Nike and Adidas veterans reveal how to break into the sneaker industry

  • Jobs in the athletic shoe industry are highly sought after, but it’s possible to get your foot in the door.
  • Experts said applicants should think about it like a basketball player trying to make it to the NBA.
  • Start by studying the industry. Don’t just send out job applications and hope something sticks.

When D’Wayne Edwards worked as design director for Nike’s Jordan brand, aspiring designers sent him job applications in hand-carved wooden boxes. Others sent him portfolios of beautifully bound leather.

“If you put a lot of effort into the outside, the inside responds better to the outside,” Edwards said.

What matters most to hiring managers is original thinking, the ability to work as part of a team, authenticity and transferable skills.

In 2010, shortly before leaving Nike, Edwards founded what became Pensole Lewis College. He is one of the few trainers and recruiters who help people break into the sneaker business. More than 500 Pensole alums work in the industry, including Nike and Jordan Brand.

While it’s not easy to break into the industry, Edwards and four other experts Insider spoke with say it’s possible to break in with the right strategy.

“It’s extremely competitive,” said Bimma Williams, a Nike, Adidas and Saucony veteran. “You have to think about it the way athletes think to get to the championship.”

Step 1: Learn about the industry

When Phil Knight founded Nike, there was no sneaker school. But in the decades since Knight sold the first sneakers out of the trunk of his green Plymouth Valiant, many educational programs have been launched.

Pensole Lewis College is one. In 2011, Sean Williams (no relation to Bimma) and Dee Wells of Obsessive Sneaker Disorder started SOLEcial Studies, a sneaker industry education program for high school and college students. The curriculum focuses on business and culture, with modules on finance, manufacturing, pricing and marketing. The cost varies, but is usually around $1,000. (Fun fact: Williams credits Edwards with coining the name SOLEcial Studies; the two are longtime friends.)

Meanwhile, Cnstnt Dvlpmnt (pronounced “Continuous Development”) is a program aimed at educating children earlier in life, in high school. The curriculum, taught using an interactive sketchbook, begins with the basics of design and then expands to show the numerous careers associated with design, such as product development, marketing and color design.

“It’s all these different things that we want to put in front of kids so they understand that they can do these things and not just buy the shoes,” said founder Chris Dixon, a Pensole alum and former Pensole employee who now works as a designer for Timberland.

Some two- and four-year degrees — in traditional marketing, business, product design, industrial design and graphic design — can also help people launch a career in sneakers. The University of Oregon, Knight’s alma mater, even offers a master’s degree in sports product management.

For those not paying cash, use free resources including industry podcasts and YouTube tutorials. If you’re an aspiring designer, Edwards recommended spending time on Behance and Coroflot, two online platforms that showcase the work of creatives.

“Spend time and see how they present their work, how they organize their work,” he said. “Do your research on who you’re competing with.”

Step 2: Build your network and brand

The next step is to build a professional network.

One way to meet people is through industry events like Sneaker Week, an annual convention in Portland, Oregon, modeled after SXSW.

“We’re trying to build this community space where we connect people in the industry,” said Herbert Beauclere, who founded Sneaker Week in 2017. “We’re trying to identify talent. It’s almost like we’re creating a platform for people to come out to Portland and they discovered you.”

Beauclere said Portland remains one of the best places to start a career in sneakers because it’s home to industry giant Nike and Adidas’ North American headquarters. The city is also home to Columbia Sportswear, several small and mid-sized sportswear companies, and dozens of vendors, including marketing and design offices.

“Maybe you can get a three-month contract at Nike,” he said. “If they’re not hiring full-time, those three months serve you well as you try to find work at the other five or six brands you’re interested in.”

If you can’t make it to industry events, find ways to get your work done outside. the industry will find you, experts said.

Bimma Williams grew up in Louisiana. Hoping to break into the sportswear industry, he started a blog with some friends, showcasing his talents in storytelling and branding. Sportswear brands began to catch up. He said that in retrospect, he realized that the work he posted online was a “living resume.”

“At a young age, I had a very high level of taste for how I wanted stories to look online,” he said. “And it just happened to be in line with how brands started to think they’d like to see themselves.”

Williams went on to work for Saucony and then Adidas and Nike before starting the “Claima Stories” podcast in 2019 with BJ Frogozo. The podcast tells the stories of entrepreneurs of color, including many from the sportswear industry. A recent episode featured Jason Mayden, a famous designer.

Step 3: Be authentic when applying and interviewing

When it comes time to apply, read job descriptions carefully and be authentic in your application. That starts with the basics, like getting a professional headshot, opening a LinkedIn account and following up on brands where you’d like to work, experts said.

Adidas was on a hiring spree last year, with roles open in digital, information technology, data and analytics, supply chain, human resources, finance and marketing. Vicki Ng, who then worked in talent acquisition for Adidas, recommended taking the time to learn more about Adidas, including reviewing the company’s business strategy and HR pages, before applying for any of the positions. work. Ng has since changed companies.

Then fill out your application for a specific job. Be sure to emphasize transferable skills. Show some personality.

“My advice for people who want to stand out at Adidas is to be authentic in showing who they are,” said Ng, who has since changed companies, adding that could include “fun and creative” app material such as TikTok videos or photo collages. .

If you are interviewed, ask the interviewees’ names in advance. Check them out with your network and on LinkedIn. Think about how you would interact with each of these — for example, if you’re interviewing for a design job, think about what questions a marketer might have about your work, Edwards said.

If necessary, bring objects with your sketchbooks.

“We’re all like 4- to 5-year-olds,” Edwards said. “If you bring something, there’s a good chance we’ll get it. Now the conversation is about what you brought to the meeting. You just changed the interview.”

After a few interviews, turn your focus to selling yourself. At that point, your job is probably over.

“You’re a brand,” Edwards said. “Treat yourself like the brands you respect and pay money for.”

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