Diversity & Inclusion in the Sneaker Industry: Insiders Talk What’s Working and the Difficult Road Ahead

Athletic brands continue to face the reality of their inadequacies on the diversity and inclusion fronts — and these burning issues are dominating the industry conversation.

Nike, Adidas and Under Armour have all addressed notable problems related to inequitable and discriminatory treatment of minorities and women at their companies. In 2018, an exposé revealed internal behavioral challenges at Nike, which last week revealed that its CEO Mark Parker was stepping aside to become executive chairman. To fill his shoes, the company was bringing in tech exec John Donahoe. Under Armour, which also saw its founder Kevin Plank hand the CEO reins to Patrik Frisk last week, has also been under the microscope for its corporate culture and high-level turnover. Most recently, Adidas has been facing scrutiny as black and other minority employees challenged an apparent lack of diversity at the brand.

Inside these companies, and across the industry, leaders are trying to reassure their workforce — and consumers — that they are taking their missteps seriously. From hiring chief diversity officers and culture-focused executives to implementing programs and resources in support of minority employees, they are accelerating efforts to tackle these issues.

But for many athletics insiders, change hasn’t come fast enough. FN gathered three thought leaders in the sneaker industry to take the D&I conversation head on.

Designer Melody Ehsani, who has worked with Jordan Brand and Reebok, has cultivated an audience via her ME Speaker Series that takes on a myriad of issues inside her Los Angeles flagship. “I’ve taken the route of doing all those things in-house at my store every month because people don’t necessarily want to talk about those kinds of things. I just created the conversation myself,” Ehsani told FN.

Sneaker designer and collaborator Frank Cooke, whose resume boasts stints at Jordan Brand and boutique retailer Wish ATL, has found his voice with an audience eager for insight and encouragement on social media.

“For me, it’s no problem taking a risk for what’s right. How do we move forward? There are things happening now and we need to talk about them and we can get this done together,” Cooke said.

Store owner James Whitner, whose banners include Social Status and A Ma Maniére, has shed his desire to become a behind-the-scenes voice for change. Whitner is not new to this discussion; he spoke about diversity and inclusion within the footwear and fashion spaces in a roundtable talk with FN in May 2018.

“Speaking out isn’t about creating opportunities. It’s about bringing awareness to issues and making sure that everyone who cares has all of the information,” Whitner said. “The natural feeling is to think about all of the repercussions that could happen if you speak out, but in reality, I believe it’s more dangerous to stay silent.”

Here, Cooke, Ehsani and Whitner discuss the challenges that minority employees continue to face, diversity and inclusion measures that have worked, and what needs to happen next.

Footwear News: As they confront D&I issues, companies are emphasizing employee resource groups, diversity and inclusion training and hiring more minority leaders. Are these initiatives effective?

Frank Cooke: “There have been a lot of inclusion groups, but it has to be more than gathering and having dinner and drinks together. Who is willing to work at making inclusion [effective]? The higher you climb, do you really want to jeopardize where you’re at? Sometimes that’s the mentality.”

James Whitner: “The truth is you can leverage a number of different programs and facilitated experiences through the diversity and inclusion filter. But if organizations don’t leverage real conversations as the starting point to drive true change, I would question the effectiveness of the efforts.”

Melody Ehsani: “It’s hard for me to say. It’s important to have those sorts of things in place, but I’m not particularly sure what the most effective is because a lot of things are still falling through the cracks. It’s like, ‘Wait, how did you miss that?’ You could tell there was nobody of color in the room when they made X decision. It’s a nice step, but there needs to be more of an effort made.”

What are better solutions?

JW: “For meaningful change to occur, the approach and intention have to be new or different. Organizations have to tap into the minority groups — blacks being one — whose experiences within our industry haven’t been good and haven’t felt inclusive. From there, it requires having an honest dialogue.”

ME: “There needs to be a greater effort made in terms of who is in the room when certain decisions are being made. Sometimes it’s just the higher-ups, and usually at the top of the company, there isn’t a lot of diversity. It’s important to include people of color.”

FC: “Consider going to places where talent [isn’t typically pulled from]. There needs to be more creative jobs and opportunities in cities, environments and neighborhoods that [are overlooked]. When you see people in these environments, it’s, ‘You’re going to be a nurse’ or some labor-intensive job instead of, ‘Have you ever thought of being a footwear designer?’ Not everybody is going to be able to go to Rhode Island School of Design or an art institute, so how do you bring creative jobs into these neighborhoods? We consume so much, but does a kid on the South Side of Chicago know what a buyer does? Or with design, how many kids in the hood can buy [Adobe] Creative Suite or subscribe for $30 a month?”

One common sticking point is that minority employees don’t always feel they’re recognized for their efforts. What’s your take?

ME: “I think at the root of it is institutionalized racism, where a lot of times, especially black culture, is appropriated so much and there’s no acknowledgement for that being what it is. I think on some level it’s known and on some level it’s just normalized. I’m not saying it’s malicious necessarily, but I do think it’s a result of history and culture and it has permeated all of our industries. It’s a deeper-rooted racism where you can take whatever you want without acknowledging it for what it is. And I don’t know how to address that.”

