As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Haley Pavone.
Haley Pavone is an entrepreneur whose ambition & passion for innovation led her to create the largest disruptive advancement women’s footwear has ever seen — the world’s first fully convertible heel. Pavone founded the company as a 20 year old college junior while still graduating on-time with her Business Entrepreneurship degree from California Polytechnic State University, SLO. She has developed her innovative & massively disruptive technology, secured patent-pending status in 30 countries, built out and trained a full supply chain on a completely new production method, executed the first rounds of production with phenomenal customer satisfaction ratings, developed & launched a comprehensive eCommerce site/model/funnel and raised over $4 million dollars in seed funding.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My dad would say he knew I was going to be an entrepreneur by the time I was in preschool — already taking charge whenever possible (some would say “bossy” — I’d say leadership quality!), obsessed with creating things, solving problems and constantly telling stories pretty much as soon as I could speak. I entered college at California Polytechnic State University — San Luis Obispo as a Business Entrepreneurship major, just waiting for my inspiration to strike. I never would have imagined, however, that my “big idea” would end up being convertible high heels.
In my sophomore year of college, I wore a pair of 6” heels out to a sorority formal. As any woman reading will know, dancing in 6” heels is really more of a “wobble” — and I wanted to bust a move. So, I ditched my heels and went barefoot as I’d always done at any kind of formal event. On that particular evening, tragedy & inspiration quite literally struck when another young woman accidentally stomped on my bare foot with the point of her stiletto, impaling me through the toe. Ouch!
As I was sitting there unimpaling myself I couldn’t help but notice the massive pile of discarded heels on the side of the dance floor. At that moment, it hit me. Almost every woman wears high heels; everyone knows they are painful and inconvenient, and yet — there was no marketable solution. Women were constantly ending up barefoot, lugging around backup shoes, or just suffering through for hours on end. That was all it took, a lightbulb went off and I became obsessed with finding a better way. I started digging into the market and was shocked when I found out high heels haven’t seen any innovation in over 200 years. I knew it was time for an upgrade, and the idea for a convertible heel was born. I swear almost every woman has thought about how much she wants to rip the heels off her shoes … I kept trying to think of a reason why it couldn’t exist, and I couldn’t find a logical one strong enough to stop me. So, as a 20-year-old college junior with no experience in footwear, I decided to take a chance and see if I could figure it out.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Where to even begin — I swear every day is a completely different adventure. I’d say the craziest experience in my five years was pitching on ABC’s Shark Tank during the pandemic.
I launched Pashion in June of 2019, walking right into the COVID shutdown. As a founder in the luxury footwear space, I was terrified of what was going to happen to the market. All at once, every use case for high heels was simultaneously wiped out with the stay at home order. I started frantically trying to think of different ways we could pivot the business, get more funding or gain extra exposure to keep our momentum up in spite of the downturn…on a total whim, I applied for the show.
The entire experience was surreal. I’ve been a Shark Tank fan ever since season 1, which came out when I was a preteen. I’d grown up idolizing the Sharks and dreaming of someday being one of the lucky founders to grab a deal. To find myself standing on that iconic set only a few yards away from moguls like Mark Cuban & Lori Grenier was wild. Even crazier was walking off the set and processing the fact that I had actively turned down an offer from Kevin O’Leary. It was overwhelming to say the least, and very hard to walk out — but I knew I had to do what was right for Pashion.
Deal or no deal, the exposure that followed the show set us on a whole new growth trajectory and finally put convertible high heels on the map. From a personal perspective, the whole experience was a huge check off my bucket list!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As I mentioned, I started this business when I was 20 and with absolutely no background in footwear. A mistake I made early on was being nervous to ask questions…I didn’t want to tip anyone off to the fact I had no idea what I was doing! It was standard practice for me to get on calls with industry experts where they’d start referencing various terms…”Shank”, “SKU”, “UPC”, “MOQ” etc…and not wanting to expose myself, I’d totally just nod along and smile as if I had any idea what they were talking about. Then, after the call I’d frantically take to google to figure out what the heck they’d meant. In retrospect, I probably would have gotten more out of the calls if I’d just asked them to clarify what they meant — but oh well. Google academy, all things considered, was pretty effective.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve definitely come to realize over the last five years that a company is nothing without an incredible team. I’ve been lucky to work with some absolutely wonderful people, but two immediately come to mind as having really made Pashion what it is today.
The first is my Design Director, Seiji van Bronkhorst. Seiji was my first ever hire at Pashion, back before we even had working prototypes of our shoes. We met in line at Starbucks and he let slip that he was a mechanical engineer who loved shoe design…I’d hit the jackpot. Little did I know then what a wild ride we were in store for. He has been there every step of the way, bringing this crazy shoe idea to life.
