As a teenager, D’Wayne Edwards applied for a job six times at the Foot Locker at the Fox Hills Mall in Southern California. He never got hired.
Roughly three decades later, Foot Locker and Edwards are business partners.
The New York City-based athletic footwear and apparel retailer on Thursday announced a $2 million investment in Pensole Footwear Design Academy, the Portland-based school that Edwards started in 2010 to teach the next generation of designers. The investment is the biggest sign yet that Pensole has emerged as a critical part of the athletic footwear industry. It’s already placed 400 graduates in jobs in the industry.
Edwards will remain the majority owner of Pensole.
In a phone interview, he said Pensole will stay on the same trajectory and the money will help “create a better academy.” He expects to use the money to expand class offerings, hire more staff and design exclusive products for Foot Locker.
Foot Locker and Pensole have worked together since 2014 when Foot Locker funded a Pensole design class called “Fueling the Future of Footwear.” The class has become an annual Pensole program and has trained 30 designers who now work in the footwear industry. The partnership has led to several exclusive Foot Locker products, including the ASICS Fresh Up Gel-180. In 2016, Foot Locker became the presenting sponsor of Pensole’s annual World Sneaker Championship.
Pensole has eight full-time employees and three in-house contractors. Edwards said he plans to hire another four or five employees in the next six months, mostly to help communicate with current and prospective students.
“It allows us to staff up in some areas where we’ve been understaffed,” Edwards said. “In some areas we’ve been bootstrapping and surviving off pure passion.”
Edwards said the deepened partnership with Foot Locker will have additional benefits, such as tapping further into the expertise of Foot Locker executives.
“The opportunity with Foot Locker allows us to collaborate with the best retailer in the industry,” he said.
Edwards also is looking to add additional space to Pensole’s Old Town location. It currently leases around 15,000 square feet.
If all goes well, Edwards said the additional product Pensole designs for Foot Locker could generate a new revenue stream that funds scholarships for Pensole students.
Since he founded Pensole, Edwards has tried to provide “as free an education as possible,” in order to make opportunities available for women and people of color who are underrepresented in the industry.
“This partnership allows us to get one step closer to showing people they have a place in our industry,” he said. “They can obviously purchase product, but also I think this shows they can be a contributor in our industry. Hopefully this is the first step in showing consumers there are multiple ways to be part of this industry.”
On Thursday, Edwards reflected on his career in a letter to his 17-year-old self. He provided the Business Journal a copy. It appears here in its entirety.