We’re marking the historic passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act by talking with Drew McNamara, founder of Creative Souls. His company sources artwork by people with disabilities then prints the designs on unique shoes, bags, and clothing. The artists receive a portion of the proceeds from every sale.
1. We understand you’d been helping people with disabilities for many years before starting Creative Souls. What initially interested you in serving in this way, and why did you keep doing it?
In the fourth grade, I met an individual with Down syndrome who was a brother to one of my teammates on my baseball team. He would join our team in the dugout each game. During that season, I always looked forward to seeing him at our games. He was super nice, funny, and would become a great friend of mine.
A couple of years later, I found out about a program called Buddy Baseball. Buddy Baseball provides the opportunity for individuals with and without disabilities to play baseball together. My friend from the baseball team was in that program, which motivated me to get involved. The people in the program were such a blast to be around. From an early age, I was seeing that individuals with disabilities were some of the nicest and fun people I had ever met.
When I entered my freshman year of high school, my mom suggested I look into Best Buddies. Best Buddies is an inclusion program where you are paired up with a person with a disability, become friends with that individual, and hang out in and outside of the program events. I was involved in the program throughout high school and would go on to do this while I was in college too. During the summers, I became a counselor for an inclusion program at a day camp where I supervised a camper who had a disability. During my last summer at the camp, I became the director of their inclusion program.
When it came time to choose my major for college it was pretty clear I had a passion for working with people with disabilities. I decided I wanted to continue with this path by studying social work at the University of Illinois, which is where I was when I launched Creative Souls.
Individuals with disabilities do not always receive the same opportunities as everyone else in society. I believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to be successful in life no matter their abilities. I’ve seen what a support system can do for someone firsthand. I want Creative Souls to be that support system for many people with disabilities through employment opportunities and much more! That is why I keep doing what I am doing and don’t plan to stop anytime soon.
2. How’d you get the idea for Creative Souls?
I was in a college class, and the professor asked us to create an idea to change society for the better. Immediately, I knew I wanted my topic to be about helping and working with individuals with disabilities. Due to being in social work, I was aware of the benefits that art therapy can provide for people. In my research, I came across programs where this population created art that was then printed on shirts. However, the one theme I didn’t see was art on shoes. I had other ideas at the time that involved making a difference in the disability world. But, no other idea stood out and made me as excited as Creative Souls.
In the class, I decided I would have individuals with disabilities who were part of local agencies hand paint on canvas shoes. The class was a semester long, but the original idea had formed in it. A year later, Creative Souls was still on my mind. In a social work internship during my last semester of undergrad, my supervisor asked me what I wanted to do. I told him about the idea and he immediately said that is what you will be working on this semester.
During the internship, I had the opportunity to create a website, have artists hand paint on shoes, and participate in a couple of art festivals. I quickly learned that it would be very challenging to scale this idea due to several things. For example, artists hand-painted designs on different shoe sizes like a size 6, but a customer wanted that design on a size 7. The artists were not able to replicate the designs because each design was unique. Also, certain artists would hand paint four pairs of shoes in about 30 minutes whereas others it may have taken four hours to do one pair. I was also attending each session that was held for the artists to paint. Lastly, I had an inventory of shoes that were not selling.
On the last day of the semester, I was researching other methods to scale Creative Souls. I discovered a direct-to-garment printer that allowed me to print designs directly onto shoes and apparel via JPG or PNG files. The only caveat was the cost of the printer—it was more than $25,000. The next year and a half during graduate school, I raised enough money to purchase the printer.
The printer solved several issues for Creative Souls:
- I could work with artists from all over the world.
- All designs could now be duplicated on all items in my store in various sizes.
- I now had the ability to print on demand.
- Artists can create designs at their own pace with no pressure.
Creative Souls went from hand painting on shoes to printing designs directly onto shoes and apparel. Each artist earns money with every customer purchase!
3. It sounds like it’s pretty easy for an artist to submit a design. What’s the geographic footprint of your artists? What about for sales?
