Written by Olivia Putnal Tuesday, May 08 2012
Snapshot: Anne Mahlum, Founder and CEO of Back on My Feet
In 2007, Anne Mahlum went out for her morning run through the streets of Philadelphia. That run and the homeless men along her route changed the direction of her life. Today, five years later, she is the founder and president of Back on My Feet (BoMF) – a nonprofit that works not to create runners within the homeless population, but to create self-sufficiency in the lives of those experiencing homelessness by using running as a vehicle. The goal is to see the participating “members” go from homelessness to securing employment and housing.
Born and raised in North Dakota and now a New York City resident, Mahlum has launched nine branches of her $4.8 million dollar nonprofit and doesn’t plan to stop there. Over the last few years, Mahlum has been recognized around the country for her amazing efforts. She has been honored as the ABC World News Person of the Week, CNN’s Top 10 Heroes of the Year in 2008 and one of Philadelphia’s 101 Young Connectors by Leadership Philadelphia. Earlier this year, Mahlum hosted MTV’s “THE BREAK” -- a documentary following less fortunate young people through their everyday lives. With Mahlum’s help, they are given the opportunity to get back on track and realize that someone still has faith in them.
Womenetics: Tell us about the moment in 2007 that you first launched BoMF in Philadelphia. What was that like?
Anne Mahlum: I didn’t expect any of this; it happened really organically. I realized one morning how much running helped me, and after passing a group of guys staying at a local shelter several times, I realized I was being selfish. I needed to share running with them because I knew it could help, and things happened quickly from there. Our first run together was so much fun! The immediate response from the media, local running stores, companies and the community was surprising and exciting. It’s a big part of the reason that Back on My Feet is in nine markets today!
Womenetics: Fundraising events are the main source of growth for BoMF. Which fundraising event means the most to you?
Mahlum: We created a 24-hour race called the Stroehmann Back on My Feet 20in24 Challenge that is now in its fifth year. It’s unique; there’s really nothing like it, and it raises about $300,000 annually. The race includes a 24-hour ultra marathon, relays, a glow-in-the-dark midnight run and sunrise pajama run. We now have runners from around the world who attend! It’s very inspiring to create something that hasn’t been done before and watch it grow into something meaningful for thousands of people.
Womenetics: Who or what was your inspiration for creating this nonprofit organization?
Mahlum: My father. We have a relationship and closeness that’s hard to describe.
Womenetics: Who or what motivated you to become a runner? Have you always been a runner?
Mahlum: When I was younger, running helped me to deal with my dad’s gambling addiction. I couldn’t find a way to help my dad and needed an outlet. I quickly found that running could teach me about life and about myself. There are many beautiful life metaphors that come from running — taking things one step at a time, the character that comes from navigating difficult roads and the simple notion that you can’t get anywhere if you don’t put one foot in front of the other.
Womenetics: You’ve launched Back on My Feet in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Atlanta and now New York City. Any plans to expand to other cities in the future?
Mahlum: Of course! Unfortunately, homelessness plagues many cities around the world. We plan to open a Back on My Feet chapter on the West Coast in 2013, and our goal is to bring our program to every city that can benefit from it.
Womenetics: How do you brainstorm new fundraising ideas? What’s your process for that?
Mahlum: I am almost always thinking about how to sustain, grow and improve Back on My Feet. Honestly, quite a few ideas come to me while I am running!
Womenetics: Since launching in 2007, you’ve hired more than 40 full-time employees and enlisted the support of thousands of volunteers. How do you select your employees? What are some of the characteristics you look for?
Mahlum: We look for people who are energetic, passionate and self-motivated.
Womenetics: What are some hurdles you’ve faced along the way?
Mahlum: There have been a few—everything from doubt and skeptics to paperwork and office space. There will always be challenges and if you let them bog you down, you will never get very far.
Womenetics: Any advice you’d care to share?
Mahlum: There are many elements that go into starting a business or organization and two very important things to consider: Is the timing right for you and do you have something unique to offer? Listening and learning are very important!
Womenetics: Besides running, what are some of your favorite pastimes or hobbies?
Mahlum: I enjoy spending time with my family in North Dakota!
More women who draw inspiration from the everyday:
Hanna Rochelle turned her habit of scribbling song lyrics on her jeans into a full-fledged fashion business, Lyric Culture.
After being unable to reach her own doctor after being thrown from a horse on vacation, Linda Nash founded PartnerMD, which provides 24/7 access to doctors and healthcare information.
After picking her sons's sippy cup off the floor countless times, Sara Crevin saw the light and created the SippiGrip, which keeps the cup connected to the child's seat or stroller.
Olivia Putnal is a writer and editor in Atlanta. She formerly wrote web articles and blogs for WomansDay.com in the areas of health, fitness, beauty, fashion, entertainment, news and food.