KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Lots of industries acknowledge they have a diversity problem. Maybe it's with age or gender or race. Our Planet Money podcast wondered, how exactly does an industry begin to change itself? And reporter Kenny Malone says the answer is on your feet.
KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: D'Wayne Edwards was just out of high school - this was in the '80s - and managed to get a job at LA Gear, the sneaker company, which was great.
D'WAYNE EDWARDS: But I'm in the accounts payable department, just filing papers.
MALONE: Which was not great because sneaker design was his dream job.
EDWARDS: And so I start asking around. And everyone's saying, well, you have to go to design school, and you have to do this. You have to do that.
MALONE: Edwards couldn't afford the normal, expensive paths to shoe design. But he did notice that the LA Gear company had these wooden suggestion boxes. And he thought, you know what? While I'm here, what the heck?
EDWARDS: So my suggestion was, hire me as a footwear designer. So I would - every morning before I started my filing-papers job, I would put a sketch in the box. So I did that for six months.
MALONE: He had no idea, but somebody was looking at these sneaker sketches.
ROBERT GREENBERG: The line work was very trendy, a little futuristic-looking.
MALONE: This is Robert Greenberg, president of LA Gear at the time.
GREENBERG: D'Wayne's talent is to create what does not exist. You know you go to those car shows and they show the futuristic cars?
GREENBERG: That's what he did.
MALONE: Greenberg called Edwards into his office.
EDWARDS: And he had all 180 sketches on his desk. And he was like...
GREENBERG: Here, come in, and sit down. And let's talk.
EDWARDS: I've heard you're the one that's been putting these (laughter) sketches in the box.
GREENBERG: You know, look at this - looks nice. What do you want to do?
EDWARDS: What do you want me to do with these things? You know, did you go to design school? What's up? And I was like, well, no, I just graduated from Inglewood High School about seven months ago. And he was like, well, you have talent, and I like your ambition. And I'm going to offer you a entry-level design job if you want to take it.
MALONE: And that is the story of how D'Wayne Edwards became one of the first black designers in the sneaker industry. His career skyrocketed from there. Eventually he became the lead designer at Nike for the Air Jordan brand. But Edwards always wondered. Why did a kid like him even need this suggestion box miracle to launch his career in the first place? And so about 10 years ago, he quit his dream job to build a new way to launch careers. He built one of the first sneaker design schools.
EDWARDS: You see that white shoe with the navy midsole on the wall right there?
MALONE: Edwards is surrounded by about eight students trying to explain to them how sneaker color blocking can make a shoe stand out even from across the room.
EDWARDS: That's why blocking's important. And it started on basketball courts.
MALONE: The Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Ore., is some hybrid of a vocational school, a design college and an apprenticeship.
EDWARDS: But because I wasn't able to go to school, I want to figure out a way to make it free so kids like me don't get lost.
MALONE: So Edwards gets sneaker companies to fund scholarships for many students, and the sneaker companies get this pipeline of undiscovered talent.
EDWARDS: So the other thing that we - oh, Precious.
MALONE: Almost on cue, one of Edwards' first students shows up to say hi.
EDWARDS: Precious is an alumni. She work at Jordan now. How are you doing?
PRECIOUS HANNAH: I'm good.
MALONE: Precious Hannah now works at Nike and still comes back as a mentor.
HANNAH: So I think it's very important for others to understand, like, you know, you don't have to go to this prestige school just to understand something. You could come somewhere where someone understands how to do things and just, like, give you the knowledge like D'Wayne gave me.
MALONE: In recruiting for the school, Edwards says he makes a special effort to find students who do not look like the industry looks right now. And there aren't great statistics about diversity in the footwear design field, but the number of non-white designers does seem to be growing, and a big part of that is the Pensole Academy.
EDWARDS: Real quick, I'll just show you a couple of things.
MALONE: Yeah, sure.
EDWARDS: So we keep a...
MALONE: Edwards walks over to a wall covered in different companies' shoeboxes.
EDWARDS: And we put shoeboxes up on the wall when they get jobs at different places, for whatever said company...
MALONE: Every single one of these is a job.
MALONE: One, two, three, four, five, six.
I'll save you the counting. It's more than 300 graduates who've wound up working at footwear companies.
EDWARDS: All the companies have a diversity agenda. Like, oh, we need more people of color. Oh, we need this. We need that. So in a lot of ways, with me starting this is to show the industry, this is what happens when you actually focus in on something.
MALONE: Kenny Malone, NPR News.
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