Laura Oden of Pandere Shoes: Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life
An Interview With Pirie Jones Grossman
Pace yourself. This is a long road trip. — Pay attention to the signals that your brain needs to restore bandwidth. For me it’s getting fixated on one task without making any progress or not being able to stay focused. That’s when I need to do something that engages my left brain. Take a walk, sing a song, doodle on some paper.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50's.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Oden.
Laura Oden is the CEO and co-Founder of Pandere Shoes. Pandere was launched to address a largely marginalized population of people who cannot fit into off-the-rack shoes due to medical conditions that impact shoe fit. Like her customers, Laura has had a lifelong chronic medical condition (lymphedema) that causes swelling in only one foot.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Madison, NJ after moving from Enid, Oklahoma when I was 7. When I was 16, I was diagnosed with a skin cancer called melanoma. The surgery left me with a chronic swelling condition in one foot called lymphedema. Many decades later I began to understand that there were many millions of people that had been robbed of their mobility, dignity and self esteem, just like me.
I finished college with a degree in Russian Studies (Southern Methodist University), but I wasn’t very interested in the things one does with a Russian Studies degree in 1985! I moved to Washington DC and got involved with the peace movement. In 1987, I became a co-founder of the International Peace Walk (IPW). IPW flew 200 Americans to meet 200 Soviets in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Together all 400 of us walked most of the way from Leningrad to Moscow in a display of civilian detente and friendship. We camped in tents, ate meals together and walked 8–15 miles a day. It was a profound experience of building bridges across cultural divides. We also carried the first US and Soviet flag through Red Square after (of course) being told that this would be impossible.
I moved to Anchorage, Alaska in 1994 after visiting a friend. I had found my people here and Anchorage has been my home for the past 27 years. My daughter was born and raised here. I spent 16 years working in health care, and had intermittent flirtations with playing music and local activism.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother had a postcard on her kitchen wall that read “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
I talked with my grandmother about what it meant to her. I remember loving the idea that the world could be so upside down but we could change it.
My family wasn’t particularly political. I didn’t grow up with my parents taking me to protests or anything of the kind. But the postcard was a reflection of a deep value of fairness and striving to make the world a better place. This I understood. This resonated at an early age. I didn’t have any doubt that I should strive for that. I think that core value took root in me and is the single most steady driving force throughout my life.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
A former employer said of me “Give it to Laura. She’s like a dog with a bone.” I think he was referring to my tenacity and persistence. I don’t give up easily if it’s something I want.
Launching a business means you’re trying to solve a problem. The only way to do it is to keep working on all the obstacles. The obstacles are endemic to the process. If it were easy, someone else would have already done it. You have to have a high threshold for living in the uncertainty of not knowing the right way to solve the problem.
Resilience would be my third quality. I can get knocked down or feel demoralized, but not for long. I don’t mind spending a little time reflecting on the circumstances because that can be useful. But I know I need to refocus and move forward because that is the only way to succeed.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
Prior to Pandere, I worked at the Alaska Native Medical Center for 13 years managing clinics, in Organizational Development, and last in Finance. I started out working on projects that focused on improving processes for clinics and departments. Not only did I get a lot of experience in how various clinics operated and where their bottlenecks were, but I received a lot of training that allowed me to think differently about problem solving. I had an opportunity to see things from many new perspectives and I was a good cat herder. I could get buy-in on change. It was a particular strength of mine. But eventually there were too many restrictions in a large corporate environment to do the things I knew I was capable of. Launching Pandere really unleashed my creativity.
I also had another life as a musician and local activist for musicians in Anchorage. I think performing things you’ve written is the very best training on how to be vulnerable to yourself and others. It’s hard. Songwriting takes a lot of work and self awareness. Performing allows a deeply human connectivity between audience and performer that I find is oddly similar to having a customer find a pair of shoes that transforms their world.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
The transition actually took about 2 ½ years. By age 53, I had already battled the shoe industry for 37 years. I was truly fed up. In Jan 2016 I paid $50 to attend a local “Startup Weekend” event where I pitched the idea to make footwear for this marginalized population of people like me. Two days later, I had met my co-founders and the basic idea of Pandere Shoes was formed: Footwear for the 43 million Americans who can’t fit into off the rack shoes. (think lymphedema, diabetes, post surgery, pregnancy, people in wheelchairs, dialysis, the list goes on and on…)
Our mission became: To give people their mobility and dignity back.
