The 2022 National Black Footwear Forum experience provided something different for each attendee. For Merrell chief marketing officer Janice Tennant, it offered a sense of community.
Tennant, who joined Merrell from Cat Footwear in June 2020, was one of the featured speakers on the “The ‘L’ Word” panel Saturday at the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design (PLC) in Detroit. The exec spoke alongside other notable women executives including Reebok VP of apparel Portia Blunt; Steve Madden diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging lead April Dinwoodie; and Adidas trade marketing manager Katherine Allen. The conversation was hosted by True to Size Agency founder Jazerai Allen-Lord.
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Below, Tennant shared thoughts on her Black Footwear Forum experience with FN and the sense of community she felt at the event.
What did you take away from your Black Footwear Forum experience?
“There are so many things that I took away from the experience. One is that there is strength in numbers. There was a real sense of community, which was really powerful. We all work in our organization sort of individually, so coming together to learn from each other and to have our own experiences validated, that was an important thing I took away. This sense of what you’ve experienced, you’re not alone, others have experienced this and this is how we persevered and this is how we can learn from that to make us all individually strong. That was a really important thing for me that I took away from the experience. Also, I had some junior people on my team there and for them to see they’re part of this journey of transformation that were leading was really empowering. The other thing that was really humbling is I’m fairly new to the whole footwear space, and some of the people who are in that room I have known about from a distance. I admired their work for years, but not knowing who they were as people and understanding their journey and what they went through. Having the opportunity to hear their stories and learn from them was outstanding for me. I was taking notes on that little notebook [PLC provided] from the moment they started speaking because there was so much that I wanted to take back with me to help myself as well as to help my team.”
Most of the people who spoke at the event were from the athletic space, and you were the lone representative from the outdoor market. What does the fact that you are a Black woman in an executive position at a prominent outdoor company show to those who were in attendance?
“From our panel, April [Dinwoodie from Steve Madden] said sometimes we have to put ourselves in uncomfortable places. When April mentioned that, it really spoke strongly to me because I initially didn’t want to take the role at Merrell because it is in an industry that was not reflective of the diversity that we see on the sneaker side. Initially when it was offered up to me, I was like, ‘No, I don’t know if I want to be in a space that is predominantly white, predominantly male and I’m going to have to fight that fight.’ I slept on it, I talked to some of my mentors and advisers about it, and they were the ones who encouraged me to step into the space. They were like, ‘How is it going to change if people like myself are not there at the table to have that conversation?’ Hopefully, I’ve made it a little bit easier for people to connect with outdoor spaces and want to be a part of outdoor spaces who don’t look like the people who are from the outdoor spaces but they feel like they can be present there. We have to acknowledge that the outdoors is for everybody, that the space is changing and there are people like myself who have been participating in it but our stories and our presence has not been felt.”
Prior to assuming the role at Merrell, your only footwear industry experience was at Cat Footwear. What can people take away from your move into the world of footwear?
“My background was in CPG [consumer packaged goods] selling juice and cereal and diapers and Kleenex and all of that. One of the things that I took away from the forum is that there’s a lot of people who want to get into the footwear space but they don’t know how. I think there are a lot of people in some of these other industries who would love to be in the footwear space. I also find that sometimes footwear is not easy to navigate. I also hope that others who might have had an inkling or passion to go into an industry like this, who might feel like they can’t because they haven’t come from the same set of experiences as maybe what the norm is right now for the footwear industry, that they feel a sense that they can do it. As long as you have a passion for the brand or a passion for the consumer, I think that’s completely transferable.”
Why is the BFF such an important resource to the greater footwear industry?
“If you look across many different industries, organizations and so forth, a lot of times there is a sense of not belonging, a sense of feeling isolated for the Black community. Something like the BFF, there is the chance to learn from each other, there is a chance to see someone like yourself when a lot of the time you’re in meetings and environments and places where you are only one. This is a way of helping people feel a sense of belonging in the space of footwear. With that sense of belonging comes a sense of confidence and people can thrive and drive really meaningful differences and changes in the way the world works and the way that we service our consumers and our partners. And the socialization and the chance to interact actually helps to build up people’s resilience in order to continue to stay in these industries. When you don’t have communities like this, you start to see that you have a hard time attracting and you have a hard time retaining the people who are there. Without that, you’re never going to get diversity of thinking and thought perspective, you’re not going to get innovation and so forth.”
Having had one great experience already, how would you like to see BFF evolve?
“I would ask how do we broaden the aperture of footwear beyond athletic and sneakers? And what are opportunities for people to get engaged in those careers? Also, when you have a group like this that is coming together, I think there’s an opportunity to help to change the way the industry is or an organization is by speaking to the C-suite. The BFF can be a conduit for driving more systemic change by creating executive summits and forums.”
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