On Dec. 8, D’Wayne Edwards will be honored with the Icon Award for Social Impact at the first virtual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 7 print issue about the honorees.
For the past decade, D’Wayne Edwards has dedicated himself to racial equality in the footwear industry as the founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy. The Portland, Ore.-based organization provides educational opportunities to underserved youths and facilitates connections for employment and internships at major brands, where Black voices in design are limited.
Some of his graduates from the program have been placed at Adidas, Nike, Under Armour and Wolverine World Wide Inc. But the industry change-maker is humble about being acknowledged for his efforts. “To be honored by FN goes beyond what I expected, primarily because it’s the industry’s staple — to be recognized, I’m speechless by the moment,” Edwards said. “It hasn’t digested yet.”
Edwards, whose career spans more than 30 years as a designer, including a role as design director at Jordan Brand, launched and funded his academy on his own in 2011, focusing on the development of the next generation of designers and influencing Black representation in the industry.
“When I left the industry as a designer, my goal was to leave it better than when I entered it. That’s the part that’s driving me now,” he said. “When I do decide to leave completely, I want to understand, ‘Did I do the job I set out to do — create a more diverse industry than I got into?’ Thirty years later, it’s gotten better, but there’s a longer way to go.”
Indeed, Edwards estimates that African-American designers represent less than 5% of the shoe business. So he continues to train the next generation of creatives to give them the skills to compete. “Any potential employer who sees Pensole on that kid’s resume knows what they went through — they’ve been prepared and given the tools,” he explained.
Along the way, Edwards has forged partnerships with a number of brands and retailers. In 2014, Foot Locker Inc. made a $2 million strategic investment in the academy. Pensole also has hosted master classes with New Balance and Allbirds, and earlier this year launched a podcast with industry veteran Bimma Williams of Claima Stories.
But Edwards’ influence extends beyond just his students. When he teamed up with Adidas on its S.E.E.D. program — the School for Experiential Education in Design that opens doors for women of color pursuing careers in the sportswear industry — he recommended Cheresse Thornhill to manage the program as design director.
“Any person of color who has come into contact with him, that connection has helped them move forward,” Thornhill shared, adding that she was designing footwear for Champion before Edwards approached her with the opportunity. The pair met in 2006 while she was a college senior interning at Nike. “D’Wayne pops up at these integral moments and he has his hands in so many different things throughout the industry. He’s a dot connector.”
Edwards also facilitates connections through the African American Footwear Forum, which he launched last year to discuss critical issues on diversity and inclusion in the industry.
“The industry as a whole needs a facelift, and that’s what we’re working on together,” said Jazerai Allen-Lord, , who is on the
AAFF board and serves as host of forums. “He’s the leader of this movement and always has been — even before it was a movement.”
For Edwards, he said the key to changing the makeup of the industry may lie the Pensole alumni, who can facilitate change from inside. “Hopefully they become the seeds that continue to show why it’s important to do what we’re doing — and for them to go into the industry to share what they’ve learned down the line,” he said.
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For 34 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards — often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The first virtual FNAAs will air online Dec. 8 and are presented in partnership with The Style Room Powered by Zappos, and sponsors FDRA, Deckers Brands, Soles4Souls and Foot Locker.