Female Disruptors: Candace Chen of Protege On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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One piece of advice I carry with me is the Japanese concept of the “beginner’s mind.” It’s all about constantly learning new things, even if it means starting from nothing, or starting from the bottom. It keeps your mind fresh. That’s literally the concept of Protégé, which means student in French. To me, the brand is all about constant innovation, constantly pushing the boundaries.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Candace Chen.

Candace Chen is a groundbreaking Taiwanese-American Mechanical Engineer, Designer and Entrepreneur. She is the Founder of Protégé, a high-end footwear brand focused on creating truly painless high heels without sacrificing style. Her innovation and timeless design have disrupted the heels industry with her premium essential collection, “The Painless Stiletto”.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

Absolutely. I was born in Taiwan and my family immigrated to California when I was three years old. When we first got to the States, my parents struggled financially, but always prioritized my future and nurtured my intelligence.

From a very young age, I always had an analytical mind, and was drawn to engineering. In fact, I even used to set booby traps for my mother as a kid! Back in elementary school I’d get home before her and want to watch cartoons, but didn’t want her to catch me in the act (I was supposed to be doing homework). So I engineered some booby traps that would alert me when she opened the front door, like falling cups of water, loud objects being knocked over or objects that would make noise when stepped on or moved.

I ended up excelling in math and science as I grew older, and then went to MIT for Mechanical Engineering. I loved my experience at MIT so much, I would actually sneak into some of the machine shops at night, to borrow machine equipment like bandsaws, laser cutters, or just to have extra time to learn how to prototype and to create and design. I focused on tech and consumer electronics, and always thought I would end up somewhere like Apple.

I ended up taking an opportunity in Arizona for a startup company that manufacturers luxury golf equipment, where I worked for 7 years in product design, development, and operations. I learned how important it is to get consumer feedback for new products, and incorporate those design elements into a product that people truly love.

But I always knew I was meant to start my own company. So one evening, I went out to a networking event that turned into a party with lots of dancing. I was in heels all night. When I got home, my feet were in excruciating pain, blistering and bleeding. I thought to myself, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of design and development effort being put into making shoes comfortable. So as a Mechanical Engineer, I set out to create heels that are actually comfortable. That’s how Protégé was born.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

With a $37.8b heels industry, women’s comfort is still not a consideration for the majority of the market. Most designers are male and only focus on the looks of a given shoe. But I know that we as women need and deserve to both look good and feel good.

Once I set out to create truly comfortable heels, nothing could deter me. It took me 18 months and 67 iterations of prototyping and designing, all with my 3D printer, sewing machine, and years of experience in product design. I spent hours and hours doing market research studying the most popular, classic, and timeless high heels styles worn from upscale lounges to the Met Gala.

I persisted, and created a completely new design meant to inspire confidence and provide luxurious comfort. Women usually have to choose between more practical footwear, or being forced to be uncomfortable in their heels. Protégé takes away having to choose, so ultimately we can focus on presenting our best, most confident selves all of the time.

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?

There was a lot of testing and prototyping before I finally landed on a design that was comfortable and truly enabled movement. To create these prototypes, I’d first create a 3D design on my laptop and then 3D print the midsole and heel with a 3D printer. I also took leather and sewed it to create the counter and toe strap. For structural integrity of the counter, I used an off-the-shelf heat-activated stiffener. Each walkable prototype could take up to a week to create. Once the prototype was assembled, I would then wear the shoe and test it for comfort and enabled movement.

In one of our tests near the W Hotel Scottsdale, when I was wearing the latest hand-made 3D printed stiletto, the 3D print snapped across the midsole (I had chosen a less durable 3D print option because I wanted it to 3D print faster), so my two friends had to physically support me as I hobbled on one foot back to the car which was parked 2 blocks away!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

The person who has probably made the biggest difference is my middle school math teacher, Mr. Doug Buhler. He made learning so much fun and took the time and effort to make sure his classes were as entertaining and interactive as possible, and to really inspire his students. As a kid with ADHD, I struggled to pay attention in most other classes. I honestly don’t think I would be as interested in math at that age, or even pursuing engineering at MIT if it weren’t for him. Thanks Mr. Buhler!

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption can be ‘not so positive’ when someone aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Meaning, we should always have the consumer experience and consumer needs as the most important focus, rather than creating something different only for the sake of being new or different.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

One piece of advice I carry with me is the Japanese concept of the “beginner’s mind.” It’s all about constantly learning new things, even if it means starting from nothing, or starting from the bottom. It keeps your mind fresh. That’s literally the concept of Protégé, which means student in French. To me, the brand is all about constant innovation, constantly pushing the boundaries.

I also remember hearing “Don’t do something you wouldn’t sign your name to.” I think that’s where my perfectionism comes in. I want to create the best innovation or design I can, no matter how long it takes. My basketball coach also told us to “always follow through,” which is another important piece. You can strive for perfection, but at the end of the day you have to share your products and ideas with the world to get iterative feedback and continue to grow.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

New Protege designs will be launching soon! These include a lower block heel, and a pointed toe pump. I’ll also be launching my own namesake brand of heels Candace Chen in the next year or so!

Outside of footwear and fashion, I have a couple of product projects in the works that I’m planning to build companies around. Stay tuned!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I feel like as a male disruptor, there are so many “correct” ways to present yourself. But as a woman, I feel there I’ve experienced more judgment, and have found myself having to walk a fine line between being personable and friendly, but not overly friendly so as not to be taken seriously. Beauty and femininity can also take away from being taken seriously in a given field even though it shouldn’t. Male disruptors can wear hoodies or T-shirts, or suits and ties, but women are judged more critically on our outward presentation of appearance and held to a different standard. I’d rather be judged on my abilities.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I’ve currently been reading a lot of books on consumer psychology on my Kindle. Why We Buy, and Zero to One were both fascinating.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I want people to know how much power they have over their own lives. Perception is reality, so if we change how we perceive, we can change our entire reality. I hope people learn from my story and feel inspired to create something that has never been invented, or that the world deems impossible. It means a great deal to me to be able to help women to present themselves with utmost confidence while not having to experience physical pain. I’m proud of that, and I would love to continue to inspire confidence.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” — Albert Einstein. I created 66 unsuccessful prototypes before getting it right, so don’t give up on your 66th try! :)

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.protegefootwear.com/

IG: @cantdancechen

IG: @protegefootwear

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.