Why Adidas S.E.E.D. Is More Than a Socially Responsible Program — Its a Key to Brand Relevance

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In early 2020, Adidas set out to address the lack of diversity within its own ranks by launching S.E.E.D. (School for Experimental Education in Design). The two-year, U.S.-based program is an alternative to a university education for shoe design and serves as a pipeline to bring new talent to the brand, specifically BIPOC female creators.

So far, eight women have completed the program and transitioned to full-time roles within Adidas, contributing to notable projects such as Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” costumes and the 40th anniversary of the Adidas Forum.

“They are very quickly being recognized as up-and-coming designers of the future,” said S.E.E.D. co-founder Jessica Smith. “Our students are getting asked by creative directors to give insights tours globally, to input into the creative direction for the brand, so there’s an impact in the industry.”

Smith, whose background is in education and early career programs, said that the idea for the program grew out of a deep concern about the underrepresentation of women and people of color in colleges and design schools. While visiting classrooms to help find diverse talent for companies like Nike and Adidas, she noticed many people were missing. “I thought, how are we going to solve a problem if it also exists at the source?” she said.

After joining Adidas in 2017, Smith cultivated partnerships within the brand and eventually teamed up with the Adidas Brooklyn Creator Farm to launch the program.

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" costume Adidas shoe
A bespoke shoe for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” created by Adidas designer and S.E.E.D. graduate Eliya Jackson.

S.E.E.D. has capacity for up to six students per “generation,” but the actual number varies depending on available design positions. Smith said that’s because it’s very important to preserve the program’s function as a pipeline. “We want to make sure that for those who successfully complete the program, there’s space for them at the brand,” she said.

And while S.E.E.D. is currently a U.S.-only initiative, its leaders aspire to expand it to the company’s offices in Europe and Asia.

Cheresse Thornhill-Goldson, director of design education and growth for S.E.E.D., said there are clear benefits to cultivating young, diverse talent.

“The product is better for it. It’s not just about, hey, let’s just do this socially responsible thing. It does impact your brand’s recognition, your brand’s relevance. More than ever, we see the industry changing and changing faster. How are brands staying relevant?” she said. “We’ve done that through the talent we’ve been able to bring in and upskill and put out into the brand.”

For instance, a recent “Carnival” collection was a reflection of the students’ Caribbean culture and was developed with Trinidadian designer Anya Ayoung-Chee. “That’s just one example of what we’ve been able to bring to the brand through our own experiences and who we bring along with us,” said Thornhill-Goldson.

And, she noted, S.E.E.D. students are well prepared to succeed at Adidas in large part because the lesson plans prioritize soft skills as much as design technique.

“We’ve been able to close gaps sooner in ways that really matter and can drive change quicker for our students because, while, yes, they still have room to grow from a design standpoint, they are able to come in with the leadership, identity and skillset to help move projects forward,” said Thornhill-Goldson.

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