For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ features series. For 2020 we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodburry-Spencer, to design the series’ logo.
Bimma Williams has been in love with sneakers since he was nine years old.
That was the age when his father gifted him a pair of Jordan 11 Concords following his divorce from Williams’ mother.
“All I wanted to do was work in the sportswear industry because I viewed sneakers as a tool that helped me during that tough time,” he said.
However, as a person of color who grew up in Baton Rouge, La., from mid-1990s to 2013, Williams said he experienced more hurdles than pathways to pursuing a career in footwear and fashion. The city held one of the highest crime rates in the country, with news of murders and police brutality “as consistent as a morning cup of coffee,” he said. “As a young person, it was very easy to get caught up in the wrong crowd.”
He was 24 when his dream of working in the industry started to fade.
“I had a better chance of being Dwayne Carter than D’Wayne Edwards,” he said, contrasting the rapper known professionally as Lil Wayne with the pioneering founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy. “A voice began to manifest in my head — trying to convince me that people from underrepresented communities were only valuable as consumers, not professionals.”
Today, Williams — who has spent time working in entertainment marketing and product creation at sportswear giants including Adidas — is the co-founder and host of professional development podcast Claima Stories (the name stands for “claim a seat at the table”), inviting leaders across industries to share their accomplishments and offer advice on how minorities can advance their careers.
Here, FN chats with Williams, who expands on how the industry can make bigger strides in diversity and inclusion.
What made you want to pursue a career in the footwear or fashion industry? How did you break in?
“I met Juris Cooper, a field marketing rep for Saucony, at a pop-up event he was putting on at my neighborhood sportswear store. Juris believed my skill set could be beneficial to a sportswear company like Saucony. To help me get a job in the sportswear industry, Juris created a plan for me. He invited me to a sportswear industry event in Austin, Texas, and introduced me to people that were hiring. The most important introduction was to Chris Lindner, the chief marketing officer of Saucony at the time. He was impressed by the way I was building community through social media. On the spot, he mentioned that he wanted me to move to Boston and help lead the brand’s global social media efforts.”
When and how did you learn that your vantage point matters in this industry? How did you find your voice?
“There were three things that helped me learn that my vantage point in this industry mattered. The first was my support system at home, from my wife, Katelyn, to my friends back in Louisiana. They would all support me and validate what I was trying to accomplish. Although I was the one that was working in the office, the insights and knowledge was truly from my network.
“Second was through the support of my direct manager [at Saucony] at the time. His name is Sean Robbins. Although I didn’t identify with Sean from a race and ethnicity standpoint, we bonded over other things like running, music, and we shared the same birthday. He worked at the brand for years and knew everyone. What I loved about Sean’s management style what that he empowered me to try my ideas.
“Lastly, it was getting my first major win that helped me find my voice. This win came when we were creating the strategy for the Saucony Instagram account in 2014 to 2015. Within a year, we were able to grow the account from approximately 3,000 to 80,000 followers. This is when I truly found my voice in a corporate environment when not many people looked like me. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and that I belong there.”
How do you help other people of color gain access to the industry?
“I co-created a podcast with my friend BJ Frogozo called Claima Stories with Bimma. It’s a podcast about professionals working in the sportswear industry and the incredible careers they’ve been able to claim. The mission of this podcast is to help students discover their dream careers.
“As my career advanced in sportswear, I noticed there weren’t many diverse professionals in the industry at all. There are a number of reasons for that, but one that I personally connected with came from a visit back home to Louisiana. I was visiting a local sneaker shop and reconnecting with the manager there. While we were catching up, I could see two teenagers that were working the floor, eavesdropping on the conversation.
“I later learned that it was the first time they ever met someone from a major sportswear brand who was also from their neighborhood and background. I realized that students are missing the necessary information to discover their dream careers in the industry. What necessary information? They haven’t heard about the careers of professionals in the industry. Therefore, students don’t have any role models to aspire to be like, making their dream nearly impossible to achieve because you can’t be what you can’t see. We created the podcast as a modern career readiness tool to bridge this gap.”
How do you leverage your diversity as a strength in your day-to-day professional endeavors?
“Every study you read will tell you that diversity is essential to innovation and growth for any company. That translates to me that being black and from Louisiana is a super power that comes with a perspective that others don’t have. That’s the most amazing thing about diversity is when we can look at it from the angle of innovation and what we can create when we bring these different perspectives together.
“In fact, when we initially started to brainstorm what problem Claima Stories was solving, it started with this single idea of how can we bring more equality to leadership in the sportswear industry. With that being the problem to solve, it required us to seek input from other people with different backgrounds to truly have diverse ideas in regards to a solution. The result being that we leveraged diversity to create our podcast.”
What barriers exist in expanding opportunities for African Americans and other people of color in the footwear industry?
“One of the biggest barriers is the missing information in communities of color and the antiquated approaches when it comes to sourcing new talent at companies. So many companies have a mandate to bring diversity to their workforce, but what new, creative approaches are being taken to make this happen?
“Today, sneaker culture is as big as it’s ever been. The amount of talented and creative people interested in working in the sportswear industry is endless. What I’ve discovered is that many people of color are at a disadvantage because they don’t have a role model or the guidance to help them get their foot in the door.
“I think a great approach to solving this would be leveraging the stories of the best recruiters at the companies — the people that work there. Imagine if there was a dedicated tool or platform that told story after story about how to go from working at a sneaker shop to becoming a sneaker designer at Jordan Brand or how someone went from a neighborhood full of crime and violence to being a product line manager at Adidas.
“That type of insight and information would be invaluable. While you may not live somewhere with direct access to people in the industry, now you have different perspectives and insights for how you can create your own path in.”
What capabilities do people of color possess in overcoming these barriers? What is the role of companies and their leadership in eliminating barriers?
“I don’t believe it’s the responsibility of people of color to overcome these barriers. It is the responsibility of these companies to make sure that joining their brand is an equal opportunity for all that are interested and qualified.”
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Black History Month 2020: Your Diversity Is Your Super Power