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.
Like many people who work at powerful athletic companies, Eric Wise fell in love with sneakers at an early age.
“I remember my first pair of Jordans and different Adidas product — they were status pieces,” said Wise, who joined Adidas in 2016 and is now global senior director of product for Originals. “They were social currency back then, without social media.”
Wise, now a father of four, grew up in Reading, Pa., a city with one of the highest crime rates in the state. As he tells it: “When you grow up in the inner city, unfortunately there are tons of examples of what not to do, and you grow through that. You can either do the bad stuff or have an angle around it with sports, art, music or fashion.”
For Wise, it was sports. He eventually earned a spot on the football team at Fairfield University in Connecticut. After college, with a business degree in hand, he entered the finance world in Boston, calling it “a painful experience selling mutual funds. I quickly decided it wasn’t for me.”
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It’s little wonder, then, that Wise found his way back to his true passion: sneaker culture.
Here’s how it happened — and how he continues to rise through the ranks.
What made you want to pursue a career in the athletic industry? How did you break in?
“I went back to Reading in 2004, and there was a store called Sneaker Villa, which had a couple of [locations] at the time. It was family-owned, and it had all the big footwear and apparel accounts. They were a big deal and they were selling the culture — sneakers, sports and hip-hop were all clashing together. It was cool to see that marriage. I knew the owner and started working in the warehouse. They got to the point where they were looking to expand into Philadelphia. They asked if I wanted to run one of the stores or be a buyer. So I actually ended up being the first person that wasn’t a family member that could spend their money.”
Looking back on your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
“I’m most proud of being able to be an example to other African-Americans and minorities that may not know that these jobs exist in the industry — that there are these opportunities in the footwear business and sportswear. I didn’t know [that] growing up. I didn’t really travel out of my state until I was 18. I never got on a plane until I was in college. All these things were foreign to me. How would you know? There are tons of kids across the country in that same boat. So being able to be an example and show people that there are these opportunities in this industry, in something that you love, grew up with and is part of our culture, is something I’m proud of.”
As a minority, what has been the biggest obstacle you faced in your career?
“The lack of diversity within this industry is something that is very visible. That’s what you see. That ends up becoming an obstacle. Is there enough mentoring from people who can show you the path to go? Can you get educated on how best to navigate corporate America? In general, if you don’t have a lot of people of color in those high positions to look to as an example, to show you the way to go, or have those people to talk to, it’s harder to get into those larger positions.”
Sneakers have a diverse consumer base. Why doesn’t that diversity translate at the higher levels in greater numbers at these companies?
“I’m assuming everybody wants to have a more diverse company regardless of what industry you are in. Whether people are recruiting in the right places and things like that, I don’t know.”
So what specific steps should footwear firms take to make their ranks more diverse?
“It goes back to when you recruit — where do you cast your net? That is super-important. If you’re a company, you should look at where there’s consumption. If there is a large amount of consumption by this consumer base in certain places, that’s a good place to start. Focus on where that is. Going to where the consumer that really buys your product lives and is a brand advocate is the easiest place to start to get that pipeline going.”
What is the best advice you would offer other African-Americans looking to break into the athletic industry?
“It is similar to anybody trying to break into any business: try to network with people in the industry and understand what you’re really looking for. And when you’re looking for advice, be super-clear on what you want to get into. Whether you want to be a designer or a buyer, be clear on knowing what you want to do — that only helps others help you to get to where you want to be.”
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