When Janice Tennant walks through the doors of Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design in Detroit — a few hours away from her home base in Rockford, Mich. — the Merrell president said she often thinks about the younger version of herself.
“Sometimes, I find it strange where I am now because I know what it’s like. I was in [these students’] shoes. I was at my cubicle, writing marketing briefs. There is something I want to convey by being present. I want to say, ‘I was there, and you can be here. It is possible,’” said Tennant, who spent 15 years in the consumer packaged goods industry before joining Wolverine Worldwide as chief marketing officer at Cat Footwear in 2018.
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Today, the executive — who assumed the global brand president role at Merrell in June 2023 —
is here at Pensole with footwear design veteran Dr. D’Wayne Edwards in the school he transformed into the country’s first historically Black college and university (HBCU) focused on design.
With DEI at a critical crossroads, it’s an important moment to bring the leaders together. The stakes are high for the industry as uncertainty looms over the legality of corporate DEI programs amid a highly charged political environment. The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling to end affirmative action in higher education — coupled with widespread budget cuts that have some diversity programs on the chopping block — is creating what Edwards calls “chaos” in the near-term.
But he remains undeterred in his mission, and Edwards wants Pensole, Michigan’s only HBCU, to be known as the industry’s college — a place where companies and students come together to collaborate, learn from each other and build a lasting community.
“Brands fill quotas by hiring one or two people of color, but they never think about the community that they need to build for those people to stay or feel comfortable in that environment,” Edwards said. “I didn’t have community for the first 15 years of my career. That’s lonely and tiring.”
Below, Tennant and Edwards get candid about the complexities of where we are now when it comes to DEI and the path forward. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
How would you assess the progress made within the industry since the racial reckoning that unfolded in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder? What programs have worked? And what hasn’t?
Dr. D’Wayne Edwards: “I can only speak to what we’ve done and who we’ve worked with. If a brand comes to me and I smell that it’s not real, I don’t work with them. The best programs are those that are a part of how they do business, not a moment. Whether George Floyd’s murder sparked that idea or not, whichever way they got there, they got there. That’s the important part. On the flip side, there are a lot of people who made pledges, and those same people are getting rid of their DEI programs. It’s no longer important to them. That tells you they weren’t serious in the first place. But to me, it was flawed from the beginning because no one likes to be forced to do anything. I feel a lot of people felt they were forced or compelled to do something in 2020 because everyone else was doing it. ‘I’ve got to do something because Nike and Jordan did something.’ The big ones lead and everybody else follows.”
Janice Tennant: “From a Merrell perspective, we did some reflection. The first step was for us to look at our [outdoor] space and how our consumers participate in that space. We commissioned a global study around the outdoors and people feeling like they are included in that space.”
DE: “You guys were on it early, too. Before 2020, you were on it.”
JT: “It gave us interesting insights about people of color and how they feel in outdoor spaces — women, too. It’s helped inform the way we do things — the type of content that we share, the influencers we engage with who can help broaden the lens of what outdoor participation looks like. There’s still way more learning and things we can do better, but it’s a commitment that every year we are a little bit better than last year. Those small, incremental steps over time will start to drive bigger shifts in how we
see and do things.”
DE: “Gradual growth is always more sustainable than spikes.”
How did the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling change how some companies are approaching diversity? How big of a chilling effect has it had?
DE: “I’m disappointed folks are trying to erase 400-something years of oppression and [reverse] laws that helped us have an idea of equality. If you are spending money to market and advertise to a kid that’s of color for them to buy your products or services, you have an obligation to give them another option besides buying something. It’s going to be harder for them to erase DEI initiatives because, at some point, as soon as people of color understand our spending power — which is $1.6 trillion — then they’ll start to speak with their dollars and then things will go backward at those organizations. If you’re relying on them to build your brand, you should have a lane to help build them. But I think it’s great for HBCUs, quite honestly. You have to remember, HBCUs were created because we were legally not allowed to be educated in the 1800s, so we created inclusive institutions called historically Black colleges and universities. There’s always been a place for you. It is up to you to find the right one.”
What do you think the short- and long-term implications of this ruling are on corporate strategy?
DE: “Short-term, chaos and confusion among people and brands. It’s going to be at the brand level first because they’re going to have to figure out what side of the fence they sit on — especially for those who market and advertise [to us]. They can’t just automatically undo that. Their consumer is going to feel a certain kind of way, their employees are going to feel a certain kind of way. It’s also creating a wider divide. America was never united, so the division is going to be even greater. But the positive, for me, is I hope through that obvious attack on equality, the folks that are being unjustly treated will understand there’s strength in numbers, there’s strength in unity.”
Long-term, how do you ensure DEI is part of company DNA versus an initiative?”
DE: “Organizations [should look] at their entire supply chain, not just their footwear supply chain. Who is the electrician? Who is the plumber? Who are the attorneys? That’s how it becomes part of your business. If it’s just in product creation, that doesn’t move the needle because you’re thinking that if more diverse people are making product, it would appeal to a more diverse customer and we can sell more things.”
JT: “Working in a corporate environment is a team sport. Teams are made up of different people intentionally with different skill sets, capabilities, leadership skills. Sometimes in a corporate environment, we forget that. When you want to get the best out of a team, we as leaders have to learn how to bring them together. I would rather that principle be the thing that brings us together versus something that’s been mandated. For me, that’s an important shift in how we think. How do we bring out the best in people? It’s about understanding the role they play.”