Second is my COO, Jess Norman. Jess is the perfect yin to my yang — I couldn’t imagine growing this business without her. She knows how to get things done and turn all my wild ideas into reality. Plus, it helps that we essentially share a brain — we often find ourselves finishing each others’ sentences, literally!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am a BIG believer in work life balance. Growing up, my parents told me the same phrase every single day before I left for school: “Work hard, play hard, make us proud”. That’s the philosophy I try to live by. If I know I have a stressful week coming up, I’ll do my best to fully unplug for the weekend prior and do something I enjoy — spend time with friends, work out, hit the beach, take a fun day trip with my boyfriend. I think maintaining a healthy balance is especially crucial for me as a founder in my mid-20s…I always remind myself that my career is a marathon, not a sprint — and preventing burn out has to be a top priority not just for my sake, but for the company’s.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Simply put — perspective. My goal at Pashion is to make products that genuinely make the daily lives of all women easier. How can I possibly achieve that if I don’t have a good picture of the daily lives and needs of all women? I firmly believe that products need to be designed by the end user — it’s the only way to guarantee they are actually solving a problem. Lack of this practice is exactly what has led to the uncomfortable shoes we are familiar with today…too many decades of men designing women’s shoes without ever wearing them themselves. Women of different backgrounds each bring their own unique perspective, experiences, cultures and opinions to the table — all of which can factor into various details of effective design. Diversity brings the perspective necessary to create a complete solution that works for all rather than just a select few. And it goes without saying that a universal solution is almost always more desirable than a niche one.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
We must create an environment and culture within our companies that is accommodating to different personas and lifestyles. A lot of this comes down to the functional practices we deploy. For instance, at Pashion, we have a flexible hours policy to better accommodate the working mothers in our midst. We allow remote work so that no one feels forced to relocate, unnecessarily uprooting spouses who may be tied to other necessary jobs. We don’t limit vacation time so that employees have the freedom to take care of their mental health or their families without fear. As leaders, we need to own these kinds of practices as more than a “perk” — but as the necessity they are to allow for a more accommodating, kind and inclusive workplace.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that in the case of a Founder/CEO like myself, you truly feel like the company is a part of you in many ways. It’s more than a job to me…the business almost feels like my child, and I’ve been “raising” it through the various stages of it’s life. It feels a lot more personal than I’d imagine most other jobs do.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think pop culture has circulated a certain “workaholic” narrative surrounding being a CEO. On social media I’m constantly seeing these statements like “the average CEO reads 30 books per year” or “the best CEOs are up by 4AM” etc. I think this perpetuates an unnecessarily intimidating and completely untrue precedent that makes aspiring leaders think they could never run a company because they like to sleep in. The truth is, CEOs exist in all shapes and sizes. Personally, I’d rather binge a Netflix show than pick up a book. I’m more of a night owl than an early riser, and I commit to fully clocking out on the weekends whenever possible. That’s how my brain works best, and it doesn’t make me any less of a CEO.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
In my career, there have been several times I’ve felt like I’ve had to work extra hard to be taken seriously…that from the moment I entered the room, I was having to fight to earn the right to be listened to. For example, I was pitching an angel group once for investment. When they realized my age (22 at the time) they proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes drilling me on my experience. I was able to stick around after my pitch to see some of the other presentations, and the young man after me was 20 years old. He wasn’t asked a single question about his experience or background. It struck me in that moment that although my line of questioning had been made to seem like it was about my age, it was actually a lot more about being a young woman than just young.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I definitely came into it thinking starting a business would be pretty straightforward. Have an idea, make a product, sell it for lots of money — right? Turns out, its just a little more complicated than that. I’m constantly surprised by the intricacies, detail & codependencies of business — it feels like every small thing impacts ten other small things. I joke that my job is trying to untangle the web and put out the fires.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I definitely think it takes a certain kind of person to be an executive. The three main traits that equate to a successful executive are:
- Curiosity — ask WHY things are the way they are, and if there can/should be a better way.
- Creativity — Push to find new & better ways to do things.
- Resilience — Always find a window, tunnel, or crevice to leap through when one door closes. Giving up never got anyone anywhere. Leadership will always test you — don’t let the challenges win.
I think the main inhibitor to being a successful executive would be a dislike for interacting with people. At the end of the day, a lot of being a successful executive is being a skilled leader, networker and manager…that means working with people 24/7. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to work alone, thriving in an executive environment may feel draining. I’d never say it’s impossible — but it may just not be genuinely enjoyable.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Prioritize culture over all else. I’d much rather hire someone with the right attitude who brings a great energy to my team than someone with an A-1 resume who drags down morale. At the end of the day, a company is only as good as it’s team — their happiness is your priority.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of Pashion’s core values is Women’s Empowerment. This is a cause near and dear to my heart — particularly as a female founder. We have committed to supporting women however we can — by giving back through regular donations to Dress for Success, by enthusiastically encouraging & promoting others (regularly using our social media platform to shout out other female-founded brands), and within our internal practices.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Startups are a marathon, not a sprint.
- YOU are your company’s greatest asset — take care of yourself.
- Trust your gut. No one knows your company as intimately as you do.
- A “no” is just as valuable as a “yes”.
- Resilience is your greatest asset. The only thing all successful people have in common is never giving up.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I hope that my story inspires more young women to start their own businesses. More successful female entrepreneurs will eventually lead to more successful women in venture capital — finally equalizing the other side of that table. I have no doubt that the world can only benefit from having more women’s voices being heard, funded, and launched into the market.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite motivational quotes of all time is “Don’t Get Even, Get Better”. As I mentioned, there have been many times in my career I’ve felt underestimated or disregarded. In life, you cannot let these kinds of setbacks keep you down or change your view of yourself. Instead, rise up, work harder, and prove the naysayers wrong — every “no” should be fuel for your fire.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Sara Blakely — 100%. I look up to her so much as a businesswoman and strongly identify with her story, as a young woman pioneering a new technology in a space dominated by male executives who’ve long disregarded how their customers actually feel. I know there is a lot I can learn from her — and I think we’d get along swimmingly.