Female Shoe Entrepreneurs | Finding Her Purpose

Female Shoe Entrepreneurs

Women’s History Month

How 15 Female Shoe Entrepreneurs Are Forging Ahead and Finding Purpose

 

Theresa Ebagua of Chelsea Paris, Sarah Flint of her namesake brand Sarah Flint NYC and Julie Kuo of Avre.

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To celebrate the close of Women's History Month (though we feel it's every month) Footwear News interviewed 15 of the top female shoe entrepreneurs leading the footwear industry to discuss their perspectives and pivots during the pandemic.

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As the world began to slow down and close in response to COVID-19, new opportunities presented themselves and new ways of operating had to be imagined, cultivated, and fostered within every industry. Creative, clever, and smart shifts were made by female shoe entrepreneurs sharing the same bold attributes. Incredible innovation & ingenuity grew and in some cases, surprisingly flourished. These important female shoe entrepreneurs are brilliant & resilient and made the decision to make the necessary, mindful, strategic moves needed to maintain & grow their shoe brands in the changing landscape during a global pandemic.

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But beyond the challenge of entrepreneurship during a pandemic, how do female entrepreneurs grow their businesses in an industry that doesn't work to support & amplify their work and change the landscape to reflect more equitability?

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"When it comes to gender parity, the past year has certainly made one thing clear: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a regressive effect on equality. According to the International Monetary Fund, the coronavirus threatens to roll back the last 30 years of economic progress for women. For one, women in general are shouldering more childcare responsibilities and household work than their male counterparts. What’s more, traditionally female-dominated industries like retail, leisure and hospitality have been hit particularly harder than other sectors."

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"In a tougher-than-ever job market, an increasing number of women are turning to entrepreneurship to forge their own path forward. But even for those who have been in the fashion and footwear sectors for years, female business owners have had to dramatically shift their strategies to adapt to the so-called “new normal.”

- Samantha McDonald

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We've compiled dynamic quotes from each female shoe entrepreneur's interview with Footwear News & shared full interviews from select female entrepreneurs whose standout stories about navigating the challenges of the pandemic stood out to us & resonated deeply. We're so proud to call ourselves female entrepreneurs & are inspired by the women featured in this timely article.

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Read the full article here & explore more footwear industry news & trends on Footwear News:
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Marisa Sharkey, co-founder, president and COO of Birdies:

"As the COVID-19 outbreak made its way into the U.S., Birdies became an unlikely beneficiary. The brand’s slides and slippers — designed for at-home entertaining — squarely fit into the casual and comfy categories that have continued to perform exceedingly well in the work-from-home era.

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On the unexpected opportunities presented by the pandemic: 'Over time, what we did see was that our product actually lent itself well to people’s new reality. We launched Birdies initially to provide a comfortable and stylish solution for a slipper at home. All of a sudden, we were faced with this unique world where we were at home, [and] the business did well. In November, we had our best sales month ever at Birdies, month over month and year over year, which was so exciting. We had planned the business conservatively and saw that, while we survived 2020, we feel like we really have a lot of momentum for 2021.'

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On the balancing act: 'I have two daughters — eight- and 10-year-old girls. I became the full-time educator as well as the full-time entertainer. That was a big issue. For many of our team members, that was a big issue as well. We had to figure out how to accommodate that… [But] whether you have kids or not, there was complete uncertainty, and it felt like a time to step away from this sales mode. I personally learned to flex my different styles to what our teammates were facing. We’re still going through this, but I feel like we’ve developed a really good working style within our team to accommodate people’s scheduleschallenges.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

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Kay Sides, founder of ROAM Footwear:

"In 2018, Sides founded ROAM — a brand that uses recycled materials to create its shoes and promises a portion of sales to go toward giving at-risk children an opportunity to explore the outdoors. Since the brand’s launch, about 75 third-graders from an east Los Angeles elementary school have been taken by Sides and the brand’s team on hikes with Yosemite tour company YEXPLORE.

