In what has been cast as an unprecedented moment for the footwear industry, dozens of African-American professionals from across the shoe sector convened at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural African American Footwear Forum.
The two-day event — founded by the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America and Pensole Footwear Design Academy — kicked off on Tuesday afternoon with a career-focused panel featuring 10 footwear movers and shakers who addressed the challenges and rewards of working in the industry as minorities.
“I’m the son of a drug addict and the stepson of a pimp,” said YouTube star Jacques Slade, who now has over 1 million online subscribers to his sneaker-focused channel, about his path to entrepreneurship. “I didn’t graduate from college, and I didn’t know I was going to be in the footwear industry.”
Slade said his winding road to success and autonomy included a stint working at K-Mart as well as a devastating termination.
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“In December 2009, I started creating YouTube sneaker videos — I wanted to present sneakers professionally in a way that people could understand it,” explained Slade. “[Those] videos made me stand out in the sneaker world, so I was able to [land a job] at a company. In 2013, ESPN wanted me to come on to talk about Jordans. But my boss thought it was him that should’ve been [invited to appear] on [the show]. As a result of that, I was fired.”
The situation, Slade said, motivated him to become more aggressive with his own efforts, and eventually, he grew his channel as well as other social media accounts into lucrative business platforms.
Meanwhile, nine-year Nike designer Ashley Comeaux said the toughest part of her path into sneaker design was securing the buy-in of her Honduran parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. in search of opportunities and stability.
“The biggest obstacle was articulating to my dad, in particular, what it was that I was doing,” Comeaux told attendees. “They’re thinking I’m going to be a doctor or lawyer or something that’s a stable, well-paying job — which will seal the deal for their efforts [they made] coming into the country … Here I am telling them that designing was what I wanted to do.”
Comeaux said the “aha” moment for her father came on a day when they both were sitting in her bedroom and she explained to him that “everything in this room was designed by someone. My room looks the way it does because someone put pencil to paper and made it look that way, and they get paid to do that.”
When it comes to on-the-job challenges, Patrick Walsh, VP of marketing at Foot Locker Inc., recalled, during the earlier years in his career, often being the only person of color in a room. He credited Foot Locker with making significant progress in recent years by tapping African-American leaders for Foot Locker, FootAction and Champs Sports stores. But he noted, “There’s still a long ways to go.”
“There’s still a lack of diversity [in the industry], and part of it is, we have to get more people into the brands, and we have to get more people to stick around,” Walsh continued. “There’s a lot of frustration and challenges along the way, and that’s where the mentorship comes in. There have been many of times I’ve been ready to jump out of this industry. A good mentor of mine would sit me down and say, ‘It’s not really that bad for you. Let’s talk about what’s wrong and figure out what you need to do to move forward.’”
Similarly, Domonique Debnam, a product line manager at Nike, said that while she’s found great success in her role, she sees industrywide barriers for many minorities — women in particular.
“It’s discouraging that there is a glass ceiling,” said Debnam, whose career also has included merchandising and product roles at New Balance and Adidas. “There’s an air that we can’t be in management. That as [black women], we can give you an idea but we can’t be the ones to implement it.”
Still, the panelists were united in their belief that there are efforts being made on various fronts and that minorities are powerful when they band together to create support systems for one another.
“I’m where I am today because someone saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” said Adidas color and materials designer Victoria Adesanmi. “For me, knowing that I can set the precedent and I can make space for people to sit at the table [lets me know] that my job is bigger than myself. The shoes that I touch have impact on people I don’t even know.”
For those looking to take the entrepreneurial path into footwear, Jacqueline Forbes, owner of sneaker boutique/art gallery Canvas Malibu, encouraged risk-taking.
“As a retailer, there’s a typical model that people do,” said Forbes, who launched the edgy store concept with her husband. “When we started a sneaker boutique [combined with an art gallery], we had to bet on ourselves. We’d rather die on our own [with our original] idea than to sell out to someone else’s idea. We have to embrace our uniqueness and what we bring to the table.”
In the same vein, Foot Locker’s Walsh encouraged aspiring African-American footwear professionals to use their diversity as a selling point.
“You guys bring something to the industry,” he said. “Use your difference to stand out. That’s your secret weapon. Take your shot. Use your gift.”
Other panelists were: Brodrick Foster, Converse kids global footwear product director; Lauren Body, Adidas product merchandise manager; Ernie Talbert, Under Armour senior manager of global brand and product marketing; and Alex Barnes, Under Armour director of sales.
The panel was moderated by Pensole Footwear Design Academy founder D’Wayne Edwards.
The second part of the initiative continues tonight with a program at The Hyatt Regency on Capital Hill, where attendees are invited to explore ways to establish industry goals in the development of African-American talent at all levels.
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