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Why Diversity at Footwear Brands is Good for Business

In recent months, the fashion industry has taken a keen interest in promoting diversity and inclusion. A marked result of the widespread demonstrations and protests that began this May, the sector’s brands and retailers have taken to social media in droves to profess their support for people of color.

But the solution isn’t that simple. In a discussion at Footwear News’ Virtual Summit on Tuesday entitled “Why Diversity and Inclusion Business Has to be Personal,” experts weighed in on the need for concrete action in the industry.

Many companies issued promises to donate to groups promoting racial equality, like the NAACP, the ACLU and Black Lives Matter. Others have promised to examine their operations from within and work harder to hire diverse candidates. But nearly two months after making those pledges, it’s difficult for industry watchers to judge brands’ progress.

According to Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy, brands should work to cultivate talent within their ranks, fostering growth and providing new opportunities to employees from stores through corporate roles. And, he said, they should get the ball rolling now.

The development of a talent “pipeline,” or a road to success for candidates of color, is an important first step. “It should start at the first introduction to the organization, at the retail level,” he said. If store associates can see themselves moving beyond those positions and taking on more responsibility, there should be a pathway for them to enter a company’s “corporate structure.”

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“I think where organizations are flawed is that they just don’t have an internal development system for for their employees so they can project and see what their future looks like within that organization,” he said. Fostering growth would lead to higher retention, he said.

“I would say that the retail associate is one of your most valued employees because they’re the closest to the consumer,” he added. Many brands are based in suburban locales, not urban centers where shopping is done. They’re removed from the selling process, and rely on impersonal data to inform their decisions.

Echoing the idea, Darla Pires DeGrace, CEO and diversity, equity and inclusion strategist for DeGrace Group Consulting, LLC, said brands should “focus on the career trajectory of retail associates, given that that’s where the majority of diversity”currently lies in their companies.

“Kids may come in and kill it on the sales side, not realizing how that would translate into marketing,” she said. “They may not understand what the career trajectory is.”

It’s the job of brands to create processes that make it easier for talented individuals to make the jump to their potential dream jobs. “The onus is partly on the hiring manager, mentors and other people of color in the space,” she said.

Drew Greer, co-founder of Brand I Am, acknowledged that the issue of inclusion isn’t going to be solved in a month. “This is changing culture, and it’s a whole system, a whole way of doing things,” he said. The process of evolving organizations can’t fall squarely on the shoulders of human resources, he added. “This is not just an HR perspective—this is leadership, policies. There’s no simple fix.”

It’s important that companies recognize that creating a healthy, inclusive culture is “not an initiative, but a priority,” he said. If they look at the goal as a simple task or project, rather than a total shift in the way they do business, the effort is bound to fail.

“It’s good that brands are acknowledging that there’s an issue—but they can’t throw a dollar out there with no real plan,” he said. Well-intended donations don’t solve structural problems, he said, and companies must seek to “balance the equation,” or correct their ills, through concerted efforts.  They can begin to do this by developing opportunities in communities that have been historically underserved, he said.

DeGrace agreed that supporting non-profits and other entities doesn’t solve companies’ longstanding problems with diversity, conjecturing that many brands are anxious about turning their focus inward. “You can find millions of dollars to donate externally, and yet you still have pay inequities internally,” she said of brands that have pledged large sums in recent months. DeGrace encouraged them instead to fund systemic change within their own walls.