For the previous month, Victoria Adesanmi has walked in and out of PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy, past an entrance wall covered in more than 70 shrunken shoeboxes bearing the logos of sneaker companies big and small.
Each of the boxes represents a star PENSOLE pupil of the past who left the school and took a job in the shoe industry. And each of the brilliant young designers who pass by every day dreams of having a shoebox on that wall someday. Someday soon, too.
Adesanmi is at PENSOLE, located in downtown Portland, Oregon, along with 29 other competitors for a strange-but-cool first-year contest you probably haven't heard of: the World Sneaker Championship. Over the course of a few weeks, young design professionals from all over the world have been drawing, building and presenting what they hope is the next big thing in kicks, for a group of industry professionals serving as judges. The judges are legit -- with Nike and Adidas in town, it's a who's who of innovators. They know talent when they see it.
And Adesanmi has talent. She's exactly what PENSOLE founder D'Wayne Edwards, formerly a designer at Nike, was looking for when he founded the academy in 2010. The school's intensive short-term curriculum was the type of master class he wished he'd been fortunate enough to attend years ago. Mainly, though, Edwards, who is black, was tired of looking around, internally and externally, and not seeing more faces resembling his own. And there were rarely women in the room during his previous jobs in the shoe industry.
"There's a lack of females designing athletic footwear and almost zero black female designers in the entire industry," Edwards said.
Adesanmi, 23, understands the obstacles, yet remains undeterred. Her demanding Nigerian parents expected she'd become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, but she was always more curious about design. Her family came to the U.S. when she was an infant and raised her in Maryland. She went to N.C. State and graduated in 2013 with a design degree. When an offer popped up in New York City to design eyewear, Adesanmi dashed off to the big city. But when her position was eliminated recently, she was stuck in a lease and unsure of the best path forward. She applied for the sneaker championship and got in. She's here because she thinks she may be the next great shoe designer in the world.
"I've always been interested in footwear," she said. "I just didn't necessarily think I could make a career out of it."
Yet every one of the 30 candidates, selected by Edwards from a blue-chip crop of young designers from around the globe, has a chance to do this for a living. The winner of the World Sneaker Championship will be announced on Wednesday in Las Vegas (you can check out the designs and vote for your favorite here) and gets a WWE-style white championship belt as a trophy. But the real prize is a rare opportunity for any young professional: a direct line with some of the kings and queens of their field.
When the men and women arrived two weeks ago, they were divided into teams. Each team had three footwear designers and one color and materials designer. Adesanmi competed as the latter. On Friday, each team made a final presentation to the judges, with only eight individuals advancing. "I was impressed and inspired by Victoria's desire to learn and determination to improve," said Edwards, who hopes to launch a class exclusively for women designers next year. "She was usually the first in every morning, ready to soak up what the day had in store for her. I am confident that if she continues to go hard, she will reach her goals."
Yet when the judges announced their top eight, Adesanmi missed the cut. But the trip only confirmed that she's landed on the right profession. "It makes it seem like it's possible," Adesanmi said. "Before, I didn't know if it was tangible. When you don't see it, you don't know if it's tangible."
In fact, it's very tangible. Despite not qualifying for the World Sneaker Championship, Adesanmi was hand-selected by Adidas for a follow-up intensive course on color materials and finishes designing. Class starts Sept. 2. There won't be a title belt at the end; maybe just a new career.
"I look forward to the day she calls me to let me know the good news," Edwards said.