Natasha Norie Standard and Eddy Mejia are Army veterans who took very different paths to launching their own shoe-related businesses. But the skills they picked up in the military helped pave both of their paths to success.
Here are their stories:
Making the jump
Standard said her high school was filled with Rhodes scholars aspiring to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. Her dream, however, was to study fashion in New York City at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Unfortunately, her parents weren’t particularly supportive of that goal. So instead, Standard decided to “pave her own path” and enlist in the Army.
“I went into the military because I wanted to show my parents that I could make my own decisions and those decisions could be great for my life,” she said.
She entered the military in 1996 and spent most of her time as a logistics officer, with seven years spent in special ops. Standard separated in 2014 as a major and quickly earned a Master of Arts degree in luxury and fashion management from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Then came her biggest leap yet: enrolling in a 10-month shoe course at the Arsutoria School in Milan, Italy.
“I learned so much about the feet and partnering the footwear with the feet,” she said.
While in Italy, she networked with plenty of people in the fashion world, including some folks who worked at consultancy companies and with the ability to link designers with factories to manufacture their products.
Standard used what she learned and the connections she made in Italy to launch her own designer-shoe brand, Norie Shoes. She said that her shoes are in full production, and she has already sold about 25 pairs.
“All the designs come from my heart, soul and spirit,” she said.
Norie Shoes are designed to be “wearable and walkable,” according to Standard. Her goal was to take a “common-sense” approach to women’s footwear.
She credited the military for teaching her important skills that have translated to the business world, including leadership, endurance and the tenacity to succeed.
“I was prepared to jump out of planes,” Standard said. “But starting my own business is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
If the shoe fits
Mejia took a slightly more circuitous route to breaking into the shoe entrepreneurship world.
He enlisted in the Army in 2008 and spent most of his active-duty time as an IT specialist. He had an uncle in the military, so for him joining the Army seemed natural.
“I wanted to serve and see what it was about and give back,” he said.
After separating as a sergeant in 2014, Mejia enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago for his undergraduate studies in computer engineering. While there, the school held a “startup challenge” where students competed to receive funding to start their own business.
While searching for ideas to enter into the startup challenge, Mejia connected with a friend from high school who he said owned more than 300 pairs of sneakers that he stored in Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers. It occurred to Mejia that there weren’t many products out there for enthusiasts to display their prized kicks.
That sparked the idea for his company, DisplayInfinity, and its inaugural product, the ShoeBoxOne. His acrylic shoe display cases won the startup challenge, and pretty soon he was receiving funding for his small business from incubators like Future Founders and Bunker Labs.
“I wasn’t really big into sneakers,” Mejia said. “Now I understand why they care about them. It’s like art. Each one of them has their own story.”
He is currently getting his MBA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign while overseeing DisplayInfinity. Mejia credits military-taught skills like managing teams, public speaking and, most importantly, having the grit to face adversity as some of his keys to success.
“There are times where it’s like, ‘Oh my god nothing’s going to work out,’” he said. “And you just have to keep pushing on.”
They did it, and so can you
Standard advised anyone trying to follow in her footsteps to always be talking up your business to anyone who will listen.
“Definitely get educated and don’t discount the power of your network,” she said. “Take every opportunity to tell people what you’re doing. Even if it seems like it’s an audience not doing anything associated with what you’re doing, do it. You just never know.”
As for Mejia, his philosophy is all about “embracing the suck” — the hurdles any aspiring entrepreneur will face getting their business off the ground. There’s an inherent thrill in the uncertainty of the whole process for him.
“We got really used to having that security in the military,” he said. “It’s OK to take a risk. But that’s what life’s about, enjoying it and embracing the opportunities that are presented to you.”