youth? One of the biggest factors they are facing is social media, technology, interconnectedness, the whole host of challenges and opportunities that that can bring. If you look at what lies beneath that, or what are the things that this generation coming up with those readily available, what is it that they need more maybe than past generations?

The first thing that is coming to my mind is service. If you take a young person that is passionate about uplifting young women and she wants to encourage them, she needs to volunteer with an organization that she can relate to. Whether it’s foster youth or whatever the case may be, you can insert anything that you’re passionate about. Be there for people. More service will then give you the experience that you need, like the experience of that human connection that we all need and that we all live for. What’s coming to mind is connecting some more people because, with social media, it’s easy to feel disconnected. Even though you have the world at your fingertips that we get lost. I can easily spend 1 or 2 hours on Instagram or YouTube or whatever it might be. I’m like, “Where did the time go?” Being present, having the tools to be present and serve other people. That hug and that hello to somebody.

It is simple now. Instead of having our heads down at our phones, it’s looking up and saying hello. That’s a huge step. It’s interesting about service like you said, that’s maybe what the phones and social media, it’s self-serving. It’s scratching our own itch. It’s about us. More ways than anyone else. I think that service is the outward action that changes that virtual reality, that so much of the time can be spent on nowadays. What’s cool about that is it’s not just the younger generation, it’s all of us. Everyone needs that that’s facing it now. Everyone is challenged by it in different ways, but how can we all get better at seeing people better and then serving people better? That’s a daily challenge. I’m challenged by that, in hearing that too.

It’s tough. We’ve all been guilty. We all have that smartphone that takes away our day.

You’ve got a wide range of jobs that you’ve done. With those different roles and places you’ve been in, what have they given or taught you? Why have those been valuable for you?

The most valuable job would have to be a production assistant job. They say that a PA stands for Pay Attention. You have to be on it in everything. If there’s some trash here on set, you’ve got to get rid of it. If there’s a director’s chair that needs to be moved, you have to move it. The relationships that came with that freelance job was relationships that will last a lifetime. The other jobs, I can’t speak to that much, being a cashier didn’t scratch my itch and didn’t fulfill me. There’s something about the 9:00 to 5:00 work that I couldn’t get a hold of personally.

I respect people that do have the courage to take that job on because nowadays if you have a 9:00 to 5:00, you’re looked down on. You have that gritty job that no one wants and you don’t get enough love for it. I didn’t have the courage to stay in that kind of work. I didn’t have the ethic. I wanted to do something more creative. I wanted to do something with photos when I found that. It was something about it. I don’t think we give the 9:00 to 5:00 enough props in thinking about it now. With relationships, for sure.

Passion is different from purpose. Passion is all about you. Purpose is all about others. Click To Tweet

You made a good point in the sense that there is no right or wrong answer for that. Is it self-employed or traditional employment? Is it 9:00 to 5:00 or is work when you get your job done? It’s going to be different depending on the people, but you’re right. It’s not as sexy on the 9:00 to 5:00. How it sounds, looks or appears to others. It takes as much courage to face that well as it does to face your journey well or someone else’s journey of entrepreneurship or of going down a path of something that they believe in. That’s a great reminder for all of us. When you think about going back to that moment where you realize that you’ve been in this position for seven years, you feel like you’ve been spinning your wheels and you’re feeling sad. There isn’t as much purpose in your life. How does that moment turn into the last seven years?

Time is flying. You’re like, “I can’t believe that’s fourteen years of life right there.” Life is moving fast. Ups and downs. I know from experience that passion is different than purpose. I was passionate about photography, but it was never my purpose. I finally found my purpose with Hav A Sole. Being there for other people, giving comfort and love through something that I love so much, which are sneakers. A small percentage of people find what they were made to do on this planet. I’m grateful for that. Being able to go through my journey and find something that I was supposed to do. Seven years led to just not loving the sneaker culture, to making a courageous choice to give away my sneaker collection and then put the right pieces into place. It was as simple as driving around, hitting the streets, trying to give out my sneakers, and meet new people that were living on the streets at the time. I can’t believe many years are gone.

I want to circle back to what you said and follow up with that a little bit. Few people find what they were made to do. Why do you think that is? I would largely agree with you. It’s the exception to the most and what stands in the way, or what keeps people from finding what they were made to do?

