Don’t Move the Needle on Diversity, Break It: African American Leaders Meet at Portland AAFF to Tackle Inclusion

By now, many of the footwear and fashion industry’s diversity challenges are well documented.

From fashion label fallouts to athletic brand missteps, the past few months have seen many footwear and apparel brands face the harsh reality of their inadequacies on the diversity and inclusion fronts.

The executives, designers and aspiring shoe-industry practitioners who convened in Portland, Ore. over the weekend for the second African American Footwear Forum were all seemingly on the same page: No need to flog a dead horse. The industry has its shortcomings. For this gathering of the shoe industry’s minority rising stars, the focus was on tapping solutions.

“In order to move the needle, we have to break the needle: [Leaders] need to understand that diversity is not only a good thing to do but it is essential to the bottom line,” said Darla DeGrace, founder and diversity, equity and inclusion strategist at Boston-based DeGrace Group, who on Saturday joined Bimma Williams, co-founder of Claima, for a conversation about “unlocking the footwear industry.” (Williams co-founded storytelling platform Claima, short for “claim a seat at the table,” after a stint at Adidas.)

“When you can make a case for [inclusion] and leaders start to understand [the importance] of diversity, they’ll start to put some goals and metrics behind it,” DeGrace added. “It won’t be fluff [and] it won’t be ‘I’ll just hire this head of diversity.’ There will be resources and time committed and [key performance indicators] that are affiliated with it. It’s not just going to be ‘a check the box.’”

The daylong event, held at the Portland Art Museum on Aug. 10, marked the second time this year that members of the shoe industry unified for the African American Footwear Forum, which was formed through a partnership between Washington, DC-based Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America and Portland-based Pensole Footwear Design Academy.  The inaugural event took place in Washington, DC in February.

With the goal of “[enhancing] access, education and awareness” for African Americans who are seeking opportunities to enter the shoe industry and/or navigate through its ranks, the forum brought together leaders from Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Foot Locker and other firms, who swapped ideas about inclusion, mentorship and effective corporate strategies.

Taking the stage for another conversation with Williams — on focused talent-acquisition policies — Jarvis Sam, Sr., director of sourcing and diversity recruitment programs at Nike, said the brand has recently retooled its own recruitment efforts to better acquire diverse talent.

“When we look at the industry overall — whether it’s at the collegiate level, industry level or leadership level — we’re not seeing the representation coming out of schools to actually keep up with the demand that’s necessary for [the industry] to actually be representative of consumers,” Sam said. “[This] means that, from a recruiting perspective, we have to switch from this idea of demand-side recruiting, or simply put, a role becomes available and a recruiter sources against it and we ultimately hire a person. [We now tap into] more of a supply-side recruiting, where we begin to look at where there are great diverse [candidates] in the marketplace and [then figure out] how can we find opportunities for them in the company.”

To that end, Sam said Nike has been working with organizations like the WNBA, Pensole Academy and smaller community colleges to “develop innovative programs in our space that helps us diversify who has access, engagement and opportunity.” For example, the brand has upped the number of historically black colleges and universities it engages with to find talent, whereas many companies typically recruit from “the top five HBCUs” (think Howard University, Morehouse College and Spelman College), Sam said Nike has cast a wider net by now looking to the top 20 black colleges in the U.S. for talent.

D'Wayne Edwards baron davis
Pensole founder D’Wayne Edwards in conversation with NBA All-Star Baron Davis.
CREDIT: @thecollab.pdx

But even as footwear firms begin the complex process of untangling years marked by the lack of a stronger inclusion mandate and work toward finding practical solutions, Rashad Williams, senior director of footwear at Adidas, encouraged minorities to consider unconventional paths for breaking into the field.

“Stay focused on what you’re passionate about, but within that, look at every opportunity,” Williams said, comparing the industry to professional sports leagues like the NBA, where “there are only a certain number of spots.”

“If an opportunity presents itself, you have to at least acknowledge it because you just never know the path you have to [take] to get to where you want to go. You may think you’ll go right into Adidas and [become] the head of Yeezy and someone may say ‘I have an opportunity for an internship or at a retail store’ … you never know how that opportunity may circle back and lead you to your end goal.”

Meanwhile, Portia Blunt, director of apparel operations at New Balance, pointed to the importance of African Americans in high-powered positions recognizing their own roles in driving critical change.

“We have all have a level of access — in terms of whether you’re connected to a brand or have been connected to a brand,” Blunt said. “For myself, being a part of a brand, my responsibility, from a diversity and inclusion, equity standpoint, is to amplify that access in any way that I can, whether small or big. [I can do that via] a huge program or just taking a meeting with someone who hit me up on Instagram or LinkedIn to ask me a question.”

She added, “We all have that responsibility, it doesn’t matter if we have a director title, GM title or VP title. If you’re the assistant [product line manager], you have that responsibility as well. We all are the soldiers in this fight so that people know where to go.”

The forum also honored veteran sneaker columnist, host and author Scoop Jackson, with the Excellence in Media Award, presented by Jacques Slade, host and YouTube star. The keynote address was given by Bobbito Garcia, award-winning filmmaker and longtime sneaker influencer. NBA All-Star Baron Davis also attended the event and joined Pensole Academy founder D’Wayne Edwards for a fireside chat.

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