Why the Footwear Industry Needs to Face Its Racial Diversity Problem

The footwear industry has a diversity problem.

It’s a fact that has been privately lamented for years but has recently catapulted into the public conversation.

For Nike, in particular, the subject has become urgently present as it works to address a #MeToo executive shake-up that has only served to highlight deeper issues of race and inclusion.

And last month, when FN published its list of under-40 executives and designers, the severity of the problem was glaringly evident, even among the next generation of leaders — and shoe people took notice.

On Twitter, Instagram and in private messages, individuals expressed their disappointment with FN’s reporting, and more specifically with an industry that is failing to recognize and support its minority employees.

“Inclusion is a very real problem for all black professionals and entrepreneurs, especially those under 40 [because] this is the talent that needs to be celebrated, nurtured and pushed to not just change the footwear industry but the world,” James Whitner, owner of the Social Status retail chain, wrote on Instagram. “Blatantly ignoring our talent, work ethic, business skills and overall ability is what allows divisiveness, discrimination and blatant racism to exist.”

Why It Matters

To be sure, many shoe firms have been working to reduce the emotional toll that race- or gender-based discrimination can have on employees — and more women are joining executive boards than ever before. But work still needs to be done to ensure that every worker feels accepted and encouraged, and that more people of color have the opportunity not only to contribute but to lead.

Diversity is a layered topic, no matter the industry, but footwear comes with a unique set of disconnects because many firms have advertising and marketing campaigns that embrace diversity and empowerment but their internal realities may not match.

“If your [business] strategy leverages women and people of color to promote your brand identity, and they’re not in the room to help the brand, it’s a flawed strategy,” said Jason Mayden, founder of kids’ sneaker brand Super Heroic and a former product designer for Nike.

Further, shoe companies often recruit consumers with a passion for the product to work as sales associates but are inconsistent in their efforts to encourage further career development.

“What disappoints me, and one of the reasons I left the industry, is it could do so much more than it does. They have the consciousness of these kids, and then they do nothing more than to try and sell them more product,” said D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy.

pensole D'Wayne Edwards
D’Wayne Edwards started the Pensole Footwear Design Academy to help more young people of color train for a career in the industry.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

The problems often begin at the top, explained Gina Warren, a 20-year diversity and inclusion executive who has worked at Nike, Levi Strauss, Lululemon and elsewhere. She noted that one of the biggest hurdles upper management teams need to overcome is to expand their often-homogenous inner circles to understand differing viewpoints.

“If the majority of the leaders are white males at a particular company, and if you’re not white, if you’re not male, if you don’t have English as a first language, if you’re not heterosexual — the more different [employees] are from that, the more complex it is for you to be seen and heard, to be welcomed and invited into the conversation and offered a place at the table,” Warren said.

Not actively trying to understand minority communities and not working to become an ally is a dangerous mindset for executives to maintain, and it may ultimately affect the bottom line, said Jennifer Brown, author of “Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change.” “If you’re guiding from major blind spots, you’re not going to be able to thrive in a world that is rapidly diversifying,” she said.

Worker Experiences

Inside footwear firms, black, Latinx or Asian workers often face unconscious bias on a daily basis, according to sources. It’s these underreported negative stories that regularly affect workers’ ability to thrive.

In Mayden’s work experiences, he said he became “numb” to daily instances affecting his ability to do his job, including false labels, feeling excluded, undervalued and undermined. “It happens so regularly, it becomes normalcy. I would go crazy if I addressed everything that happened to me on a daily basis,” he said.

Angelique Joseph, VP of design for fashion-comfort brand Naturalizer, said she also felt disappointment at early points in her career. “As an African-American and biracial woman, [I felt] my voice was not heard strongly enough. I put a lot of my [heritage] into my design work. I [see] things multiculturally and embrace all types of women. Sometimes my peers or leaders didn’t understand that benefit,” she told FN in February.

