When Elle Rueger sent care packages to her friend Tommy during his 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, there was one item he needed more than any other: socks.
Sure, tasty treats and new toothbrushes were nice, but the wear and tear a military career had on a soldier’s feet made socks maybe the most important commodity.
Rueger said Tommy even showed her a photo of his foot before he received the socks, and she said it was “pretty gnarly.”
“It was really bad,” Rueger told The Western Journal in an interview. “And then [Tommy] said, you know, within two weeks of having good quality socks, it completely turned around.”
This gave her an idea: what if she could start a company that would donate a pair of quality socks to the troops for each pair sold?
Elle and her husband, Mike Reuger, later moved to North Carolina, which has been called the hosiery capital of the country. At that point, she realized all the resources she had access to.
“It’s like, we have all these factories at our disposal that we can just hit the pavement and start meeting people and telling them what we want, what we’re looking for,” Reuger said.
“So, [we] finally bit the bullet around 2015, started the legal process of becoming a company, and then officially launched in 2017.”
Rueger decided to call her brand Soledier Socks, a clever pun that incorporated both the footwear and military aspects of her vision. It has proven to be too clever, in fact, for some to understand at first glance.
“There’s always some people who … [say], ‘Your name doesn’t make any sense,'” Rueger joked. “They don’t get the point at first … but once they get the point of it, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s actually kind of clever!'”
For the first three years of Soledier Sock’s existence as an official company, Rueger was the sole employee (pun intended). Her first sock was designed to withstand the extreme conditions of the military, and it was aptly dubbed the “Thomas” sock, after the man who had inspired the idea.
Rueger expanded the brand to include new sock designs and other products, and she was able to get the products into some small businesses. But when the pandemic hit in March 2020, the mom-and-pop business route suddenly became less viable.
That time was also a tumultuous one for Mike Rueger, who had been working a corporate retail job. He was partially furloughed and was only working a couple of days a week, but that struggle ended up opening a new door.
Elle knew she needed to expand her business beyond just mom-and-pop stores, and Mike’s retail experience made him the perfect man to help with that initiative.
“He already took the loss of income at the point, so it’s like, ‘Well we’re not getting the income, and we can really just take your expertise and bring it over here, improve this and possibly make this what we’ve always envisioned it to be,'” Elle said.
While Mike admitted the decision to join his wife’s company was risky from a financial standpoint, he felt it was well worth it.
“We had faith it was going to work, and we knew the idea was great and the impact it could make was 10 times that, and we did it,” he said.
For a long while after that, the Ruegers were running the entire operation by themselves, including product design, development and marketing. They finally hired a marketing agency about six months ago to handle that side of the business, but the vast majority of the operations still run through the Ruegers themselves.
An undertaking of that magnitude is no walk in the park, and Mike said the time it requires has been the biggest challenge he has faced with Soledier Socks.
“With the two of us … things have been growing nicely over the years and the impact we make is just wonderful,” he said.
“You take on more non-profits and, you know, more, more, more and it’s just kind of finding the time to get everything done and I guess still have a life, too.”
For Elle, the hardest challenge was establishing herself as a legitimate business in a landscape where women were simply less involved than men historically.
“It’s a pretty male-dominated industry. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it was hard to be taken seriously when we went to some of the factories because I had a good knowledge about the hosiery world,” she said.
Another challenge that has arisen is the supply chain crisis. Elle said one the factories Soledier Socks uses had a massive staffing shortage, and the owner was having to work a third shift in the middle of the night after his wife had just given birth.
Mike himself even went to the factory one day to help ease some of the pressure on the staff and assist them in catching up on orders.
“It is a very real thing, even with U.S. manufacturing,” Elle said. “There’s so many things that are playing a role, but you just kind of have to pivot and do the best you can.”
The Ruegers have worked through each challenge that presented itself, and Mike said that is what makes their experience so fulfilling.
“You know, it’s like every entrepreneur has the highs and the lows, and you just kind of cherish each one because you know that they’re all teachable moments,” he said.
In 2021, Soledier Socks was able to donate 15,000 pairs of socks to troops who needed them. The company also continued its “Stand for a Cause” initiative, which Elle said began about two years ago.
“The more we learned about the military community, the more we got embedded in the community, just a lot of the hardships that they face,” Elle said. “And so we came up with our ‘Stand for a Cause’ line to highlight some of those things and to give monetarily back to them to help them with their research or their programs or whatever it may be.”
Some of the causes represented by the line include Boot Campaign, Folds of Honor, American Cancer Society and Concerns of Police Officers. Since launching the line two years ago, Elle said the company has donated nearly $20,000 to these nonprofits and others that benefit the military community.
“That is probably one of my favorite aspects of the business, because it helps raise awareness, and it just shows that we’re not just about the profits of being a business,” she said.
“We really, truly do care about the community that we serve and are always learning, always wanting to give back in whatever way and capacity that we can.”
Mike said the humble beginnings of Soledier Socks and the path the company has taken since its inception are in some ways a reminder that even in 2022, the American Dream still lives.
“I think if anyone has an idea and is willing to work hard enough for it and believe in it, there’s endless possibilities out there in this country.”
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.
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