I would say that a cell phone is a big distraction that keeps us held down. I think fear, uncertainty, ourselves, when we keep ourselves down, being your own worst critic. There are many factors that can allow us to not find that purpose. There’s so much that can go into it.

For you, out of all the things that as humans we face in that, what would you say was the last straw to fall, or which one was the final hurdle that you had to overcome in order to finally move on it?

There could be many last straws. It all added up to like hey bell. You get fed up with everything. A lot of great things have come from my low points and my sadness. Keeping that faith, understanding that, knowing that there’s sunshine after the storm, and holding the faith during the dark points has been something I’ve been used to doing. I’ve been through a lot in my life. I’m able to keep that faith. The last straw though, it all added up in my relationships and work. The last straw could have been not getting paid for my photography. It could have been beating myself up for not graduating and it was something else. I knew that I accumulated so much stuff and I knew the answer wasn’t there. That’s one thing I did know. The answer doesn’t lie in the material items that I’m buying. Let me give them away.

I feel like that’s true that we figure out what not to do before we figure out what to do. We learn what isn’t the path before we learn what is the path. I know you’ve mentioned before that you’ve had a collection of over 150 sneakers, cameras and it got to a point where that wasn’t it. That was no longer the path or that wasn’t what brought you what you had hoped it would. You’ve gone from that point of deciding, “I’m going to do something about this.” Seven years later, here we are talking. You’ve been able to give 50,000 pairs of shoes away. You’re able to have a wide-ranging impact that even puts you on the floor at NBA games and being able to talk with Ellen. What would you say has been the most surreal experience for you up to this point?

That’s all crazy to even hear you say the journey. We’ve given out 25,000 pairs, but 50,000 pairs soon. We’re going to keep doing this work. I look forward to the next 25,000.

That is a little insane amount of shoes.

Every time we give away a pair of sneakers, the joy that it brings me is like a direct deposit of $1 million directly into my soul. It feeds me. I know that it has value and impact. One pair does so much for the person. If they get the chance to hear the story of what is behind the entire organization, they love it and are inspired by it. One of my favorite moments? There are many. We’ve been to NBA games. We partner with NBA teams and made it to Ellen. What was interesting about that was we’ve reached out to Ellen for three years and the timing wasn’t right. They found us. It was cool to see that if you’re working hard at something that you truly believe in, the right pieces are going to fall into place and you’ll get where you need to get.

I don’t have one favorite moment or anything that stands out. I know it’s huge, but even more so the first pair of shoes that we tried to give away. This is the next day or two after the idea. I remember going to my friend’s job, we were editing some online material for a friend. When I pulled up to the job, he called me, “I’m going to be fifteen minutes late.” I got shoes in my car and there’s this one guy that sleeps outside of his job. I was like, “I’m going to give it a shot.” I walk up to him and he wasn’t sleeping. You can’t sleep too well on the streets. You’ve got to keep one eye open. He was like, “What’s up?” I was like, “What’s your name?” He’s like, “My name is Phoenix. Come sit down.” He smells like urine. It smells bad. I was like, “This is what I signed up for.”

UAC 175 | Hav A Sole

 

I sat down and I was like, “What shoe size are you?” He was like, “Thirteen.” I‘m thinking to myself, “I’m a 10.5. I don’t have a size, but I do have that hoodie and a few pairs of socks.” I asked him, “Do you want the hoodie and socks?” He was like, “I love that.” I grabbed it, sat back down, and we started a conversation. The first thing he said to me was, “Don’t trust that girl.” I was like, “What does that mean?” I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I brushed it off. The second thing he says was, “How are things with you and your father?” I was like, “That was interesting.”

A couple of weeks before I met Phoenix, my dad nearly passed away from an overdose. He had a work injury, popping pain medication, and moved on to this stuff that he was used to when we were growing up. He almost died. I told Phoenix all those and he’s like, “That’s tough. The next question was, what do you do for a living?” We’ve been talking about, I was a photographer that was bitter. I was like, “I’m a photographer.”