Our artists are mainly from Illinois and Pennsylvania. However, we also have an artist from the West Coast. All of our artists are based in the U.S. Our printer provides us with the opportunity to work with artists from all over the U.S. and even the world. I’ve had parents of individuals with disabilities reach out from Australia and several other countries as well to have their loved one become an artist. I am very interested in increasing the geographic locations of our artists.
Creative Souls sales are primarily from the U.S., but I have had a limited amount of international sales from Europe and Australia. It’s always exciting to see how far Creative Souls reaches.
4. Tell us about the shoes you’re wearing right now. How many days a week do you wear Creative Souls designs, and could you send us a picture of your favorites?
There are a few pairs that I love wearing out and showing off! My favorites include the original Chicago Skyline design, the At The Shore design created by Jacob Spenadel, and a very unique take on the Chicago Skyline design created by Natalia Villegas. Although it varies week to week depending on what I am doing, I wear my shoes as often as I can! It’s hard to choose even a few designs as my favorites because Creative Souls has so many talented artists and unique designs that you can’t find anywhere else.
5. Kickstarter campaigns or partnerships—take your pick. What have you learned from these parts of your business?
I’ll go with the Kickstarter campaign! I have learned an incredible amount from that experience. When I launched the Kickstarter campaign, Creative Souls was merely an idea that I wanted to make happen. My goal for the campaign was to raise $50,000 in 30 days to purchase the printer, have enough funding to purchase inventory and fulfill the orders from people backing my campaign. In a Kickstarter campaign, if you do not reach your funding goal, you do not keep any of the money—the money returns to all the people who backed the campaign.
In the 30 days, I managed to raise more than $15,000 and had 269 people who backed the campaign. Although I was not successful in reaching my goal, I realized it was a success in so many other ways. My idea had gone from an idea on a sheet of paper to something that many people wanted to support.
I learned that new opportunities can always come to fruition when you least expect them and to not give up when something unexpected occurs or you don’t reach one of your goals. Six months after the campaign, Creative Souls had an agreement with the Soltane Foundation Innovation Fund to be their first company funded to pursue creating employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. I have not looked back ever since! Creative Souls has been printing designs created by people with disabilities onto shoes and apparel for the past two and a half years now.
6. What are your goals for Creative Souls in the rest of 2021? What about 2022?
In the fall of 2021, we are officially moving the direct-to-garment printer out of the Creative Souls headquarters (also known as my parents’ basement)! I can’t tell you how happy my mom will be!
In all seriousness, I am very excited to announce that we have partnered with HHPLIFT in Chicago and will be moving the printing piece of the business to their warehouse. HHPLIFT provides opportunities for people with significant barriers to fair-wage employment. That includes individuals with disabilities, people from underserved communities, and much more.
My goal with Creative Souls from day one has been to provide employment opportunities in every single aspect of the business. That includes artists, printing and fulfillment (operating the printer/heat press equipment, packaging, labeling, and shipping), marketing/advertising, social media, etc. You name it, I want to provide an opportunity. 2021 is the year I begin to implement scaling the employment side of the business in these other areas while also growing sales.
In 2022, a key growth strategy is to expand to attract more artists from various locations around the U.S. and other countries. I also want to expand upon my group activity and team-building part of the business. I recently ran an activity at an amazing camp called Camp PALS. Camp PALS provides a week-long camp where individuals with Down syndrome come to participate in fun activities, field trips, and so much more. I’ve had the privilege of working with them twice over the last three summers. Each year, Creative Souls ran an activity where the campers and counselors all draw onto a design that I had created on a large poster sheet. Once completed, I take a photo of the design and print it onto shirts for every counselor and camper to receive on the last day. It’s one of the most amazing experiences that I get to have with Creative Souls. The campers and counselors have a blast and are always blown away by the result of their work coming together so nicely. My plan is to implement these group activities and team-building experiences in camps, schools, agencies, and corporate businesses.
Lastly, my ultimate goal is to manage Creative Souls full time and focus on scaling the business to make the most impact possible for individuals with disabilities. I believe that everyone deserves an opportunity in life and we plan to help make that possible one Creative Soul at a time.
Thanks, Drew! We hope you’ll check out Creative Souls today.
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