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Family Ties

Laura Conwell-O’Brien, executive director of The Atlanta Shoe Market, on the importance of family and pursuing one’s passions.

Laura Conwell-O’Brien, executive director of The Atlanta Shoe Market

Dear Laura, Looking back over my life, I often wonder what I could and should have done differently. But no one ever prepares you for life’s journey. You never really know what to expect, but I’m happy to tell you that it’s been a great journey so far, one filled with family, laughter, friends and a career you absolutely love.

Growing up in a middle class, Italian family in Pittsburgh, PA, was a blessing. I believe my inner strength and strong work ethic were both instilled in me as a young girl living on that quiet street with my grandparents just four houses away. Always surrounded by a loving family, I never thought I would leave that street and the comfort that home provided. But there will come a day when you realize it’s okay to venture out to find your own way. 

After earning a degree in medical technology, you soon discover that it’s not your passion. You begin searching for the right career fit, one that you will be passionate about. (Mental note: Never give up on trying to find and embrace your passions. It’s a key to happiness.) Similarly, every unexpected challenge in life presents an opportunity to overcome it for the better—for you and those close to you. Like when you get divorced, you embark on a new chapter in life, moving to Atlanta with your 11-year-old daughter, 13-year-old son and pet dog in tow. The day after you settle in, you come across a want ad in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution posted by the Southeastern Shoe Travelers Association seeking an assistant director for its trade show. Little did you know then that it would be a “match made in heaven” and become your work passion for the next 34 years (and counting)!

At the start of your new career, however, you weren’t so sure. It was the early ’80s and the shoe industry was predominately male. You thought, “What did you get into? You know nothing about trade shows or shoes?” But these are just two more (big) challenges that you must overcome after being promoted to executive director just six months into the job. You act like a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as you can about both industries. You work hard while still attending your daughter’s basketball games and son’s golf tournaments and, after your kids go to bed, you study everything you can get your hands on. Sometimes being self-taught is the best way to go about learning a new field. Your second husband, the love of your life, would always say, “The world will teach you.” He was right, like he was about a lot of things.

When I reflect on the early years of my career, they were some of the hardest years of my life, but they were also some of the best. Whenever times got really tough, I would tell myself, “You can do this. Remember your grandparents, who came to this country with no money, and found a way to succeed.” The next day the sun would rise, and so did I.

Under your stewardship, The Atlanta Shoe Market grows exponentially, becoming a must-attend event twice a year for thousands of industry members. I’m proud to tell you it’s been sold out for the past six years straight. Of course, it’s never really been a “job.” You love your association members, which are like family to you. Bringing wholesalers and retailers together in a setting that allows them to focus on the business at hand—selling lots of shoes—while you handle all the show details is what you do best.
You are a hostess of one very big family, and you love it!

Over the years, there will be several touchstones in life that you will look back upon to inspire and guide you. No. 1: Be proud of your childhood and appreciate how your family prepared you for life. No. 2: Learn to depend on others when you need support. No. 3: Always understand that business can be difficult, but it’s not about winning personality contests. Do your best and what’s best for the people you serve. No. 4: Take time for yourself; you can only help others when your energy and spirit levels are high.   

Life is a journey filled with many wonderful and special people that you meet along the way. The experiences, friends and memories you collect are what makes life grand. While I find myself now often wondering where did the time go, I remind myself to try and appreciate every moment. I’m pleased to tell you that I’m finally listening to my inner voice. I’m smelling the roses and taking pleasure in the change of seasons. I’m enjoying spending time with my children, granddaughter and entire family. They remain such a significant part of the person that I have become. At the end of each day, I thank God for the path that he has carved out for me.

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