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Casual for a cause: Local professionals don sneakers to fight cancer

Members of the Smart Motors staff show off their casual shoes during last year's Suits and Sneakers Challenge.

Members of the Smart Motors staff show off their casual shoes during last year's Suits and Sneakers Challenge.

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If you’re a basketball player, you’re expected to take your sneakers to work every day, but for your typical office denizen, slick Air Jordans and retro Chuck Taylors are strictly recreational attire. Even for Badgers basketball coach Bo Ryan, who spends more than his share of time on the hardwood, dress shoes are typically de rigueur.

But not on Jan. 20. On that day, Ryan will trade in his usual footwear for a pair of sneaks as part of an American Cancer Society fundraising and awareness-raising effort. He’ll be joined by more than 4,000 high school and college basketball coaches across the country during the week of Jan. 19-25, which the ACS has dubbed Suits and Sneakers Awareness Week.

Allen Foster, vice president/general manager of Madison's Smart Motors, shows off his sneakers in support of the American Cancer Society's Coaches vs. Cancer program.

And local business leaders, some of whom would likely have trouble hitting a layup from a stepladder, are getting in on the act.

The Suits and Sneakers Challenge, also known as Wear Your Sneakers to Work Day, is a fun way to flout corporate convention for one day of the year and fight cancer in the process. It’s a pretty simple concept: Individual employees donate a minimum of $5 to the ACS, and in return their employers allow them to wear their sneakers to the office. Part of the ACS’s Coaches vs. Cancer program, the Suits and Sneakers Challenge raised more than $15,000 locally in 2014 through the help of 30 Dane County businesses.

One of those companies was Madison’s Smart Motors. 2015 will be Smart Motors’ third year in the challenge, and participation has both increased and evolved in unexpected ways.

“When we floated the idea the first year just to see how many would be interested, of our 200-plus employees almost half of them were hand-raisers right away and said it would be great to do,” said Allen Foster, vice president/general manager of Smart Motors. “That was two years ago. Last year, it grew — we actually did two different dates with it — and people were getting creative and saying, ‘Hey, if it’s Suits and Sneakers Day, if we wear a hat or something else, can we donate more money just to add to the awareness?’ And we said yes last year, and we’ll do so again in the future.”

As a high-profile company that sees a lot of foot traffic, Smart Motors is in a perfect position to raise awareness about the campaign — but there was some initial concern about how the dress-casual look would be perceived.

“The thing that I was most concerned with in the beginning when I first heard about the idea was what our customers would think, and we felt that our customers really thought it was a great thing, and we had no pushback or flak from them,” said Foster.

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