The Atlanta Shoe Market’s Executive Director on Taking a Leadership Position in a Male-Dominated Industry

Each day in June, FN is highlighting female forces in the industry as part of our Women in Power series. 

For over three decades, Laura Cornwell-O’Brien, executive director of the Atlanta Shoe Market, has been working on behalf of footwear retailers and wholesalers. Wearing multiple hats has forced her to be creative, admitting that at times she’s put her own needs on the back burner. Here, O’Brien shares the challenges and surprises she’s met along her journey.

Laura Cornwell-O'Brien
Laura Cornwell-O’Brien, executive director of the Atlanta Shoe Market.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Laura Cornwell-O'Brien

What was the biggest breakthrough moment in your career?

I was hired as assistant director at the Atlanta Shoe Market. Six months later, the director left and I applied for the position. The board was skeptical, as I had only six months of experience in the industry. I asked for the opportunity and in six months said we’d sit down and review my ability. If they weren’t happy, we would part ways. That was 34 years ago. I always felt this was a match made in heaven. I found my passion and enjoy every day of my life here.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

I’m always hardest on myself. I always try to be everything to everyone and sometimes forget my own needs. I need to work on that so I have a more balanced life for myself and in the end can be better for everyone else.

Do you think women do enough to support other women in the workplace?

It was a male-dominated industry when I came. A lot of the directors of the former National Shoe Travelers Association were male. They sort of looked at [women] not as peers but secretaries. You can now see women are dominating a lot of the industry and are very supportive of [other women] and have been very supportive of me.

What is the biggest challenge you faced in the last year, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge has been maintaining the viability and excitement of the Atlanta Shoe Market. The show has been consistently sold out over the last six years; however, the industry changes so quickly, it’s sometimes a struggle to meet those expectations. I’ve found the most important thing is to have new and fresh ideas to keep the interest of attendees. So far, I’ve been able to meet them.

Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?

Love yourself, play, smile, laugh and be free. Don’t put limits on yourself or listen to people who say you can’t do something. Fear nothing and stand up for yourself. If you believe in something, go after it. Be kind and don’t judge others or yourself.

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