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.
Portia Blunt has learned a lot in her nearly two decades working in the fashion industry.
She can tell you all the ins and outs of creating innovative apparel: She spent the early years of her career as a clothing designer for the U.S. Marine Corps. and was recruited from there by Boston-based New Balance, where she’s led in areas such as product development and digital technology for the category.
But for a woman of color leading the design execution strategy at a major athletic brand, there are certain to be other transformative lessons along the way — and Blunt has been keen to acquire those, too.
“I have been in the industry for 19 years and learning [that] my vantage point matters has been an evolution over time and has matured with experience,” she told FN. “When I realized people were coming to me for my perspective on projects and issues, I started to understand my point of view mattered. My various roles have given me experiences and knowledge that I have been able to build on to shape my professional perspective, but my life experience also [contributes] to my point of view, and those two things together create a unique perspective that becomes quite important in our industry.”
Case in point: Blunt, now director of apparel operations at New Balance, spearheaded the team that designed the brand’s first Black History Month capsule collection, launched last month.
Here, she talks finding her voice, boosting minority talent acquisition and using diversity as a superpower.
What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe/fashion industry?
“Tracy Chambers! Growing up I was obsessed with the movie “Mahogany,” and I wanted to be Tracy Chambers, the main character played by Diana Ross. It was what ignited my passion for fashion and design. I modeled as a child and teen and ultimately majored in apparel design in college —solidifying my path as a designer and living my version of Mahogany.”
How did you break in?
“I started my career as a design intern with the U.S Marine Corps, and that internship lead to a full-time role as a clothing designer for them for seven years. Working as a designer for the military, I learned a ton and worked with some amazing people — all whom I consider family to this day. I was recruited by New Balance while I was in that role and was presented an opportunity to work on military programs for [the brand]. Accepting the role changed my life because it opened my eyes to see how big our industry truly is and all it has to offer, if I wanted it”.
How did you find your voice?
“Looking back, I would say I found my voice by being empowered and trusted by bosses. I have had amazing bosses that have all been life mentors to me. I have learned so many valuable lessons from all of them. At every level in my career, they trusted and respected my expertise and perspective. They didn’t give me my voice because I would say I always had it, but they each in their own ways always amplified and encouraged my voice. They are pretty special for that because not every boss allows you the space and ability to do that.”
How do you help other people of color gain access to the industry?
“I try hard to be accessible and available. If people reach out to me, I always try to connect. I know how hard it is to make connections and inroads within the industry and even the smallest connections go a long way. I am a strong believer in paying it forward so — as much outreach as I can do through college programs, internships, apprentice programs and industry forums — I try to engage. I know I may not be the person they need for a question, but I can try hard to get them to [someone] who can help. That is half the battle and a big piece of breaking down the access barrier that exists in our industry.”
How do you leverage your diversity as a strength daily in your professional endeavors?
“That is an interesting question: This year’s theme of Diversity as a Superpower is a transformative concept. As big and daunting as diversity can seem, leveraging connections and people to bring varieties of perspective and ideas together is by definition diversity. In a nutshell, that is what I do every day. Diversity is at play in everything I do because in order to be better and to reach goals you really have to build a coalition of sorts, [a coalition] of people to achieve diversity of thought. That coalition has power, because it is stronger and smarter than you as a single person. Approaching my professional endeavors in this way has positioned me to meet extraordinary people and experience adventures in my career that I wouldn’t have imagined if I hadn’t been willing to utilize my diversity superpowers. That superpower also comes with some weight. Leveraging diversity is the ultimate strength when you’ve worked so hard and have earned that seat at the table; it isn’t enough to just sit at the table. The superpower is actually using your voice, even if the challenges are hard or uncomfortable.”
What barriers exist in expanding opportunities for African Americans and other people of color in the footwear industry?
“The biggest barrier from my perspective is lack of knowledge of what the industry has to offer and access to the industry through the traditional channels of education. Our industry relies heavily on networking and familiar education networks that may not have a diverse pool of entry-level candidates. Many of today’s talented designers, marketers and developers may not take the traditional path in education. Our industry has to evolve and look at nontraditional paths as a way to recruit untapped talent.”
What is the role of companies and their leadership in eliminating barriers?
“The more access companies can provide to underrepresented candidates at entry-level positions the better. This requires not recruiting in our comfortable or typical networks but instead stepping out and approaching new talent acquisition differently. [This could include] partnering with vocational programs that are helping build skills in design as a path to entry instead of the traditional design degrees. Perhaps looking at how we “level set” our job description requirements and being more flexible about having a degree to allow candidates that have taken nontraditional paths an opportunity. Our role as leaders is to be open and help remove barriers in the best ways that we can. That would mean internally and externally. As a hiring manager, work with your HR team to ensure you are getting the most diverse candidates in for interviews. Have those conversations and state that it is a priority for you and how you want to shape your team.”
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