The transition started with the concept and progressed to iteration and prototyping. None of us had any experience at all in the shoe industry. We had to start from scratch and find people who could teach us and connect us. While this always feels like a disadvantage, it’s also a secret weapon. I was able to push for new concepts in design because I knew physically where the problems were. Most footwear designers are never trying to address the problem that I was bringing to the table: how do you make a shoe that can dimensionally expand?
The coolest part was that shoe industry insiders knew we had a great idea and that it hadn’t been done before. They could see it, even when we couldn’t sometimes.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
I think it was a classic aha moment. I had lived most of my adult life disconnected from other people with similar problems. For decades the medical industry told me my condition was rare. In fact, it was not rare at all. Until recently, the lymphatic system only took up about a day of teaching out of an entire MD course of study. So most of the clinical world just didn’t know anything about lymphedema.
By 2014 I started to understand the magnitude of the problem. All of a sudden one day, the idea to make shoes just for this population popped into my head. Why isn’t someone doing this already? It made no sense from a market standpoint. It seemed obvious that the market was plenty large enough. In fact, for the first six months after my co-founders and I met, all we did was search for other companies that were already doing this work. We had an internal agreement to search for six months and if we found a company addressing this problem we would stop working on Pandere. Six months later it was painfully obvious that nobody in the shoe industry was addressing this problem like we envisioned. So we kept going.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
Turns out, when you start a shoe company, you have to predict fashion at least a year in advance. I never thought of myself as a fashionista. This is not a skill that I thought I would ever need.
Mercifully we have a talented team of footwear designers. While cofounder Alya Rogers and I are not designers, it does fall on our shoulders to predict what will sell and what people want. Between the two of us, I am the only one who has problem feet! What I didn’t know is that I have a zillion opinions about what is needed for a shoe to be beautiful, comfortable, and functional for people with anomalous foot shapes.
I absolutely love working with the designers to find a more delicate shape or color to proceed with. I have a hidden skill for identifying these problems and pushing through the barriers so that millions of people that are left out of the shoe industry and marginalized can find comfort and style not to mention basic mobility in many cases.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
We are doing pretty well. We’ve got some kickin styles coming this fall that we think are really going to be impressive. They are so cute and comfortable and the best part is that we have really increased the delta of expansion in this next round. Our shoes really need to fit normal feet as well as problem feet because so many people have problems just on one foot. We’re very excited because our fall collection fits normal feet fantastically but also provides more expansion than any other shoes we have ever made.
We also have a licensing agreement to launch a new line of shoes called Pandere Sport that will be at a lower price point and we expect to be available in retail stores. We are also trying to push through to the Veterans Administration because we know there is a substantial need there. The VA has been tough for us to break into.
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?
It makes a huge difference who is with you in the sandbox. My co-founder Ayla Rogers and I are the perfect team.
I could never run this company without the amazing trusting relationship I have with my cofounder Ayla. It’s simply unimaginable. We share a deep love and commitment to the customers and their struggles. If ever I am stuck, I just call Ayla and within minutes the gears are moving again. It’s like someone always tossing you a ball when you need it.
Where I am weak, she is strong and vice versa. We make the perfect team to keep going everyday. She is fierce in her commitment to grow the company and we would never ever have gotten this far if Ayla was not part of this journey.
I can’t help but also mention another essential partner, Mark Itzkowitz of MGI Worldwide LLC. He believed in our idea very early on. We were incredibly fortunate to be introduced to him. We had an idea, and Mark, having been in the shoe industry for more than 40 years, knew how to execute the idea. We had made some pitiful efforts to prototype some shoes but they weren’t really even wearable, let alone functional. We spent almost an entire year trying to get these prototypes made. After all that time, we had nothing. We had to start from scratch.
As luck would have it, we got an introduction to Mark who led us to the world of shoe manufacturing and design. We would not exist if not for Mark believing in our idea early on. He had no reason to work with us but our idea intrigued him and struck a chord and we are forever grateful!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
There are always serendipitous moments on an entrepreneurial journey. One of the things that stands out to me is how foggy everything is when you’re starting and how the fog clears over time. In the beginning, you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t know how you’re going to get there.
