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Op-Ed: Mentors are the Foundation of the Footwear Industry

Early in my career, I was very fortunate to have some amazing mentors. Having just been given an opportunity as a newly promoted shoe buyer, a legendary shoe buyer took me under his wing. Through him, I succumbed to the fascination of shoes—how they were created, the styling, the design and the people who made and sold them. It was a tutorial that did not come from school but from the sheer passion of someone who absolutely loved what he did.

As I advanced in my career, someone who had great industry relationships mentored me and reinforced the importance of being product centric. Trips to Europe were filled with long days of shopping to see every possible shoe and spotting the latest trends. I learned to respect product and the value of new ideas. I also learned the importance of getting to know the people who ran the companies. Meeting people and developing product was powerful and energizing. Always being approachable and curious meant you were welcome to participate and engage in the process. I learned that the footwear industry is a place that responds to you if you respond to them. There is sincerity and determination that exists in the footwear industry based on the commitment and desire to succeed. Part of it comes from the common goals and ideas and the mere fact that people who begin their careers in the footwear business stay in it and continue to evolve. There is a fraternity of sorts that exists and allows for camaraderie between companies as its members move around.

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Through the years I have crossed the paths of so many legends in the footwear industry. These are people who built and created great companies, developed technologies, designed signature collections and shaped the industry as we know it today. Then there are the road warriors who carried and sold the product, and who introduced new ideas and the promise of great business. These footwear icons were the personalities that motivated you to think differently, who created new categories you did not own, and let you know what you did not need to buy. The message was always optimistic and the onset of each season was a new beginning. New generations of these companies are now reinventing themselves and today new startups are disrupting the industry as well.

I learned that the footwear industry is a place that responds to you if you respond to them.

What is constant in the footwear industry is the thrill of the hunt, like testing and then exploding a brand like Steve Madden. It is the discovery of a new trend and creating a collection like Sam Edelman, or the launch of a new brand like Coach. Finding and developing great talent and pursuing a vision are what great shoe companies do. It is this intensity that keeps things moving and drives all of us to succeed. It’s Vince Camuto selling one company and beginning again to start another. It is the passage of a company from one generation to the next. The great independents and the great department stores like Nordstrom that became the standards of excellence built the powerful evolution of retail that exists today. It is that heritage that brought inspiring merchandising and new formats.

As I was once a mentee, I have now become a mentor who has passed on the tradition and the stories of design, merchandising, and the history of the people and the companies. Like my mentor, it has been due to the sheer passion of loving the shoe business that I share this intelligence that can help lay the foundation for future industry mentors. That is the real emotion that fuels passion.

The Two Ten Footwear Foundation is very much driven by the passion of the industry. It is rooted in a history of great personalities that created a foundation, more than 75 years ago, to fill a financial need for their workers. It was that dedication and determination much like the footwear industry today, to share and cooperate with a common purpose. The very enthusiasm to recognize the importance of their workers and to maintain its longevity is what makes great companies survive. Through the years our industry has reached out and crossed over competitive lines to foster that original intent: to help shoe people in need.

More than 75 years later, the Two Ten Footwear Foundation is even more active and engaged with the footwear industry. The foundation’s board is made up of a diverse group of industry icons and experts who share a common purpose and who are driven by the desire to make a difference in the lives of the population at large. Beyond the board, many members of the community contribute their time and talents to advance the needs of the organization. This is a powerful emotion that connects us all to pursue the goals of the Foundation much like that which inspires us to be in the shoe business.

Carol Baiocchi’s career in footwear spans 40 years. She recently retired from her post as SVP of Footwear at Kohl’s Department Stores. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Two Ten Footwear Foundation and has served as the foundation’s of Chairman and Vice Chairman. Baiocchi is also the co-founder and co-chair of WIFI which is the foundation’s community initiative for women in the footwear industry.