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Alumni Profile

From foot to fountain

karl johnson

Karl Johnson, BS BA ’10, gave up pursuing a career in finance to focus on getting shoes and clean water to the Third World. Photo by Nicholas Benner

What do shoes and water have in common? Not much — until you add the work of Karl Johnson and Shoeman Water Projects.

The Missouri-based nonprofit organization collects new and used shoes, then sells them to discount stores in the developing world. Shoeman uses the proceeds to build water wells and purification systems for needy international communities, such as those found in Kenya and Haiti. The retailers sell the footwear cheaply, providing jobs and putting shoes on people’s feet.

Johnson, BS BA ’10, joined the international nonprofit in September 2010. After taking courses in developing economies and ethics at MU and meeting Shoeman founder, George Hutchings, Johnson gave up on pursuing a life in high finance to focus on collecting footwear.

“[Those classes] struck me in the right way at the right time,” Johnson says. “Ethics basically taught me that I’ve got an obligation to help people, and the developing economies class showed me what needed to be done.”

So Johnson began a collection drive in November 2010 on the MU campus and at Columbia businesses and schools.  To date, he’s collected more than 19,000 pairs of shoes.

“I worked in sales for a little while, and I’d be lucky to get a 3 percent return,” Johnson says. “But when I’m out pitching why people should donate to Shoeman, more than 25 percent of people participate.”

He says it’s not hard to get people to realize the good they can do by giving away a pair of forgotten footwear.

“You feel good when you make a difference, especially when all you have to do is hand over an old pair of shoes,” Johnson says.

The Chesterfield, Mo., native had big plans for Mizzou’s biped population. On May 7, 2011, with help from Mizzou students and alumni, he broke the world record for number of shoes placed heel to toe with donations to Shoeman on the MU campus. The record — held by a church in Texas — stood at just more than 10,000 pairs. Johnson shattered that shoe record on Stankowski Field with 24,962 pairs. — David Wietlispach