In many ways you’re pioneers. How do you view yourselves in relation to this industry?
DE: “I look at [myself] through the lens of I’m not new. And I tell my students this, too. Some version of you existed in someone else. You have to have armor to go into a place where you’re uncomfortable and there are no lights on to know where you’re walking. My career coach, Johan Khalilian, tells me it’s not healthy for me to be motivated by negativity. I was like, ‘Dude, it’s working for me. Whenever someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m good.’ For some people, it has the reverse effect. It wasn’t my goal to be a ‘pioneer.’ I just wanted to do what I thought was right. I’m uncomfortable with the word because there are people more deserving than me.”
JT: “I’m in the same place. That’s not the word for me. If anything, I’m a baton carrier. I have the baton right now and I’m looking for who I’m going to pass it to next. This is the leg [of the race] I’m running. When you say ‘pioneer,’ it doesn’t register for me at all.”
How do each of you define success?
DE: “I don’t like the word ‘success.’ It’s a past-tense word. As a designer, I’m programmed to see two and three years at a time. One thing I’ve learned is I need to say, ‘OK, that happened,’ celebrate and keep it moving. What I [tell my students] is to let someone else talk about what you’ve done. If they are, that means you did something right.”
JT: “My definition is similar. I’m future-oriented, taking learnings in the moment and going. It’s not until someone else takes a moment to say, ‘Janice, reflect on this.’ I try to, but I’m not good at it.”
How are you pushing transformation at Merrell and Pensole, respectively?
JT: “There’s a lot of transformation taking place, and it’s anchored from a consumer perspective. Where are consumers going? Where is the landscape going? By investing in things like research in this school, it’s allowing us to unearth opportunities, new ways of thinking about our business with fresh eyes. It’s invigorating our teams to think about what is possible versus what has not been happening.”
DE: “Having experience on the corporate side, it allows me to look at education through a new lens. And having great partners like Wolverine and Merrell has accelerated that process. Our goal is to give every partner ROI because I’m functioning in this school like I’m still at a brand. When I was designing, I never looked at shoes. I was always in other industries. That was how you brought new stuff into footwear, by not being in footwear mentally. It’s the same here. When a kid comes here, we’re exposing them to other things and they’re going to look at footwear differently versus always looking online and seeing the things everybody else has done.”
JT: “The Black Footwear Forum [held at Pensole] feels more like a TED Talk with innovators and thinkers from different industries — automotive, sports and so forth. It’s an innovative way to think about the industry and evolving the industry for what is next. And I see that in your students. The capstone project at the end of the master class, you see how they present their ideas, the quality of the work. It feels like they are an extension of your team, not like a student doing a class project. Conversations get focused on the U.S., but as a global brand leader, I’m focused on the globe, and I need my teams to represent that globe for us to win — and we’re better and stronger because of it. I value my team’s perspective. Them helping to inform our strategies and our direction is critical.”
How have your learnings at Pensole impacted the work you’re doing to help diverse members of the Wolverine team?
JT: “Mentoring is a key piece. Our days are busy, but I make time for people to have those candid conversations. It’s important. My biggest fear is seeing young, diverse talent come into the organization, get frustrated, not develop the conversational skills to work through issues and then leave too soon. I’ve seen this pattern throughout my career. One thing I try to do is help people learn how to work through [those issues]. Another piece is partnership. With Pensole, it’s a chance to bring people into the organization to give them real, hands-on working experience, to understand the industry. I’m thankful Wolverine has invested in this because that’s helped infuse new learnings, experiences and ideas.”
How do you build authentic communities at Pensole?
DE: “All of it is organic. Maya Angelou has a quote: ‘People will forget what you said, [people will forget what you did], but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ That’s the way I operate. You don’t show up in people’s lives to get something from them. You show up to give them something. The beauty of what we’re building here is people are helping each other. The Black Footwear Forum [has so much] talent in one room. There’s power in that room, and they come because they want to be here, they want to give back and connect. Pensole was built off community. All of our instructors are people I used to work with. I say to my students, if I’m blessing you with an opportunity, you have to bless two more people. [For example], interviews are a bad blind date. With a community, if you have an interview somewhere, you can call and say, ‘Give me intel about who I am going to talk to.’ That’s power.”
How is the next generation going to chart the path forward for DEI in the shoe industry?
JT: “Sometimes people are down on millennials and Gen Z, but I fundamentally think they operate and see the world differently. That gives me hope. That’s who I am passing the baton to. That and new thinking, new innovations in the way we think about bringing people together, growing places that are more inclusive, whether corporate or recreational spaces.”
DE: “Our symbol is a pencil and a torch. It’s intentional. Our goal is to give them tools, so when they leave with the light on, they know where they’re going and the light stays on. As long as we continue to shine it, and individually we own the responsibility of keeping that light lit, it’s going to be bright. If more people had that mentality of sharing knowledge and uplifting and helping folks, we’d be undeniable.”
About the Author
Peter Verry is the Senior News and Features Editor for Athletic and Outdoor at Footwear News. He oversees coverage of the two fast-paced and ultracompetitive markets, which includes conducting in-depth interviews with industry leaders and writing stories on sneakers and outdoor shoes. He is a lifelong sneaker addict (and shares his newest purchases via @peterverry on Instagram) and spends most of his free time on a trail. He holds an M.A. in journalism from Hofstra University and can be reached at email@example.com.
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