How The Athlete’s Foot Is Helping Boost Black Ownership With a New Franchising Program

As the broader footwear industry tackles its diversity and inclusion shortcomings, The Athlete’s Foot is addressing the issue of ownership directly.

In April, the retail chain — which has 570 independently owned and operated stores in 30 countries — launched its Strategic African American Retail Track (STAART) program, an effort to increase African American representation and ownership in the sneaker industry, while also championing entrepreneurship within the Black community.

Program creator Darius Billings — who is also senior director of product and marketing at The Athlete’s Foot — said there have been more than 100 inquiries since the initiative launched.

“The sneaker industry was built on Black culture. But when you look at the ownership, there’s definitely a lack of representation,” Billings told FN. “We want to make sure that we’re helping build Black ownership, which will then build generational wealth, community and legacy.”

The franchise model of The Athlete’s Foot, according to Billings, offers potential business-owners an advantage that starting from scratch cannot.

“The good thing about franchising is you have a support system. A lot of independents don’t have a system there, they’re out on their own,” Billings said. “Whether it’s marketing, support, planning, business management, audit — all the different tools that you need to run a successful retail operation — we have support in-house.”

And this franchise model has already proven successful for some. For instance, Billings cited storeowner Isom Lowman — who has owned 39 franchise locations throughout his 21-year career — as a success story. (He currently owns nine Athlete’s Foot stores.)

“There was no program like this back when he opened his first store, which he opened at the age of 22 right out of Morehouse College here in Atlanta, an HBCU,” Billings said. “He understands, and has always preached, that there needs to be more black ownership within the retail sneaker segment. Young African Americans really haven’t had many entrepreneurs or role models that they can see, but throughout his 20-plus years, Isom’s been an influence and an inspiration and a mentor to a lot of young African Americans.”

The Athlete's Foot Isom Lowman
The Athlete’s Foot franchisee Isom Lowman.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Athlete's Foot

“A lot of times people from our community aren’t given the same opportunities to build generational wealth. The STAART program will really help level the playing field by giving Black entrepreneurs the tools and support to be successful,” Lowman said. 

To guide the program, the retailer has established an advisory council, and Lowman is one of the members. Other members include Billings, Adrienne White of Citizen’s Trust Bank, Karla Duncan of Puma North America and John Scipio of SV Sports. 

Inquiries are being accepted now via Staart.us. After an inquiry is made, The Athlete’s Foot will begin to recruit, develop and mentor potential franchisees. 

Included in the recruitment process is a commitment to community.

“One of the big things about us, and about being a franchisee, is the community involvement. Our franchisees live in the communities, they are fabric of their community — that’s a big part of being successful — so that’s part of the criteria,” Billings said. “You’re there to build up that community, so we’re not looking for someone who all of a sudden lives in a different place and says, ‘I just want to open up a store here.'”

The selection process includes a discovery day with The Athlete’s Foot, where the company will further explain how it operates and it can learn more about the potential franchisee. Then, the retailer will help with the real estate process, guiding the franchisee to find an ideal location before the store design director steps in to guide them through the buildout process.

Also for this program, the retailer’s $30,000 franchisee fee will be waived.

With STAART, The Athlete’s Foot has a goal of opening at least 50 stores over the next five years. 

“We’re looking at five stores for the first year, and then, for the subsequent years, about 15 stores,” Billings said. “If you’re trying to build generational wealth, you have to be a multi-store store owner. We’re being strict about the first candidates we’re bringing on, and one of the criteria is that you have the intention to grow and build and expand and have a multi-store portfolio.”

Billings confirmed that The Athlete’s Foot will look to open the first locations with its new franchisees in summer 2022.

Beyond opening stores, the retailer is actively engaged in other partnerships to provide tools for success in business to local communities.

For instance, it has partnered with Black-owned Tantrum Agency, based in Atlanta, to develop curriculum in sports retail entrepreneurship. The curriculum will launch in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School System in North Carolina.

Also, The Athlete’s Foot has partnered with African American-owned Citizen’s Trust Bank to offer STAART participants access to the financial institution’s small business programs and products. The partnership will also yield free financial literacy programming to young adults.

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