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The Athlete’s Foot Targets ‘One of the Greatest Disparities’ in Sneakers

Since the protests of last summer put a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion, waves of brands and retailers have unveiled plans and initiatives to take on the structural issues plaguing the fashion industry.

Target unveiled a plan earlier this month to increase its spending with Black-owned businesses by $2 billion over the next five years. VF Corp. and Nike introduced multi-year goals to increase the diversity of their workforces. Steve Madden and Tommy Hilfiger, meanwhile, rolled out programs to support young entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities.

The Athlete’s Foot USA launched its own initiative Tuesday to directly address what it called “one of the greatest disparities” in the sneaker industry—ownership.

The Strategic African American Retail Track (StAART) will recruit, develop and mentor Black entrepreneurs through The Athlete’s Foot’s retail franchise model, providing participants with access to resources, systems, relationships with strategic brand partners and a mentorship network.

Darius Billings, senior director of product and marketing at The Athlete’s Foot, said he came up with the idea last summer at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“The events of last summer spurred conversations with friends and family around the Black community’s challenges, opportunities and our legacy,” Billings said in a statement. “I knew in that moment I had a responsibility to find a way to use my platform to drive change. This isn’t performative or to check a box. It’s born out of my personal desire to effect change in an industry I love.”

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Given its long history as a franchisor—The Athlete’s Foot claims to be the country’s first athletic retail franchise and only athletic specialty lifestyle retailer operating solely under a franchise model today—it said it is uniquely positioned to launch a program like StAART.

“The data shows that Black people are the primary consumers and influencers of sneakers and athletic apparel but are not represented in positions of leadership or profit,” Billings added. “We are on a mission to change that through StAART. We need more African American ownership within this industry that was built on Black culture and Black influence and within Black communities. Ownership is directly tied to wealth. If we can create more African American retail owners, the ripple effect in the industry and the community stands to be remarkable.”

Store ownership is just the beginning for StAART as it focuses on ownership in a broader sense, in terms of ideas, influence and culture, Billings said. “Through this program, we want to bring light to all of the different opportunities available within this billion-dollar industry that is still largely driven and influenced by Black culture and consumers,” he added.

To this end, the retailer is partnering with the Black-owned, Atlanta-based creative agency Tantrum Agency to develop an in-school curriculum in sports retail entrepreneurship. The program will launch within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School System in North Carolina—one of The Athlete’s Foot’s most populated retail markets. It will introduce students to the industry’s various careers, including design, buying and merchandising, accounting, construction and architecture, the retailer said.

The Athlete’s Foot has curated a StAART advisory council that includes “key influencers” within the sneaker industry, as well as professional and community organizations that can lend additional support.

The retailer forged a partnership with Citizen’s Trust Bank, for example. One of the largest African American-owned financial institutions in the country, the bank will give StAART participants direct access to its small business programs and products. The two companies will also work together to provide free financial literacy programming to young adults. Citizen’s Trust Bank’s vice president of strategy and business development, Adrienne White, will serve on the advisory council.