Angelique Joseph
Angelique Joseph started her career designing lingerie before joining Brown Shoe Co. (now Caleres).
CREDIT: Courtesy

One issue that’s misleading about the industry is the way companies break out diversity numbers. “The word ‘diversity’ is being diluted,” said Edwards, a former design director for Jordan Brand. “Anything other than a white male is considered ‘diverse,’ which doesn’t help because people of color aren’t broken out; when you do look at it, there are so few of them.”

Nike, for instance, has often been regaled as a leader when it comes to diversity efforts. But its latest Sustainable Business Report, released this month, reveals that 77 percent of its directors and 83 percent of its VPs identify as white. And representation of minorities has improved only slightly within the past two years.

As Edwards points out, the problem is not just Nike’s. “The entire footwear industry has these issues, and Nike is taking it for the industry,” he said. “I hope the rest of the industry is taking advantage by quietly addressing these same issues in their own companies.”

He called the lack of racial diversity in the shoe business “a systemic problem” fostered, in part, by these firms. When executives don’t promote opportunities for people of color and women to move up, and don’t specifically recruit people of color, he explained, how can change happen?

“When there’s no representation at the top, there’s no advocacy,” said a source working in the footwear industry, requesting anonymity. “There’s no visual example to aspire to or to serve as a reminder that a spot at the top is achievable.”

Often people of color who are looking to move up in their careers are simply not informed about new job opportunities, perhaps because they are not included in certain inner circles, several sources said.

“Without advocacy from a mentor within the majority, at the leadership level, for those highly visible opportunities, growth and development suffers for minority individuals,” said Cheresse Thornhill, a former Nike footwear designer and chief creative consultant at No Shoes Creative, a design consultancy in South Florida.

The Next Steps

For any company, reaching true diversity is “a journey, not a destination,” cautioned Brown. “If we don’t make this a big priority and take some bold steps, we’re going to continue along the status quo path and nothing is going to change,” she said.

For instance, it’s telling if a company does not have a chief diversity officer, Brown noted, adding that employee engagement surveys are also important to discover at what point in their careers companies lose people of color and women.

Mayden suggested that managers should be given incentives and held accountable for focusing on diversity in hiring and recruitment. He also called the internal networks at many companies, such as Nike’s Black Employee & Friends Network, necessary “career defense training.” “Training is a life preserver for us,” said Mayden.

jason-mayden-super-heroic
Veteran sneaker designer Jason Mayden’s Super Heroic brand is all about empowering kids.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

Joseph recalled that Caleres participated in a local program called St. Louis Diversity that greatly aided her career development. “It helped me [understand] how to approach people at certain levels and use the right lingo,” she said.

For its part, Nike has in the works a number of programs to address its internal concerns. Next year, it will introduce a new bonus structure, improved mentoring programs, unconscious-bias awareness training and representation accountability.

“I hope to see more people of color in leadership in the future [at Nike],” said Brittany Pieroni, a former designer at the brand. “It’s sports culture we work for — all of the biggest athletes are African-American. There is so much richness in that culture and in respecting people who are from that culture. I think it will only be in Nike’s advantage to promote people of color in their organization. It will bring them closer to people they serve.”

Meanwhile other companies are taking steps to address this problem.

A representative from Adidas AG said the firm is “constantly working to create an inclusive and diverse workplace where new ideas and change can flourish.” For example, in North America, the brand is launching the Adidas Unlimited Program, “designed to attract and create a pipeline for diverse talent,” particularly for warehouse, retail and field representatives.

When it comes to new hiring at Foot Locker, VP of talent acquisition Geoff Green said the company strongly considers how candidates will complement the existing makeup of a department. “If someone fits in, with perfectly the same background, that’s not going to move the needle at all,” he said.

For his part, Edwards is encouraged by the recent developments under way. “For the first time in nearly 30 years, I am optimistic my industry will start to better appreciate, encourage and reward consumers who have helped build this industry with real opportunities besides offering them new shoes.”

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