He asked me if I’ve ever been published. I said no. He looks up at the sky and says, “Don’t worry. I’m going to tell him exactly what he needs to hear.” He focused his eyes back on me and he says, “You need to put your stuff on the internet. Let everybody see it. It’s too late for me. This change in my cup, that’s all I have.” A tea spilled the cup and all his change rolled out on the ground and it was like $4 in quarters. He was like, “This is all I have left and nobody will ever give me a chance because of the way I live, because of my situation.” I was like, “This is crazy.”

My friend pulls up and then we get to work. I was like, “I’ve got to get this guy, Phoenix, a pair of thirteens.” That’s when I took to social media again. I said, “I need size thirteen.” My friend, Pierre, donated ten pairs. I went back to see Phoenix the next week. He was there and I said, “What’s up, Phoenix?” He looked up at me. He was like, “Who are you?” I was like, “What do you mean? I gave you the hoodie that you’re wearing.” He was like, “I don’t remember. All I saw was some shadowy figure with a big smile giving me this hoodie.” We talked about it a little more and he told me that he was blacked out drunk during our whole conversation.

When he was talking about the girl who he was right about, that didn’t work out, also, my dad and my career as a photographer. He was talking to the universe or God or whatever you want to believe he was talking to, but he was not in his right mind. It hit everything that was bothering me at that time. That’s like a key moment. I realized that right off the jump, “There was something special about this guy or this moment. If it wasn’t for that, we probably wouldn’t have made it to our first year. It would have been a little passion project, not a purpose project.”

Can you share a little bit more about that distinction? When you see others or even yourself start things, what are the signs that it’s a passion project versus a purpose project? What would you say are things that can help us to see the distinction or difference between those two? I feel like a lot of times they seem close and similar.

I don’t think it’s something that you can describe. It’s more about feeling internally like, “How does this make you feel? How does it feel to play basketball for a living? Am I passionate about it or is it my purpose? Am I born to play basketball?” Now, talking about it with you, it has to do with the impact on others. What is going to be the impact on your fellow human, brother, sister, family, best friend, and the feeling that impact makes on you? Pay attention to the impact it has on others. We’re breaking this down. The purpose is going to be for others. Passion is going to be about you.

Who is benefited from it in a sense? That’s a helpful rubric for it. This is such a large topic and something that many people are more aware of them before now, and still seems to not have viable answers or solutions. This is the experience of homelessness, of not having a place to call home, and trying to survive in the midst of that. I’d love to know from you about your experience with this personally, and what you’ve seen in serving and working with these people who find themselves out of home?

That’s a tough one because I think about what Hav A Sole does for the people who are living on the streets. I know for sure that this organization won’t change the numbers here in LA. Dash and I set out on a job to impact one person at a time. Lift them up, their spirits, and bring a little bit of comfort through tennis shoes. We have partnered with some amazing organizations like the Covenant House, a safe place for youth that are making huge dents in those numbers and bringing people off the streets. We love to support them. We work with other organizations that feed the homeless and we provide sneakers. We realized that alone, we’re not going to make any change, but together we can start to put our heads together and focus on getting them off the streets if we can, if they want to, there’s so much that goes into it.

From what you’ve learned from your experience, what are the most common misperceptions for people who haven’t had relationships or interacted with people that are on the streets? What would you say are the most common misperceptions that most people have?

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I would say maybe that everyone’s a drug addict or mentally ill. This is based on the circumstance. I’ve come across somebody who had their work truck stolen and then they couldn’t get to the construction site the next week, rent caught up to them, and then you’re fired and evicted. What control do you have over that? If you don’t have something saved up or are not prepared for it, that’s tough. Most people in LA are one paycheck away, one injury away from not being able to work. Being more empathetic towards others is where we should all start and understand that they had a journey. If we can help, then sure let’s help. If we can’t, that’s fine too.

In some background research, I ask people to describe the guest in a few words. One of the descriptions was open-hearted. I’d love to hear if it does, how that ties into living with empathy, or how we develop empathy as humans?

That could be described in many different ways. What I try to practice is having an open-heart with everybody, with relationships, with family and friends. What I’ve learned that from experiences, it’s much easier at times for me to be more empathetic to somebody or a complete stranger to somebody I just met. That comfort level of friends, relationships and all that if you’re comfortable around them, how do you keep that heart open and realize that they might be going through something and still being open-hearted and empathetic for them as well? This is a non-stop journey. Every day I’m learning something new. Every day I get to talk to different people, amazing people. It keeps growing. Back to purpose and employment, I wasn’t growing as a cashier. That’s where I felt like my growth was stunted and with photography, I felt like I reached my cap, but now, something different every day.

