Patrick Walsh can still remember the hour-plus-long train ride he took from his elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., back to his house in Queens, N.Y., five days a week when he was in second grade.
His mother trusted — or rather, empowered — him to make the trek by himself for a full school year. And that daily commute has come to bear striking parallels to his professional journey: Twists and turns, stops and starts — and more importantly, the boy-like fearlessness and optimism that guarantees no matter the setbacks, if you stay the course, the destination is almost always certain.
Walsh, now the VP and GM of Footaction at Foot Locker Inc., has managed to build an accomplished career in the sneaker industry — but it’s a career that almost didn’t happen. As a Black boy growing in a major city like New York, Walsh had learned very early on that diverse environments don’t always equate to inclusive or equitable ones.
And that sentiment, too, shared an awfully uncanny resemblance to what he’d seen in the fashion world.
“I never actually wanted to get into the sneaker industry or into fashion just because I always looked at it as being parasitic,” Walsh explained. “And that’s because of the experiences I had in urban retail growing up. [As an adolescent], I couldn’t get into the stores. And if I did, my friends and I had to go in one at a time. And then we were followed around.”
So when Walsh was approached in 2006 by a small sneaker lifestyle boutique called Villa (now DTLR Villa) to serve in a top management role, he asked himself the same question many talented Black professionals come face-to-face with in their careers: Can I help change an industry from the inside out?
Walsh, who had several years earlier given in to his entrepreneurial spirit and dropped out of business school at Georgetown University to start his own marketing company, had already built a strategy for effectively engaging with Black and brown youth — key muses and trend-drivers of the sneaker market. (While at MJINI, he earned his undergraduate degree and eventually received his Master of Business Administration in 2004 from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)
“This was at a time where companies were just figuring out the impact that the Black consumer had on the economy,” Walsh said of his motivation for launching marketing research company MJINI in 1998. “And I just felt like companies weren’t doing it right and they needed actually to understand the customer.”
Walsh’s firm ended up landing clients like Timberland and Levi’s, and it was a professional contact from his years at MJINI who encouraged him to take the Villa opportunity.
“I took that role as VP of marketing for Villa, and my whole purpose and mission was to flip the consumer connectivity model,” he explained. “I wanted to beat the competition by respecting, embracing and empowering Black and brown consumers in the neighborhoods. And I wanted to force the competition to step up their game. So if they wanted to win, they would actually have to embrace the consumer and provide respect.”
He added, “And I’ll tell you that 15 years later in the industry, I still bring that same mentality to work every day.”
Indeed, Walsh’s handprint and dedication to the authentic upliftment and inclusion of Black and brown consumers can be found across a number of initiatives he’s spearheaded and helped develop since he joined Foot Locker Inc. in 2016 as VP of marketing of Champ Sports. (He became VP of marketing for Foot Locker and Kids Foot Locker in 2017 and was named VP/GM of Footaction in December 2019.)
“My team and I are quickly reimagining Footaction’s product assortment and marketing to inspire and facilitate self-expression for our consumers: We are in the business of inspiration and self-expression,” he said of his current role. “So we’re taking the lead to serve and empower the systemically underserved: Latinx, African Americans and women.”
For instance, Footaction launched this month its No 1 Way of Seeing Black platform, which is, as Walsh described it, the company’s “shared belief with our consumers in diversity as well as equality.”
That belief will manifest in a number of tangible outcomes for the retailer, including a commitment to carry more Black-owned brands. Last year, the company tapped Black social media star B. Simone for a collection, making her the first woman to create and sell an exclusive line with the retailer. And it’s also forged new vendor partnerships with Black-owned brands that have socially conscious missions such as Humanize My Hoodie — which aims to destigmatize clothing trends associated with people of color — and Support Black Colleges, a store that sells pride apparel for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Walsh said Footaction is also partnering with Black- and brown-owned agencies with the goal of having such firms generate the bulk of its marketing content — something he said will take shape in a bigger way throughout the course of 2021.
But even as Walsh fortifies his impact at one of Foot Locker Inc.’s seven retail banners — which also includes Eastbay, Lady Foot Locker and Sidestep — he is resolute about ensuring that his reach extends beyond one area of the sweeping organization.
For example, in a historic election year, it was Walsh who encouraged Foot Locker Inc. to join the 2020 Rock the Vote initiative across all of its banners in the U.S.
“I took it on to push that partnership with Rock the Vote because it’s important for us to rethink what our stores mean and our connectivity with the customer: [We have a responsibility] to make sure we use all of our stores and our digital platforms to register our consumers to vote,” Walsh explained. “As a Black executive, I’m trying to advocate for our consumers.”
It’s a personal commitment Walsh said — given Foot Locker’s extensive impact on Black consumers as well as his own journey as an underrepresented and underserved minority youth — requires him to “embrace and contribute” his diversity on a daily basis.
“I believe that if I try to assimilate or be someone who I’m not, it’s going to hurt me, it’s going to hurt Foot Locker Inc. and, most importantly, it will hurt the consumer that I serve,” he said. “I was birthed into sneaker culture, and I bring my empathy for as well as my service of the consumer to everything that I do.”