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Brands may try to represent their consumers, but what about their employees? Two of the world’s top footwear companies call Portland home, along with the agencies that creatively represent them. It’s an industry that’s been under tighter scrutiny in recent years for gender and racial discrimination. These are brands powered by creativity and innovation, and one organization is now building a community of education whose mission is to ensure that a diverse team is genuinely in place to drive both.
The African American Footwear Forum (AAFF) is an events-based organization that “enhances access, education, and awareness for African-Americans who are seeking opportunities to influence, lead, and impact the global footwear industry and consumer culture.” Founded by the Pensole Footwear Design Academy (also based in Portland) and Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, the AAFF hosted its inaugural event in Washington D.C. this past February, bringing together athletes, entrepreneurs, and professionals to discuss the industry, career pathways, and celebrate each other’s achievements.
The second AAFF will be held in Portland on Saturday, August 10, and Stephen Green, Director of Operations of Pensole Footwear Design Academy, shared the inspiration and intention of the semi-annual event and why they’re bringing it here to Portland.
What inspired the creation of the African American Footwear Forum?
With the footwear industry struggling to make sustained progress around diversity and inclusion, there was an opportunity for African-Americans who were already part of the industry to connect with each other and put together ideas for how firms could attract talent. Pensole’s founder, D’Wayne Edwards, stepped up and pitched the idea of the forum to Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA). Together, they worked on creating the first event held in Washington D.C. in February 2019. It was a celebration of achievements, with frank talks about the struggles to start and grow in the industry. It was also an opportunity for folks to build social capital with one another.
How does the team prioritize its programming?
For the second installment of the event, we wanted to be more intentional about attendees who may already be in the industry or are looking to get into the industry. We also wanted to reach broader, and make more of a connection with, entrepreneurs and storytellers because the industry is so much more than drawing shoes. We hope the event really speaks to the broadest sense of the “culture.”
“Connecting Conversations” allows for footwear brands to share concerns and solutions across the industry. What are the common themes, and how do you hope the AAFF will help address them?
Themes we are hearing about is that brands are “trying” but not quite “doing” when it comes to making the industry more diverse. We hope the forum can not only be a place where brands can have frank conversations directly with African-Americans from the industry, but also that those folks can give the brands insights into how they can authentically move forward with a diversity, inclusion, and equity framework. The market opportunity couldn’t be greater right now for brands.
The inaugural AAFF was held at Howard University in Washington D.C. Why did the organization decide to host the event in Portland this time around?
D.C. was like a homecoming for the people in the industry we wanted to connect with, and for Portland, it’s a homecoming for the industry. With firms like Keen, Under Armour, Nike, Wieden+Kennedy, etc. based here, Portland is the world’s sneaker industry hub. This is the reason Pensole Inc. is located here. We firmly believe, if someone wants to make a mark in the industry, they will have to spend time in Rose City.
With two of the biggest footwear companies based in Portland, what are some of Portland’s most immediate opportunities to evolve the footwear industry, and how do you see the AAFF contributing to that?
A lot has been written about the stops and starts the two big brands in Portland have had when it comes to being seen as places where women and people of color can do their best work. We believe AAFF can first show the brands the diverse pool of talented folks who are ready and able to make an impact. The forum can be one of (hopefully) many places where underrepresented people in the industry can go to build connections and gain knowledge to figure out where they want to take their careers next.