While an increasing number of women occupy executive roles in the shoe industry, men still dominate the ranks. Two Ten Footwear Foundation’s WIFI group aims to spark a conversation that could help reverse that.
Known as Women in the Footwear Industry, the group was created in 2010 as a forum for women to connect and learn how to advance their careers.
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“We heard from young women in the industry that they were seeking a place for collaboration and personal growth,” said Caleres CEO Diane Sullivan, who co-founded WIFI with former SVP and DMM of footwear for Kohl’s Corp. Carol Baiocchi. (Baiocchi continues to serve as co-chair of WIFI, while Sullivan was succeeded in her role as co-chair by Sam Edelman co-founder and SVP Libby Edelman in 2014). “We also understood that these women were passionate about giving back, so creating a women’s group under the umbrella of Two Ten made perfect sense.”
It’s exactly this two-fold mission that drives WIFI’s mentorship program. A woman with at least one year’s experience in the footwear industry is paired with a footwear veteran using an algorithm-based system. Mentors and mentees are matched based on specific qualifications like topical expertise, shared interests and language fluency. The two then meet every month to discuss goals and potential tools for success. The 2019-2020 program has 240 women participating.
“I’m able to look back and use my expertise to give people starting out in the business a hope and understanding that they have the capability to excel,” said Baiocchi, who worked for over four decades in the shoe business and is currently a mentor for the program. “Everyone needs and can point to someone that mentored them [which enabled them] to get to a certain level in their career. Continuing this cycle is so important.”
Another core part of WIFI’s initiatives is its bi-annual chapter events. These feature guest speakers from all areas of the shoe industry, from top execs to leaders in design, logistics, HR and recruitment. Topics span from women-centric issues, such as balancing motherhood and career, to larger industry-wide challenges. A portion of the event includes opportunities for networking, too.
“Women want to meet other women,” said Edelman. “If a woman is working in an office and feels like she’s being exposed to things no one else on her team is, she’s bound to have questions. WIFI is a place where women can get those questions answered in a supportive environment, without any judgement or sense of competition.”
The organization hosts other empowering events throughout the year, including an educational webinar series and an awards ceremony to honor female leaders making a difference at their companies.
In collaboration with FN, WIFI also hosted its second annual Women Who Rock panel event in June. Guest speakers included designers Tory Burch and Tabitha Simmons, as well as a diverse group of retailers, vendors and educators.
As the organization enters its 10th year of operation, it shows no signs of slowing down.
WIFI has 4,000 members and a total of 10 regional chapters coast to coast. Each is located in a major city, such Las Vegas, Boston and New York.
“To see where WIFI started and where it’s come today is so rewarding,” said Baiocchi. “I think all of us are pretty moved to understand that we’ve tapped into a community and engaged people.”
The chapters have built such a loyal following, in fact, most new members join via word of mouth.
“We’ve really reached people very organically,” said Edelman. “Every single event is so different and that’s what’s so much fun about them. Women love to attend, and they can’t help but tell their friends about their experiences.”
According to Baiocchi, WIFI has also grown thanks to strong partnerships with companies who help spread the word about the organization. She cites Aldo Group as a leading example.
The company, which has served as WIFI’s title sponsor since 2018, recruits its own employees as mentors and guest speakers for WIFI events. Earlier this month, Aldo Group hosted a conversation with McKinsey & Company’s Sandrine Devillard to discuss her study on the progress of female leadership in large organizations. WIFI members were encouraged to ask questions.
“Women leadership is a key reference for us, so it only made sense we teamed up with WIFI,” said Valérie Martin, Aldo Group’s Vice President of Global Communications and Culture. “Everything they do to help women reach their full personal and career potential is so impactful.”
Alongside fostering solid partnerships, WIFI’s leadership says the organization’s continued success boils down to one key ingredient: encouraging passionate participation in local chapters by honing in on best practices that make it easy for them to grow. In turn, the group hopes to open new chapters.
While no firm plans have been made yet, Edelman shared that WIFI could also benefit from hosting a national summit to aggregate all heads of chapters.
“We need to look at who we are and what we want to accomplish in the next 10 years,” she said. “I think it would be really great to get our leaders together and ask every single person what our organization’s needs are. And then, of course, take immediate action.”
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