What you brought up is interesting. It’s not thought about that empathy can often be easier with strangers than friends or family sometimes because we’re familiar with those that are closest to us, it can be hard to have that open heart. One of the things I heard also about what has been impactful from your life is changing the legacy of your family lineage and speaking to this process of empathy and being open-hearted, especially those closest to us. Could you share a little bit about what this process of healing has been like and how you’ve contributed to helping change the lineage or legacy that your family is leaving?

I know who said that for sure. That’s one of my favorite people on the planet. That was my mom. She supports Hav A Sole every day. She’s fundraising for us and that’s a proud mama right there for sure. I don’t think about it too much. I feel like I’m living in my purpose. It’s something special. Thinking back, drugs and alcohol were always a huge thing for my family. I can remember being nine years old at a family function and there’s beer, alcohol, and hard alcohol everywhere. There were some drugs too, but they would hide that from us.

Growing up, it didn’t ring any alarms because as long as we were all together and loving each other, that’s what was most important to me as a nine-year-old. Them drinking a can of beer to feel a certain way didn’t affect me as long as we were all together. That’s what was most important to me. When she says, “I am helping change that family lineage.” It means a lot to me. I haven’t had a drink since 2006 and I haven’t smoked weed since tenth grade. You’ve got to do it. I didn’t set out to do it. These are personal choices that I had made, like not drinking. That’s crazy to think about.

If we go back to 9 and 10 years old, what was the impact of not having your mom around for a year? What imprint did that make as a young boy? I know that experience is different for everyone in different stages of life, but for you as figuring out what life is all about and having family being important of being there when one is no longer there for a year and your mom, what was an imprint that leaves on you?

She went to jail for a year. I was 9.5. That was tough. I felt like the family exploded into different pieces and it brought a lot of anger. She spent that year in prison, and then when she got out, we moved into a low-income shelter in Santa Monica. If you know about Santa Monica, the kids are well off there. It was tough for me to handle. As a result, I would act out, I would not do good in school. I would fight and do all that stuff. I ended up moving with my grandmother right before my mom got out. I felt abandoned. It was hard.

Would you say that is the earliest place of holding the faith in the low points that have led to that practice throughout your life since?

The day I started Hav A Sole. It took a long time. Up and down, faith tested and no trust. If you’re talking about the first time I had to start to practice my faith, that’s almost twenty years.

When you look at all those dark moments that are dispersed throughout the journey since then in those low moments, how have those valleys shaped and formed the man that you are now? What did they contributed to who you are as a person?

UAC 175 | Hav A Sole

Hav A Sole: If you work hard at something that you truly believe in, the right pieces will eventually fall into place and get you where you need to be.

 

That has given me more understanding and empathy that we’ve talked about, compassion for others, being able to walk in somebody’s shoes and know that they might have walked in mind. It gives me hope and faith. Understanding that journey wasn’t for nothing.

What does faith mean to you?

It could be praying to God, you can have a religious faith, also have the faith in the understanding that everything is going to be all right and work right on time in exactly how it should be. It’s not easy because sometimes you have to let things go. My best definition would be understanding and knowing that everything is going to be okay.

As you have now a different role in some senses of being an uncle, what is your focus in that role in life, and what are the joys that has brought?

Some of the greatest joys in being an uncle and having the kids around is making my nephews, brother, family, and my girlfriend proud. It’s important for me to keep it up. I know that I’m headed where I’m supposed to. I feel that if I can help them get to where they want to be with either my actions or with my journey, I’m all for that.

In regards to Hav A Sole, running a nonprofit has a lot of elements to it. It’s more complicated than meets the eye always. One of the compliments I’ve heard about you in that role is that you do a good job of keeping the focus on the people, despite as a nonprofit. One of the biggest pressures is running the business of the nonprofit, of raising funds, staying afloat, and making it operate well. I’d love to know how you stay focused on the mission, despite needing more funds or a fundraiser or to run the business. What is that dance like? That’s inevitably a challenge.

