Okabashi’s CEO on Running the Family Business and Its Focus on Sustainability

Sara Irvani is proud to walk in her father’s footsteps. After assuming the role of CEO at the family-owned enterprise nearly three years ago, she’s holding on to its commitment to sustainability and manufacturing in the U.S.  While Irvani always has her eye on the bottom line, she’s just as focused on maintaining a positive work environment for her employees and providing opportunities for growth.

Here, the 31-year-old executive talks about her favorite mentors, how she motivates her team, and her next move.

First job in the industry:

“I’m a third-generation shoemaker and as a little girl I shadowed my father around the factory in Buford, Ga. I thought I was helping, but was probably making more of a mess than anything else. Seeing how shoes were created was fascinating and got me attracted to manufacturing. In high school, I wrote copy for our catalogs, which was fun. After university, I went into strategy consulting and venture capital for [outside businesses]. I was named Okabashi CEO two and a half years ago.”

Most important lesson learned:

“Ask people a lot of questions and understand everyone’s perspective. For example, what does made-in-USA mean? Initially, you might say it’s an emotional appeal. But for retailers it can mean in-season orders, optimizing inventory, drop shipping. If these are of value, does Okabashi have the capabilities to match it? My first 18 months on the job was [about] looking at our values and making sure all of our capabilities met them.”

Key mentors along the way:

“My father has been incredible. He’s now company chairman and comes down to the about every four months to make sure I haven’t burned down the place. But I’ve also [had] many mentors in my family, the footwear community and beyond. I don’t think I would be able to do what I’m doing today without being able to learn from other peoples’ experiences.”

My leadership style:

“Collaborative, kind and respectful. Many ideas we have come from everyone on the team. If you put your heads together and listen, you get good ideas.”

Taking on sustainability:

“My grandfather began manufacturing sustainably made footwear 35 years [ago], and it’s something that really matters to us. When I started as CEO, if you talked about recyclability and circularity, people wouldn’t necessarily understand or appreciate it to its fullest extent. We’re able to take any scraps we produce when making the shoes, regrind them and recycle [them] into new shoes. We invite customers to send back their old ones for recycling for a 15% discount on a new pair. I’m really proud our team has figured out a way to provide sustainably made products that are accessible to [consumers] in a way that [also] helps us to grow.”

Biggest surprise about the business:

“I grew up looking at shoes and manufacturing, but not within the context of the industry. What’s pleasantly surprised me is how much of a community it is. It’s not about individual companies, but how organizations, such as Soles4Souls, Two Ten and FDRA, have had a positive spirit that galvanizes the community. I’ve never seen it in any other type of business. That is why so many people who start to work in shoes never leave.”

Best advice I’ve received:

“I was told by my father at an early age, smile at the world and the world will smile back at you. I think it’s very true. It doesn’t seem like your typical business advice, but if you think in a positive way, things can really happen. If you don’t, it’s a nonstarter.”

How I keep my team motivated:

“We’re not just a family-owned business, but a family-operated business. I’m in the factory at least four days a week. I think that makes all the difference in creating the Okabashi family. It’s shown in the longevity of the team we have, with many here over 20 years. We work on providing meaningful opportunities. Our head of distribution and procurement, as well as many people in management positions, have come in on a temp basis.”

What keeps me up at night:

“We’re growing our business in a very real way. For me, it’s about how can I innovate to stay at the forefront of sustainability and how can we be the best version of ourselves?”

My next move:

“It would be amazing to one day make this a fourth-generation business. However, right now, I don’t have kids. I have three brothers, but none are in the business. It was the girl in the family who went into footwear manufacturing.”

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