Career paths in footwear are often difficult to navigate, and they’re rarely linear. However, industry vets believe a well-rounded skill set will help you along your journey.
During the “Career Pathways” panel on Saturday afternoon at the 2022 National Black Footwear Forum at the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (PLC) in Detroit, four footwear industry veterans — and one from the automotive space — revealed how they ascended the ranks to get where they are now.
Garry Thaniel, GM of sneakers at eBay, said he knew coming out of college that he wanted to work in retail. However, he realized the perfect role for him didn’t exist. Thaniel’s answer was to build a skill set that was transferable.
“I used to play football, and once I stopped playing football, retail became my sport. When you train for a sport, you develop different skill sets, you work on different muscle groups. That’s how I approach my career,” Thaniel said. “I developed my general management skill set, focused on being a better operator, a little HR, some marketing, product development.”
He continued, “I couldn’t tell you five years ago that I’d be in this role because this role didn’t exist — I am the first-ever GM of sneakers for eBay. What I can tell you is throughout my career, I’ve tried to build a skill set that’s super transferable regardless of where the journey takes me.”
Aside from Thaniel, there were several others on the stage who have had unexpected career journeys.
Sarah Watson, a senior color and materials designer at Ford Motor Co., went to school for fashion, but explained how a paid $70,000 internship at Chrysler led to her career in the automotive world.
“They said, ‘How could you bring fashion into color materials design? And show us your portfolio. My portfolio was garments. I came to Chrysler with three garments of literally things that I’ve sewn and I just told a story,” Watson said. “I told the story of how these materials were applied, what the placement of the materials meant for me and how I could translate that to automotive. I didn’t know what I was talking about, I just wanted that job. I said, ‘You said materials, so this is how I fit into your space.’”
She continued, “Sneaker application is looking at how the colorways work with certain materials, making sure it’s not too heavy on the blue, a little light on the accent. There are relationships between automotive design and sneaker design, and I see a lot of crossover. One of my friends, she works at Nike, and she came from automotive. It’s so transferable, but people don’t know that.”
DaLeyna Adkison, director of marketing for brand heat and culture at Puma North America, revealed to attendees how she has mastered “the art of the pivot.” Her career has taken her into different industries, with stints at TV One, the Los Angeles Rams and Facebook, but she said the positions all had one thing in common: Black culture was at the center.
“The love of Black culture and love of marketing has been my guide. Regardless of what industry I’m in, I’m doing the same thing. I’m connecting these incredible brands to this amazing consumer that’s driving culture, and everything else takes care of itself,” Adkison said.
The panelists also addressed how to manage the moments in your career when you don’t know where to go next.
“The first thing I do when I get lost in the curve of life is seek counsel,” Thaniel said. “I’ve been really fortunate for mentors, former bosses, professors — people who can help coach me through it. Even though it’s foreign to you, it probably isn’t foreign to everyone, so reach out to people, be a little vulnerable, let them know where you want to get to because they can help you navigate to get to your destination.”
For Chuck Young, The Athlete’s Foot’s franchise operations manager for the U.S. and the Caribbean, the answers come from looking within.
“One of the things that has always worked for me is just taking the time to reflect. It’s not about reflecting to see what I did wrong. It’s really about getting better,” he said. “As I’ve gotten older, the thing I’ve realized is that I’m not in the best — and I’m still not. That’s one of the things that has driven me and has helped me to connect those dots throughout my career.”
PLC director of partnerships Dion Walcott, who moderated the discussion, encouraged attendees to meet those moments of doubt and confusion head on.
“When you know there’s a gap, a lot of people will press pause and pay attention to the gap. I always tell young people, ‘Forget pressing pause, run directly to the gap and trying to figure it out when you’re in the mess, because that’s usually when you’re going to learn the most,’” Walcott explained. “When you press pause, it’s just going to get wider and wider, and you’re going to get more scared to go solve the problem.”
Adkison added, “Those periods where you feel like you’re most resistant to something or you feel like there’s fear coming up, embrace that because that is where the opportunity is for you to potentially grow, to delve deeper into a skill set, to learn something new, to show yourself that you can ultimately do what it is you’re trying to do.”