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On handling unexpected surprises: 'The one thing that did change [for us during the pandemic was] I had four members of my team give birth! They were all so courageous, and [I] felt so grateful everyone remained healthy. I really allowed each of them to transition on their speed and just really tried hard to show up for them all in any way that I could, reminding them that you can be a mama, kick ass and have a life.'

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On sustainability: 'This is the one area that we were actively working on pre-pandemic, and this came to a standstill. We are back on it. We have part of our shoes that are recycled but have been working on being completely sustainable and traceable … We also have a strong integrated service aspect to our brand, where we take as many kids as we can outside to have a game changing experience in nature. We had so many experiences planned pre-pandemic but of course everything had to be cancelled and same for this year. We chose to donate to a number of key organizations that were really showing up for kids and their families and are doing the same for this year as well.”

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Theresa Ebagua, designer and founder of Chelsea Paris:

"Ebagua, who was profiled last month as part of FN’s Black History Month Spotlight series, has been running her footwear brand for roughly eight years. Recently, she presented her latest collection at the Black in Fashion Council’s fall ’21 Discovery Showroom during New York Fashion Week. But it hasn’t always been smooth-sailing for the designer, who’s had to adapt her business amidst wholesale challenges, retail bankruptcies and the COVID-19 health crisis.

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On how the pandemic has changed business relationships: 'It has been quite challenging. Deadlines are not being met due to various restrictions in Europe. Our sample and production timelines have slipped, and we’re having to compromise and work hand-in-hand with the factories, suppliers, retailers and consumers. Some relationships have become more intimate, and in some cases, relationships have become a bit strained. Post-pandemic, I’m going to take a ‘thank you’ trip to my suppliers that have supported us throughout this pandemic and both repair, where needed, and celebrate those relationships.'

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On what Black female entrepreneurs need today: 'I would love to see more Black female-owned businesses thrive. Collectively we can use our platforms and influence to spotlight these businesses. I’m enthused by initiatives like the 15 Percent Pledge and propose we create more avenues like these to provide Black brands, especially female-led ones, with much-needed exposure. Beyond generating an audience, we have to invest in Black communities — they are bursting with creativity and house the next generation of Black female entrepreneurs."

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Jessica Rich, founder of Jessica Rich:

"Over the past few years, Rich’s namesake brand — a favorite among A-listers and celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Kylie Jenner and Cardi B — has continued to make moves, from inking a partnership with “Fall Girls” actress Tami Roman to debuting a line of men’s shoes. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped that expansion; in fact, Rich opened the doors to a new brick-and-mortar location at a former Giuseppe Zanotti space — in L.A’s Beverly Center — just this past December.

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On the roadblocks to entrepreneurship: 'I think we’re not hitting as many roadblocks because women have been the driving force in business for over a decade now. We have more women entrepreneurs than ever before … [That said,] the biggest challenge was always me being African American. I just had to work 10 times harder and prove a lot more to people in order for them to respect my business.'

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On how the business was faring before and during COVID-19: 'My business was pretty steady and consistent and even more productive and booming after COVID-19 because of other opportunities that I have received, such as the [opening of the] retail space at the Beverly Center [in Los Angeles] and the Black recognition [over the summer]. Of course, during the beginning of COVID-19, we were all nervous and weren’t sure what to expect … I just launched [my brand] in DSW, and I’m launching in Nordstrom this month. This is the biggest milestone of my career, and I’m very excited for the future. I want to expand to other retailers across the globe as well."

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Paule Tenaillon and Marine Braquet, co-founders of Nomasei:

"A few years ago, Tenaillon and Braquet — both veterans of Parisian luxury houses including Dior, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy — met in a luxury shoe factory in Venice. Together, they launched sustainable footwear brand Nomasei — just four and a half months before government-mandated lockdowns disrupted the budding business. Now, the two are looking for silver linings ahead.

