Op-Ed: Have You Ever Seen a Black Unicorn?

As part of our new Op-Ed series, we ask key thought leaders in footwear and fashion to contribute editorial content. Pensole founder D’Wayne Edwards will contribute regular pieces about diversity and inclusion.

Have you ever seen a black unicorn? Well, I have seen four. And these are not just your ordinary black unicorns.

These four women are Precious Hannah, footwear designer for Jordan Kids; Kim Glover Shane, creative director at Lembo Sportswear; Ashley Payne Comeaux, Nike Footwear Design Lead|NSW Mens; and Cheresse Thornhill, chief creative consultant at No Shoes Creative. I call these four black women, black unicorns because of the following:

According to my estimates, African Americans make up roughly less than 5% of the total footwear designers in our industry today. Of that, according to my estimates, roughly 0.5% are women. What’s crazier is, to my knowledge, there are only two top athletic companies (Nike and Adidas) that have African American female designers.

This is beyond sad, and our industry should be ashamed. We, as people of color, should be ashamed.

In order for this to change, three things need to happen:

-We need more programs like Adidas’ SEED School, which is a two-year program for women in the Brooklyn Creator Farm.

We need more programs like what Nike and Serena Williams are doing with the Serena Design Crew, which is a seven-month apprenticeship at Nike for designers of color.

-All people of color need to do for each other what these ladies did to get into our industry.

It just takes one company or person to take the first step. These were actions purposely executed to solve this problem. I have the honor of playing a small role in seeing this change happen. I am truly honored to continue to move forward with my goal of leaving our industry better than when I entered it.

Pensole Footwear Design Academy founder D’Wayne Edwards poses for a portrait, in Portland, on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. Sneaker Design CompetitionSneakersVarious/Portland, OR, USA8/15/2014X158590 TK5Credit: Marcus Yam
Pensole Footwear Design Academy founder D’Wayne Edwards
CREDIT: Marcus Yam

So now I would like introduce you to The Black Unicorns:

I met Kim when I was footwear design director at Jordan, and I hired her to complete my team. Kim was talented, focused, strong and an absolute joy to share space with. One day, she said, Would you mind talking to a young lady by the name of Cheresse Thornhill for me? I have been mentoring her and she is from Miami like me, and she wants to be a footwear designer.”

I immediately said yes, and Black Unicorn #2 was hired at Nike about a year later. Cheresse was on the Nike side, but she blessed me with a few Jordan projects when Nike was not looking — and she killed it! Within a year or so she said, “D, I have been mentoring a young lady from Miami by the name of Ashley Payne (Comeaux now) who wants to be a footwear designer. Would you talk with her?”

Without hesitation, I was on the phone with Black Unicorn #3, and we worked on an internship project for Jordan. Then Ron Wright, the African American Nike footwear design director, saw her talent and hired her about a year later.

By this time, I was transitioning into the next chapter of my career in launching Pensole in the summer of 2010. One day, Ashley reached out to me and said, “There is a young lady back home in Miami by the name of Precious Hannah who I have been mentoring. Would you consider her for your new academy?”

I was like, what the hell is in the water in Miami?

What Kim did for Cheresse, and what Cheresse did for Ashley, and what Ashley did for Precious was one of the reasons why Pensole was created. I knew in order for change to happen in our industry, someone had to make a focused effort to show our industry what could happen if an effort was made.

Two years later, after Pensole, Precious was working at Nike — and to this day, she regularly attends Pensole to mentor students.

Oh, wait, it gets better. Cheresse left the industry to teach at her former high school, Dash in Miami, where she mentored a young lady by the name of Eliya Jackson — who won our Pensole High School design competition and who will attend Pensole in 2020.

Oh, wait, even better, I had all four Black Unicorns at Pensole. To prove Black Unicorns are real, I asked them all one simple question: Why did you do it?

Kim Glover Shane: “I remember how scary and lonely it felt being the first or the only one and the pressure I put on myself to over-deliver. I didn’t want another female designer of color to be the only one anymore. There’s no achievement in that. So when I was asked to mentor Cheresse while she was finishing college, it gave me hope that I would no longer be the only one. When she graduated and joined the Nike design team we poured into each other, motivated each other and became true sisters. Her design skills, drive and self-motivation truly inspired me and many others.  Cheresse soon passed the baton of mentorship to Ashley, a sensational designer, who later passed it on to Precious—the youngest superstar to walk the Nike halls, adding another link to our beautiful chain. These wonderful women from Miami have all become my sisters. All of us standing together with room for many more: “Iron sharpens iron.” To be the first is not enough, but to reach back and pull others up is ultimately the reason I serve.

Cheresse Thornhill: “When I was in 10th grade, my art teacher, Mr. Hill, told me his good friend from college was a footwear designer at Adidas. Little did I know, five years later she would become my mentor, sister and best friend. I met Kim in 2005 when she was a designer at Brand Jordan. She was definitely a unicorn. Aside from being amazingly talented, she was a woman who looked like me, from my hometown of Miami, had a similar background and took the same path to the footwear industry I only dreamed of. She was not only a beacon of hope but a trailblazer who from the day we met never stopped advocating for me. I’m so grateful for her and never would have made it without her in my corner. So when I saw Ashley’s phenomenal work while we were in college, and she shared her interest in pursuing a career in footwear design, there was no question about helping her or not. Ashley is a game-changer and my sister. She inspires me, I’m so proud of her and all the glass ceilings she shatters every day. Precious’s incredible talent, passion, hard work and dedication to design excellence was evident even at 15 years old, and she’s been defying gravity ever since. Precious is my sister and it’s been a privilege watching her achieve her dreams in our industry, I’m so proud of her. When I met Eliya in 2017, I immediately saw her talent and, more important, her potential. I’m so excited to have her join our industry in the coming year.”

Ashley Payne Comeaux: “In high school, I was fortunate enough to have Cheresse serve as an example of what was possible. Before watching her achieve the unthinkable, designing for Nike wasn’t even a thought in my mind. Not only was she living proof that designing footwear for Nike was possible, she made it a point to extend herself as a friend and mentor to provide guidance for me. She ultimately left the proverbial wedge in the door for me to be able to have access to not only the knowledge she had acquired, but she exposed me to the network of people who helped make it possible for her. Cheresse shared her journey with me and it was with the help and guidance of Kim, before her. It was absolutely incumbent upon me to pay it forward and do the same for Precious, who was up next. I wouldn’t be where I am had Cheresse not considered that she was officially in a position to be able to help me, and I felt responsible to be that for someone else once I had the ability to do so. I didn’t fully recognize the power of this sisterhood that we had built on the foundation of helping each other and creating a leg up for one another. In hindsight, it’s a profound testament to the impact that just one person can have on someone’s life when you simply make it your responsibility to pay it forward and bring the next person up with you.”

Precious Hannah: “I do it because if Cheresse and Ashley hadn’t helped me, I would not be where I am today. I remember seeing Cheresse’s portfolio in the 10th grade after her Nike internship with SB and thinking to myself, “Wait, chicks can design footwear?” It was at this moment that everything had changed for me. Cheresse reached out with a helping hand and Ashley lent the other. With their guidance and honest mentorship pushing me beyond what was expected from me, I was able to prove that I could do the unexpected. I had overcome barriers that I could not be a footwear designer because of my gender and the way I looked. That same feeling of support, honesty and trust that I received from these ladies, who are now sisters to me, I wanted others to feel it as well. I wanted them to believe and understand that they are not alone on the journey of having their wildest dreams come true because we have taken similar steps to achieve ours.”

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