Rachel Smith grew up with deaf parents in a family of seven, and money was extremely tight. Among many things, she and her siblings had to share socks, which were often mismatched and full of holes.
After college, Smith began teaching high school special ed, and she waited tables to supplement her income. Tired of waiting tables, Smith eventually began looking for a new side gig. She asked her brother if she could work for him at his sock company, but he said no and encouraged her to do her own thing. So she did. Eight years ago, she started Pride Socks in Austin, Texas, a lifestyle brand empowering individuals to take pride in who they are so they chase and accomplish their dreams.
The 41-year-old has now been running the business full-time for four years. While her products are geared toward the LGBTQ+ community, Pride Socks is an inclusive brand empowering all people to cultivate a sense of self pride. Smith provides “Proudest Moment” cards with every order as a way to collect her customers’ stories, and she shares them on her blog. Eventually, she wants to compile them in a a book and do speaking gigs to help people learn how to develop pride in themselves.
This is Smith’s story of coming out as lesbian, starting the popular Pride Socks business, and creating a brand that helps people cultivate a sense of pride, whether they’re in the LGBTQ+ community or not.
Profiles in Pride: What was your journey to realizing you were lesbian and coming out?
Rachel Smith: I didn’t realize I was gay until my early twenties. As an athlete, I enjoyed watching athletes, both men and women, in action and appreciated their physics. But for some reason, when I’d watch women, I’d feel a little different, but I didn’t put two and two together.
Subconsciously, I would continuously ask myself, why do I appreciate her more than him? Why do I do this? It was a constant thought in my mind for a year or two. When I met my first girlfriend, all of those kind of thoughts went away. Then it took me some time to process it. I’m very blessed in the way that my friends and family accepted me almost immediately. There were some challenges here and there, but overall, it was a pretty welcoming coming out.
For me, when my mind settled down and I didn’t question myself all the time without understanding, it took a weight off my shoulders because I previously didn’t understand a part of me. And then when I met her, it put a peace in my mind in one area, but then put stress in my mind in another. Because then I thought, this is a life I have to come to terms with. What does this mean for me? What does it mean my family? What will change?
Then I came out to my siblings; there are five of us. I came out to my sisters first, then my brothers, and then my parents. Overall, I was met with very with open arms, but as time went on, there were some challenges. And that’s fine, because we both had to process what this meant. I didn’t exactly know what it meant for myself at the time so I didn’t know what to expect from others. I grew up in the church — we were religious — so I had to deal with that as well.
PIP: When did you start Pride Socks?
RS: I started the process in 2010. It all started with a conversation with my brother. I called him because I wanted to do sales for him, because I was teaching at the time and serving tables. I wanted to stop waiting tables, but I needed supplemental income in addition to teaching full-time. He had his own sock company, so I said, “Ivan, let me do sales for you.”
Finally, after two years of me asking him, he said, “Rachel, leave me alone and do your own thing!” So I said, “OK, I will!” He said he’d give me the name of the owner of the manufacturer. So we hung up, and that started my thought process of “OK, I guess I’m gonna do this.” Because he challenged me, and if someone is going to challenge me, I have to take them up!
I knew if I started a sock company, it meant a career change. If I was going to quit teaching, I needed to build something that made a difference, because that’s what I was doing as a teacher. I didn’t want to lose that part of me.
PIP: Why did you choose Pride Socks as the business to start?
RS: There are several parts. Like Steve Jobs says, you connect the dots looking back. I looked back in my life, and the biggest and most influential part of who I am is I was raised in the Deaf culture. Both of my parents are deaf, which influences everything about me. The way I see things, the way I speak, my perspective, everything. There were seven of us in my family, and we were incredibly poor. We all shared socks; they had holes, and they didn’t match.
Then when I was 14 years old, I started running because my sister asked me to go running with her, and that’s when I discovered I had a running talent. She influenced me to join the cross country team. As I was getting on the bus to go to my second race, and my coach gave me a card. My heart was pounding and I ran to the back of the bus. I sat down and I opened the card, and in it she said, “I am proud of you.”
That card was my introduction to what proud and pride meant, because I had no idea. She was the one who pushed me to believe in myself. That moment of feeling my heart pound and going, “Oh my God, maybe I do have talent, maybe I am somebody.” All these things came to me in that one moment. And it’s that particular moment I try to recreate for my customers in Pride Socks. That’s the feeling I want people to feel.
Fast forward to my early twenties, when I started teaching special ed high school. I realized within the first month that these kids were exactly me. My coach had an influence on me as an athlete, and I was an influence on them on an academic level. My students were being told they can’t, they won’t, they couldn’t, and they never will. Quickly realizing that, I created scenarios for them to where they could succeed no matter what, and then walking them through what my coach did for me. I took those moments and taught them self pride, how it felt, and how to believe in themselves.