FC: “What is the right way of navigating? I’m doing my work and giving you my ideas, but what is keeping me from [recognition]? Is it the way they’re being presented? Not everybody wants to do a formal presentation but the idea still flows on. What is the right thing to have you progress? My question is how do I navigate it all and how do I get the guidance, the mentorship, and have someone say, ‘This is the next step you have to take to get here.’”

JW: “In most cases this simply boils down to company policy. [Overall], if your intent and goal is to be a consumer-facing celebrity as an employee at a big brand, this is probably not the industry for you.”

While you all agree the industry has a long way to go, what progress have you seen so far?

ME: “Toward the end of my contract with Reebok, I said, ‘The only way I will re-sign is if you give me X-amount of dollars to do this project where I’m allowed to empower different communities to participate in the design process. I went to North Dakota and worked with a Native American reservation and partnered with this husband and wife who were incredible designers, and they created a line of shoes with Reebok that represented their culture. They got credited for it and paid for it, I just played the middle man. I did that again in Lebanon with a women’s prison and a couple other communities. Things like that are important where companies partner with people who are authentically tapped into these types of things and bridge the gap between the corporation and a community.”

JW: “I just spent two of the most transformative days I’ve ever experienced in the industry with the global footwear leadership team at Nike. Based on my company’s affinity and commitment to the communities we serve, [the team] asked me to participate in the dialogue [they’re having about] race and culture.”

FC: “The Wings Program from Jordan is definitely something that has inspired me. The efforts that Shauncey Mashia has made working with kids in Chicago and seeing how they grow working with Little Black Pearl. A lot of them go on to college and get the scholarship, and I’ve seen a lot of the kids get internships at Nike and Jordan. About two or three years ago the kids came out to the [Beaverton, Ore.] campus and that was a totally different look for them. We flew them out and they got to work on their own shoes and got to see the day-to-day [operations]. That shed light on these creative jobs that aren’t offered to us.”

Jordan Wings
Minyaun Miller (C) receives a Jordan Wings class of 2023 scholarship in May.

High-profile companies, such as Under Armour, have appointed chief diversity officers and culture heads in the past year to focus on these issues. Is this a solid step?

JW: “This is a case by case situation. When the hire is proactive and strategic, the organizations’ hearts and brains are in the right place. Being reactive with CDO hires in some cases makes the role no more than a figurehead versus a change agent, and organizations are viewed as disingenuous.”

FC: “Is that just checking a box? Or is it putting people in a position to grow? On the surface, it looks good. My biggest thing was support. Where is the support if I don’t know how to navigate a situation or through some parts of my day-to-day?”

ME: “It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t think it’s the solution. I would like to see more transparency. I would like to see more than a hired title because I feel like that’s sort of like, ‘Hey look, we’re making an effort,’ but what does that really mean? What are your top-line goals, how are you planning on executing these and through what means? And is it just one person or is it a team? Having one chief person isn’t going to do anything; it requires more effort than that.”

How do you ensure that accountability happens in the C-suite and beyond?

FC: “That’s the part I have not unlocked. I do not know what that process is. When Kerby Jean-Raymond [spoke about the Business of Fashion 500 list and the surrounding events], he took this chance to say, ‘I’m taking myself out of this, even though this is a big achievement.’ Could this potentially f**k up his career? Maybe, but he feels just as passionately as I do about saying, ‘Things are not right.’ ”

ME: “It’s hard because a lot of people are scared to bring those things up because they feel it may compromise their position in the company. I’ve never worked for a corporation for that very reason, because I wanted my own autonomy. Continuing to push the envelope and communication is a big deal. Within my company, I’m appreciative when people bring things to me and I try to incorporate people’s suggestions.

JW: “It will require employees of privilege to be courageous and step out of their comfort zone and do the right thing by collaborating with minority employee groups who have historically been voiceless because of fear.”

What would you say are your biggest accomplishments to date?

ME: “My speaker series is what I’m most proud of. I think I’ve done an incredible job of creating a like-minded community. To me, the biggest movements are started from the ground up. The community we’ve created is powerful.”

JW: “Building a team that is as in love with the process as I am. I’m a person that’s always on the edge and wanting to push. My greatest accomplishment is having them be able to trust me, my vision and leadership.”

FC: “Living in the wonderful city of Atlanta and then having the opportunity of working with Nike in a corporate setting. The streets of Atlanta — all the people who supported me over the years — made me want to go into corporate. And when I got there, I started learning. Being able to represent where I come from in that corporate setting, I’m super thankful for it.”

“Also, designing the [Air Jordan 1] ‘SP Gina’ project with Jordan Brand and seeing a teacher [Virginia Wright] get her own shoe and the [overwhelming] response from people. It was an organic story. Nothing was forced. Educators don’t get celebrated enough, and her story of using sneakers to break through to students is amazing. A demographic of kids can dream and say, ‘My second-grade teacher had her own pair of Js. Now I’m in 10th grade and want a career in sneakers.’”

Kiran Gandhi ME Speaker Series
Kiran Gandhi talking at an ME Speaker Series event in Los Angeles.
CREDIT: Melodyehsani.com

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