In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides.
One might assume that Adrienne Lofton, a lifelong athlete with a passion for sports, was destined for a career in the athletic industry.
Perhaps the incoming Nike executive, who spent nine combined years at Under Armour in top marketing roles before nabbing her new gig at the Swoosh, was preordained to become a star in the sector. But it would be far from accurate to believe her success was happenstance.
“I broke into the industry by being very calculated in my approach — creating a plan of action and executing the plan,” Lofton said. “I realized early that applying to internships within the top sports brands without having deeper connections would prove difficult. So instead of continuing down that path, I foraged a different approach.”
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Lofton pursued positions at Fortune 500 companies in a range of dominant industries “to develop and sharpen my skillset in order to become a valuable asset to the sports industry.”
It wasn’t long before her methodical tactics and solid track record would land her an access pass to some of the sports industry’s most powerful brands.
Here, Lofton talks big breaks, the importance of risk-taking and opening new doors for the next crop of minority talent.
What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe industry?
“I knew very early on I wanted to work in sports. The dream began when I was a high school athlete in Houston, Texas. I remember seeing a Nike ‘Just Do It’ commercial that featured female athletes who were just as powerful and strong as the male-dominant ads I’d grown up seeing. At that moment, I felt proud to be a female athlete, and knew I wanted to work in this industry to create stories that would inspire young girls to work hard and follow their authentic paths towards greatness. Back then, I didn’t know my newly found passion was called advertising, I didn’t know how to break into this industry, and I didn’t yet know how hard it would be to earn my seat. But this became my ultimate career goal from the day I stepped onto the campus of Howard University until I got my first shot.”
Looking back on your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
“What stands out most is the courage, risk-taking and perseverance it’s taken to get to this point in my career. Whether it was [in the] early days when I took on roles in multiple cities across the nation [in which I] didn’t hold a single friend, family member or network but found ways to build personal relationships and professional success against the highest of odds. Or the hard work and determination it took to start up Under Armour’s first Women’s Marketing Division and establish the category’s core consumer and positioning. Finally, I think about what it took to go from [being] internally dubbed ‘the woman who leads the women’s team and marketing POV’ to ‘the woman who led the brand.’ Historically, there was always a man in that much-coveted Team Sports and Men’s Training leadership roles, and one of my personal goals was to shatter that stereotype and prove that gender doesn’t decide what makes a strong marketer. Instead, what does is having a powerful strategy, a keen passion and understanding of the consumer, coupled with hard work, perseverance and experience.”
As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
“Being a black woman in corporate America to some can be seen as a ‘double challenge’ and comes with the base-level obstacle of being one of very few in a room who look like me. Common human tendency is to gravitate towards those who look like you, and when you find yourself standing alone, it can be isolating and intimidating. Recognizing this challenge, I’ve always worked to ensure I stand proudly in the space I occupy as a black woman. Ensuring I use this differentiator as an advantage is a critical piece to how I’ve leaned into my biggest potential obstacle and turn it into a positive. When I look back at my career, I want to be one who fearlessly spoke up when necessary — one who believed in pulling minorities forward, ensuring they know the roadblocks and can confidently break through the barriers. I want to be one that showed my counterparts that people who look like me must be part of the table because we bring a level of value and perspective they may not have realized prior to working in diverse, highly inclusive environments. That is the challenge I place on my shoulders every day.”
What is the biggest challenge African-Americans face in the shoe industry?
“We often limit the conversation to African-Americans when we talk about opportunities and barriers, but I challenge us to think about the entire diaspora. I cannot tell you how many people I know who are of African descent that feel the same challenge of rising and experiencing success in the corporate environment. That said, I believe the biggest challenge we face in this industry is the sheer lack of representation at all levels and areas of expertise. We simply cannot be successful if we aren’t in the room, so our collective challenge is continuing to push for opportunities within our industry to show our capabilities and drive success. When we are able to do that, I believe we open the door to the next crop of talent to do the same. Unfortunately, when you are a minority, your margin of error is tight, and for this reason, I have always believed showing consistent success and team wins is the way we can open the eyes of our nonminority co-workers on what’s possible when the table truly reflects the consumer we serve.”
What is the best advice you can offer African-Americans looking to break into the industry?
“We must take our future into our own hands and never be afraid to be our authentic selves. For me, getting into sports was about showing my abilities and value outside of the industry in order to ultimately break in to where I was meant to be. My advice is to build your plan for an authentic way in, and then work your plan. Don’t give up. It is a tiring process, but giving up is the one way we can ensure denial. The dedication and sheer work it will take is almost always the biggest deterrent that I challenge aspiring professionals to never to give up on. Your breakthrough may not look the way you envisioned it. It may not be pretty, neat and buttoned up. It may include taking level steps down in order to ultimately step up.”
What specific actions should footwear firms take to make their teams more diverse?
“This industry, and corporate America at large, must become humble enough to look itself in the mirror and realize there’s a long way to go. The encouraging news is, I’m beginning to see those moments of realization happening. We just have to keep our foot on the pedal and drive for more until the work is done.”
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