Fast forward to that day where I hung up with my brother: It was putting all these different situations in my life together, and putting them in one company, and in that moment, Pride Socks was born.
PIP: Is Pride Socks focused specifically on the LGBTQ community?
RS: It is and it isn’t. Our business model is not exclusive; it’s inclusive of everyone. Everyone has something to be proud of. And if you’re specifically looking at the LGBT community, there are all these hardships that are negatively impacted. So when someone comes out, myself included, it’s like you’re born again. You’re coming alive and admitting to yourself and others who you are. You become free to be you and that is something to be incredibly proud of.
Sadly, being gay is not accepted among everyone. So when you finally have the courage to come out and you’re proud of yourself, it’s coming up against challenges, old beliefs, traditions, etc. and being true to who you are as an LGBTQ+ person. When you accept that and you come out, there’s so much to celebrate.
For an example, when I came out to one of my mentors, she told me her father is a psychotherapist and has helped many gay people. That stung; however, I was able to stand in my truth and be proud of who I was and am.
PIP: Definitely. Do you ever hear stories from people who have bought Pride Socks and say they have helped them?
RS: Oh yeah, hundreds of stories. Part of Pride Socks is we have a blog and then we also have these notecards that get sent out to every single order. It says “My Proudest Moment is.” It’s blank and for the customer to fill out what their proudest moment is. The idea behind it is to leave it on their desk or in their mirror or wherever so they can see what they’re proud of, like what’s their accomplishment they’re overcome and are proud of.
When we go to Prides, people can fill the cards out and either leave them with us, or take them with them, and in those cases sometimes we’ll take a photo and post them on the blog. Most of the times at Prides, people put down their coming out stories and what it has meant to them.
The most magical piece of that is when I’m having this interaction with this individual; it’s almost like you see their body go from tense and then they ease up. It’s like they’re free. You see this transition in their face from opening up. They talk about coming out to their dad, mom, or a friend or a girlfriend. Just to see them be free in that story, in that moment, is so incredibly magical.
I want to give you one particular story, which is pretty emotional. I was at a roller derby event, and I was asking customers to fill out the Proudest Moment cards. A mom and dad came up to me and got some socks for their daughter. I asked the mom if she wanted to fill out the card, and she just stared at me, and it was an awkward moment. She looked at her husband, and then she looked at me and she started tearing up. I said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry; if it’s too much, then don’t do it.” She looked at her husband and said, “Should I?”
So she grabbed the card and she started filing it out, and she started bawling. I read the card and it said, “My proudest moment is the moment I saved my daughter’s life.” It was the moment when she came home and the daughter was in the midst of attempting to kill herself. She caught her in the act. It was because her daughter was so afraid to come out, she didn’t know how to take on that pressure of coming out.
Her mom embraced her and they got her help. She said it was that moment when she was able to see her daughter for who she is, and helped her blossom into that person. So it’s story after story after story of people coming out and celebrating and truly feeling alive, and me being able to experience that with them is probably one of the most magical moments of owning Pride Socks.
PIP: That’s incredible. Where can people find Pride Socks?
RS: They can buy them online. We also go to Pride events all over the U.S.; we mainly go Midwest to West. We haven’t branched out to East Coast yet, but I’d love to. I’d also love to go international, but I just haven’t made that leap yet. We’d like to go to Australia and to Canada.
PIP: Do you have any future plans for Pride Socks?
RS: Oh my God, yes. We may be eight years into this, but I feel like I’ve only covered 10% of the vision of what I have for the company, so I feel like we’re just getting started. We will have new products coming out. At some point, I would like to have somebody else run the sock side of the business and me focus on gathering and sharing “Proudest Moment” stories, turning it into a book, and also becoming a circuit speaker and helping individuals on different levels on recognizing what it means to have self-pride and how to celebrate that instead of looking at it as shame. Celebrating how each individual has the power to influence others in being true to who you are and celebrating that resiliency as human beings.
PIP: It’s amazing how powerful storytelling is; I recently had someone tell me that the stories on this blog helped them get the courage to come out as transgender.
RS: You don’t even know how many other people you’re helping! It’s just that one person who had the courage to say thank you. The way you felt — it’s crazy because that’s how I felt as a teacher. Because my kids would graduate and leave school, I never knew what kind of an impact I made until they come back many years later. You are influencing people on levels you’re never know. Stories are so powerful.
A friend of mine texted me a few weeks ago, because her son has one of our shirts. They were in Petco and this guy ran up to her and said, “Oh my God, do you know about that company?” And she said, “Yes, it’s my friend’s company.” He said, “I’ve been struggling as an alcoholic for three years, and in the last three years, Pride Socks has helped me overcome my addiction.” That made my day. So you never know how you’re helping people.
All photos by Manuel Gonzales