I never expected it to be where it is now. I’m 50/50 with it. I knew it could be huge, but at the same time, I never expected the business side to be as much as it was. The accounting, fundraising, and all of that. To be completely honest, fundraising has been the biggest challenge. I manage the bank accounts. I see all the money that comes in and goes out. It’s tough because to be completely transparent, we got about four months of operating cash. We have to focus on bringing in more funds so that we can get back to work and keep up the work. We’ve been managing okay.

This is where faith comes into play. I’ve seen it time and time again. When we first started, I was funding everything myself. We were introduced to a friend and we had $163 in the bank account. He cut a check for $100,000 and it kept us afloat. We were off and running after that. Everything that we do, I know that will be okay whether it’s fundraising, mentoring or giving out shoes. I know at the end of the day that the shoes that we have here at the office are going to make their way one time or another to somebody’s feet.

That is a good feeling to know that and to see the tangible benefit regardless of the financial impact. It’s going to be hot. Even speaking logistically, what is the process like for you guys in getting shoes from the giver to the receiver? What is the process for Hav A Sole for logistics? I know it’s a little different than COVID, but typically speaking?

This little company Nike joined in September of 2014. One of their assistant managers at one of the local stores said, “We can support you when you get your 501(c)(3) paperwork. From there, we had our paperwork already in process and it didn’t take long. One store became ten over the years. Nike plays a huge role in getting us the inventory that is not just your average sneaker. They’re giving us Jordans, Kobe Bryant sneakers, LeBrons, and all these sneakers that are going to impact a young person’s life for the better. Not only that, we’ve had the Lakers, Dodgers, Clippers, and Pacers. The Pacers have been one of our biggest supporters all the way in Indiana.

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On top of all these amazing brands, they support our mission. We wouldn’t be anything without the private donations. The people, your everyday sneaker lover that they believe in what we do, know that one extra pair that they’re not using anymore, they can ship to us. We’ll put that on somebody that needs it. The support comes from everywhere from all walks of life. People that can’t afford a pair. We’ve given people a pair and they’ve had a pair that was half size too small. They’ve reached into their closet or to their bag. We’ve seen a lot of things. At the end of the day, it’s that one-on-one. You know what it is with Good City. You can see the impact and that’s what we love.

As you look to the future, as you project out into the next years ahead, what do you see as the current vision for Hav A Sole? What awaits you guys in the future?

We have Hav A Sole Creative which we’ll be partnering with different brands and bringing the unique Hav A Sole experience to either brands, companies, and athletes. I want to continue to work with our NBA partners and see what we can do to provide support for the people that they support. Hav A Sole For Success is the number one thing that I feel that in the next many years is going to be that engine, that gets young people to work, but not only that, it gets some real-life experiences. They get to see what it is to run a nonprofit and to be of service. That’s going to be the main project in my eyes. That they can change the world is going to be Hav A Sole For Success.

What would be Hav A Sole For Success 2.0? What is the second iteration going to look like? Is it going to look like the same thing or do you have changes in mind for this next round?

In the first round, the pilot was four weeks. We want to extend that to six weeks. The workdays were for four hours. We want to extend that to six hours. Now, we are extending the program as a whole, which is our next step. Everything else, we were happy with, with the speakers that we brought in, the youth, and the data that we collected after they left the program. I’m sure it will evolve, but we need a few more rounds to see where it goes.

You said one of the things that is important for Hav A Sole is that it’s a retail experience. I’d love to hear why that’s important and what that produces in the experience of Hav A Sole.

One of the most important things with Hav A Sole is the retail experience where it’s as simple as providing somebody with a choice of sneakers. We set up little pop-up shops. We brought in different partners that aligned with our mission and somebody who is either fighting homelessness or on the streets. If we pull up to a shelter like the Covenant House, we’re able to do our build-out, display, it will be a sneaker wall.

They’ll have the opportunity to come up, get fitted, make sure that they get the right color, style, and size. Our volunteers, including Dash and myself, were on our knees and tying the shoes for the people. That’s an experience they don’t get to have too often or something as simple as a choice. I’m blessed enough to say I don’t have to worry about what pair of shoes I’m going to put on. I can throw on any pair, it can match my sweatshirt and I’m out the door. A lot of people out there are like, “I’ve got to wear these sandals. These work shoes are also my basketball shoes and workout shoes.” We take choice for granted.