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On the struggles faced by female business owners: 'As fairly new female entrepreneurs, we sometimes feel like we are a bit less confident than the men we know in similar roles, but we often have more things to juggle than those male counterparts. For example, Marine had a baby a week ago (Feb. 22). She worked until a few hours before giving birth, checked her emails a few hours later and is back to work less than a week after, with baby in the arms — and, still, she’s working because we are such a small company that can’t replace her. Most men will never have to deal with this type of situation in their business. They will not have to face this kind of choice or no choice … In general, being a woman in the business world still often means you have to fight harder than a man to prove yourself and show your value. As we continue to grow the brand and eventually look to raise money, we certainly do have concerns about how that will unfold.'

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On building a new business amid the pandemic: 'We have slowly continued to grow through all of this with continued hard work and a true sense of purpose. The fashion industry must change its operations and work to put sustainability first. We are excited and encouraged to see so many like-minded, new, independent brands — many women-owned — with similar values, goals and practices as ours … We must stand together. It is hard to be a female entrepreneur and launch your own business, but it is doable.”

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Julie Kuo, co-founder of Avre:

"Avre launched in November 2019 — just three months before the pandemic ground the U.S. to a near-halt. But with manufacturing based in China, which was already hard-hit by the outbreak at the time, the startup was forced to rethink its next steps. Kuo believes her brand — which is an acronym for Authentic, Versatile, Responsible and Empowered — is here for the long haul.

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On managing a startup in COVID-19 times: 'COVID has impacted our business as far as being able to get up and going and building the brand visibility that we would’ve wanted to have in normal circumstances. The shutdowns and limitations in social activities, as well as people’s mindsets and their ability of even purchasing nonessential items, had a major impact. We knew worldwide that everyone was living in fear. For us to be insensitive to that and continue pushing product didn’t seem right, so we needed to take a step back and reevaluate when we could start selling and marketing again… Now, we have new SKUs and products we’re designing. Long term, Avre wants to be a lifestyle brand.'

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On being an Asian-American female entrepreneur amid the recent anti-Asian attacks: 'The racism, the hate — it’s not just this year. We’ve had it; it’s just that it was never spoken about. In general, Asians, by culture, are a little more quiet and timid, and that’s why it was never acknowledged. Being a female Asian entrepreneur, it was really difficult for me and my sister. Our family has been in footwear for 40 years now. When we wanted to start this, people didn’t think we had the credibility because of who we were. These are common things women have to face because it’s a male-dominated industry, but we had parents who gave us a really good foundation, and we had that support. But this racism against Asians is something that we face, and it’s only coming to light this year, but it’s not something new.”

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Kimberley Byrom, designer and founder of GOYA Shoes:

"At GOYA, Byrom said business has remained at a similar momentum both before and during COVID-19. That’s because the majority of its customer base is composed of brand advocates and loyalists, she said, who “know and love” the product — that is, the classic menorquina sandal that’s a sartorial staple of Balearic life. (The shoes have traditionally been worn for more than a century in Mediterranean Spain.)

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On silencing your inner critics and forging ahead: 'Women tend to be self-deprecating and hard on ourselves. Imposter syndrome and insecurities can sometimes creep in when faced with challenges and obstructions. But, equally, starting from a step behind tends to give us great determination to prove exactly what we are capable of achieving. It is possible that a challenge that we often face is one that is inherited generationally, but I do believe that female entrepreneurship, whilst not a new concept, is one that is gaining momentum day by day and with that grows a collective confidence.'

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On overcoming the fear of asking for help: 'As women, we often attempt to ‘do it all’ almost as if we need to prove something, but it is really important to recognize your business support needs and look for help where necessary. If your strengths lie in creativity, but you lose grip of finances, then don’t hesitate to outsource your accounting needs early on so that you can focus on the areas of your business that need and rely on you specifically. When it comes to your supply chain and production partners, be armed with written agreements and clear production plans to ensure it is understood that you mean business and you put your money where your mouth is.”

