Actions speak louder than words. That’s D’Wayne Edwards’ motto and the basis behind Pensole Footwear Design Academy, the shoe design school he founded in Portland, OR, in 2011. “There are too many students graduating from design schools who won’t get a job,” reports the former Jordan Brand design director. “Companies want qualified candidates, and schools aren’t gearing the curriculum towards specific career tracks and teaching students the proper design process that’s used in corporate America.”
That’s where Edwards’ design school comes in. Pensole’s “learn by doing” approach to education teaches students the entire footwear design process, from inspiration and concept development to problem solving, materials and branding. It’s a model that has a proven track record of success. “Over 90 of our alumni are now working professionally in the three years since Pensole started,” he states, noting that his graduates have gone on to work at Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, among other leading companies. “If the largest footwear companies in the industry are coming to us as a place where they can pull talent from, then I’ve done my job,” he adds.
But Edwards is only just getting started on his goal to teach the art of footwear design. In September, he announced plans to raise as much as $7.5 million through Soleholder, a global “community ownership” campaign to expand Pensole Footwear Design Academy. Inspired by the Green Bay Packers, the NFL’s only publicly owned team whose shareholders program has offered stock to fans five times since 1923, Edwards is issuing up to 50,000 shares of Pensole to the public for $150 each. Up until now, he has resisted raising money from outside investors until he established the viability of the business, choosing to finance it with $600,000 out of his own pocket. “If I had told people what I wanted to do, they probably wouldn’t have thought I’d accomplish it,” he says of his decision to be self funded at that start. Now that Pensole has a track record placing students in high-powered design jobs, Edwards is ready to welcome the public as partners. “We’ve been able to grow with very little money and make a pretty significant impact on the industry,” he notes.
The money raised will be donated to the No. 2 Foundation, Pensole’s nonprofit arm, and will be used for a variety of expansion efforts, including a scholarship endowment that would provide free education to all candidates; a sample room that would enable students to build prototypes from scratch; and an expanded diversity program. They are all avenues that Edwards would have dreamed of as a kid growing up in the working-class city of Inglewood, CA. Back then, he won a Reebok design competition, beating out professionals and college students, and fueling his dream of becoming a shoe designer. But when the time came to apply for colleges there was a wealth of apparel design school located on the West Coast, but none taught shoe design. (Even if there was, as one of six kids in a single parent home, Edwards says a college education just wasn’t in the family budget.) So he attended night school and temped by day at LA Gear as a file clerk and made himself known as the kid who put shoe sketches in the company’s suggestion box. Six months and 180 drawings later, company founder Robert Greenberg rewarded Edwards’ determination by hiring him as a footwear designer at the age of 19. And the rest, as they say, is history. In the 25 years since then, Edwards has worked at Skechers (which Greenberg founded after LA Gear), Nike and Jordan.
Edwards, however, never forgot the frustration he endured early on his career because there were no schools that would enable him to pursue his dreams. He didn’t want other aspiring designers to run into similar roadblocks. So during a sabbatical in 2010, he flew 40 young adults (on his dime) to the University of Oregon for a two-week shoe design program. “It worked really well, to the point where some of the top design schools asked me to start working with them,” he recalls. A year later, he retired from Jordan and opened Pensole.
Today, the school hosts intense classes that run one to four weeks, six to seven times a year offering students–regardless of socioeconomic status–an opportunity to learn from the industry’s best, without financial barriers. The academy also offers classes through Parsons in New York, MIT in Boston and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “We want to keep it pretty small and focused because our goal is to produce better designers, not more designers,” he says, noting that each session accepts only 20 students. To apply, prospects must submit a simple black-and-white sketch. “That tells me all I need to know,” he says. “You can see the raw passion in the level of detail and quality of the sketches. There’s no computer rendering or color to hide a bad design behind.”
Edwards sees Pensole as a win-win for all parties. “The more that we can provide for the industry, the more the industry will hopefully invest back into the future of Pensole and its students,” he says. “Ultimately, that will make the industry better as a whole.”