Rikki, this has been awesome. I’ve got a handful of one-off questions before we go. Maybe we do round two in the future because this has been fun.

We’ll need to Hav A Sole For Success.

If you could teach a class for a semester, what would you teach and why?

I feel like we did, and it was called Hav A Sole For Success. Professor Rikki enjoyed the event production side of things. Their main project in the program was to produce a Hav A Sole event for one of our partners. I didn’t mention that. I love event management and seeing the process of A to Z, what needs to be done, how much money do you need to get there? I would teach a class on nonprofit events. It was funny because we were supposed to go to the Covenant House campus, but COVID shut us down. We ended up doing a virtual. We call it the Hav A Sole Home Shopping Network. We were able to broadcast via Twitch and have the Covenant House youth in Hollywood tune in and make their selections via that live broadcast. That was a lot of fun.

UAC 175 | Hav A Sole

Hav A Sole: One of the most important things with Hav A Sole is the retail experience where it’s as simple as providing somebody with a choice of sneakers.

 

You are talking about innovation, that’s awesome. Less, more, none. What do you want to do less often, more often, and not at all?

I would like to play Call of Duty less. I would like to play more basketball because as you know, most of the basketball rims in LA have been completely locked down. None of? I truly don’t know. I’m a happy guy now. I’m doing exactly what I want and fortunate to be in this position, to even have a job during COVID.

What new habit or belief has most positively impacted you in your life?

The relationship with my girlfriend. I was single for ten years because I didn’t want to commit. I’m not saying that the relationship is easy, but I think it’s worth it. The work that has to go in with it. That new habit of being in a relationship after being single for so long has been productive and good for me.

What book or books have had the biggest impact on you as a person?

I hate reading, so I listened to books and I don’t listen to them often. I’m a virtual learner and learned by doing, but I would go with The Alchemist. I love listening to it. I even replay it time and time. It puts me to sleep and right before I doze off, I will hear something new or something in that story. A friend of mine recommended Think Like a Monk. I’m listening to that which I find interesting. We are learning about breath and that’s the only thing that you have throughout your whole life. They’re talking about your breath.

The final question that we ask everyone that comes on the show is if you could send a morning text reminder to every up and comer out there, what short message would you send and why?

Dear up and comer, I hope that your week has started off well. I would like to remind you to get up and get active. At the same time, stay safe and stay inspired.

Rikki, thank you for coming, sharing your story, your heart, and your work. Where’s a good place for people to find out more about Hav A Sole or connect with you?

Thank you for having me. This has been a great pleasure. You’ve asked questions to help me learn and grow as a man even in this short time we’ve been talking. Check out the website, HavASole.com.

Thank you for the word, Rikki. Until next time, Rikki. This has been awesome. For the readers, we hope you have an up and coming week because we are out.

Important Links:

About Rikki Mendias

UAC 175 | Hav A SoleAs Founder, Rikki has been the driving force behind Hav A Sole and has been involved in every aspect of its development. He is responsible for product collection, domestic distribution, national travel, organizing events and developing strategic partnerships within the community.

As a young boy, Rikki, spent over five years in a shelter so he knows what’s it feels like to go without. His mother, who was struggling to make ends meet, couldn’t afford to buy him a pair of much-needed shoes. One day, a former resident spoke at the shelter and afterwards, offered to buy him two pairs of new Vans. Rikki never forgot that women’s kindness or the confidence that came from having a fresh pair of sneakers to wear to school. However, due to his early deprivation, Rikki later started collecting sneakers in every style, color and brand imaginable. His sneaker obsession continued until his early thirties, when he was a fashion photographer and found his life felt meaningless to him.

One night Rikki, realizing he had more shoes than he needed decided to give some of his collection away.  The next day he loaded up the back of his car with shoes and drove the streets of Los Angeles, until he found someone who could benefit from a quality pair of shoes. Afterward, he asked the recipient if he could take a before and after photograph which he posted on social media. Friends all over the country were inspired and offered to send their extra shoes to him as well. Thus, Hav A Sole was born and in ten years we have given out over ten thousand pairs of shoes to shelters, at-risk youth and to those in need.

If you were to ask Rikki today what he has learned from Hav A Sole, he will tell you, “I get more from giving a pair of shoes than I ever did from owning hundreds.”

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