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Sarah Flint, founder, designer and CEO of Sarah Flint:
"On international sourcing amid a pandemic: 'Being a Made in Italy footwear brand was certainly a challenge in the beginning. Our factories are primarily in the Lombardy region. In the beginning, we had to deal with figuring out factory closures and changing shipping by boat to air. While it hasn’t been without its challenges, we’ve been able to adapt and pivot quickly. Our bestselling style was already a flat (the Natalie), and we already had more casual styles in the assortment. We also launched slippers and house shoes … The biggest thing, as well, is that we’re a direct-to-consumer business. We didn’t have massive store closures where we were dealing with canceled orders. We were able to respond in a different way.”
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Libby Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of Sea Star Beachwear:
"On learning to pivot your business quickly in times of crises: 'When the pandemic hit, we were fortunate enough to be able to pivot our marketing message from ‘travel and resort’ to ‘home and comfort.’ Also, by investing in our DTC business, we made up for lost wholesale revenue when stores and resorts remained closed and grew our online sales by 60%. We began 2021 in a very strong financial position, poised for growth with the resumption of a more normal environment.”
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Elyce Arons, founder of Frances Valentine:
"On trusting your gut if you want a career in the footwear industry: 'Make sure you have a good amount of experience in the business of footwear first. Work for several other companies before you jump in. Aside from that, go with your gut. You will receive advice from everyone, and you are your best consultant.”
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Jessie Randall, founder and chief creative officer of Loeffler Randall:
“On debuting her store amid the pandemic: ‘We had a very strong 2019, and at the start of 2020, we were projecting it to be our best year ever. We signed a lease on our first-ever store, and planned to open it in May 2020. Then March hit, and everything changed. I’m so proud of how we pivoted and stayed on track. We added more casual items, like our first ever slipper, and interestingly enough, our occasion shoes like the Penny continued to be our bestseller. We hit our revised store opening date and opened as planned last month in SoHo. Our business is currently running 30 points higher than last year; we’re off to a great start.”
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Angela Scott, founder of The Office of Angela Scott:

“On philanthropy: ‘With COVID, you stopped thinking about yourself, and you started thinking about others. Even though our sales dropped in March and April, we gave back. I felt like, if we were having it bad, others were having it worse, and it was the right thing to pay it forward and take care of others. We started a program where we gifted nurses with sneakers, and then as the year continued, we gave larger donations to organizations like Girls Inc. and Women in Need NYC. To mark our 10th year anniversary, we will be donating $100,000 a year for the next 10 years for a total of $1 million dollars to nonprofits that support women and young girls. If we’re saying that we’re a brand for women who mean business, we should not only provide shoes for them to stand tall in, but we should financially support the empowerment of women.”

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Barbara Borghini, founder of Gia Couture:

“On advice for budding female entrepreneurs: ‘For anyone looking to break into this world, I always want to be honest about the focus and passion that it requires. On a typical day, I wake up at 6:30 a.m. I look after my family until 7:30 a.m., then I go to check on the artisans and on production development. While I am in the car, I speak with my team about logistics and other admin. After lunch, I meet with my team for the afternoon to get updates and brainstorm on strategy, merchandising, communication — all while supervising the production process and the sampling. All this to explain that anyone who wants to work in the industry needs to balance many skills — and, most importantly, have a dedicated team around them.”

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Jaclyn Jones, founder of Californians Footwear:

“On the importance of sustainability at a time of crisis: ‘COVID has been a huge wake-up call to brands large and small about the challenges our industry faces, including ordering huge volumes of inventory, increasingly longer lead times, supply chain issues, unethical working conditions, waste and the environmental effects of cross-global transportation and pollution. The consumers is becoming more and more aware of the gap between them and the manufacturing process and is gravitating towards more transparent brands … This movement is something that has been important to us since the beginning, but to see it happening in such a major way and ripple out on a global scale definitely makes me feel optimistic about the future of our industry and our planet.”

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Here's to supporting & uplifting female entrepreneurs everywhere.