One example of this was when we decided to fly from Anchorage to NYC for a lymphedema awareness walk in 2017. We figured if we put ourselves in the middle of something, we will learn something we need to know.
We met an energetic twenty something with lymphedema named Alexa Ercolano. She founded the digital magazine “The Lymphie Life”. She was really making inroads bringing the lymphedema experience out of the closet. Alexa practically invented the voice for people with lymphedema and became the epicenter of the shared experience of millions.
Years later, when we finally had an actual shoe, she made a huge impact on Pandere when we asked her to review some of our products. Many of our early customers found us through Alexa’s blog and still to this day they come to us through her channel.
We interviewed her recently and she coined a term that I love and use all the time now: “The Lymphesphere” meaning, all the advocacy organizations, product makers, bloggers and influencers that have a focus on improving the lives of people with lymphedema. She is a voice for so many people and she is a voice for Pandere.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
I never have any trouble believing in the concept of Pandere. The idea is sound and the market fit is proven. On the other hand, I have many moments of second guessing myself and wondering if I have the ability to pull together all the pieces of the puzzle to make this business grow and scale quickly enough.
I wonder how much of this second guessing has to do with being female and a propensity to be very “other” focused. When I find myself second guessing my abilities, I tend to use it as a moment of reflection and reality check. The feelings can be pretty big and scary, but a reality check almost always puts the second guessing into a reframed context and then it becomes less foggy and overwhelming.
My tactics to manage this usually involve journaling to get the feelings and issues out or talk with a colleague or friend and use them as a sounding board. Sometimes I just push it away and say, “Not now!”. Denial is an under-appreciated coping skill. Denial can be bad if it leads to debilitation but denial is a perfectly good strategy to swat away a persistent negative voice that’s just distracting the work.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
We really leveraged contests in the early days to create a support network. The contests served to focus our efforts on specific goals and they forced us to communicate our ideas. Each time we built a new circle of supporters that we were able to lean into on the next round. This led to a crowdfunding round and eventually our launch.
In addition to that support, I have a close circle of friends that I rely on to keep me moving forward. My close friendships here in Anchorage go back nearly 30 years. During the pandemic, we met nearly every Saturday night around a fire, even when it hit minus 5 degrees. We often used this time to problem solve the myriad of obstacles in our lives.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
Asking for money is something nobody wants to do. When you ask for money, you will, for sure, 100% of the time confront a host of big feelings that you will have to address. Nobody asks for money naturally.
It is, however, something that gets easier with practice. Asking for money means you have to make sure your fundamentals are good. There are a lot of boxes to check before someone will give you money and if someone gives you money, it’s a pretty good sign that they believe in YOU. They trust YOU to be a good steward of their money.
Surprisingly, I discovered that while I hate the anticipation, I love the pitch because it allows me to tell everyone what we’re doing and why they should help us keep moving forward.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
(I will have to do a video recording of this because they say explicitly if you do a video they will publish faster. I realize that I didn’t tell a story example for each one. sigh…)
1. Pace yourself. This is a long road trip.
Pay attention to the signals that your brain needs to restore bandwidth. For me it’s getting fixated on one task without making any progress or not being able to stay focused. That’s when I need to do something that engages my left brain. Take a walk, sing a song, doodle on some paper.
2. Take advice that resonates. Put everything else in a parking lot.
Advice can really be inspiring and help you get unstuck but it can also be overwhelming. Don’t try to digest all of it at once. You’re in the driver’s seat. You get to decide what to focus on. Just because you see lots of potential doesn’t mean it needs to get addressed right now.
3. Keep your job as long as you can. We had lots of people tell us that potential investors wouldn’t take us seriously unless we quit our jobs to show we were “all in”. This is not true. In my opinion if an investor says you have to quit your job before they’ll take you seriously, that is a sign to walk away from that investor.
4. Everybody makes bad decisions. Only some of the things that you try are going to work out. It’s easy to feel your own limitations as failure. So when you get that creepy feeling that things are falling apart, it’s time to step back and remember, there isn’t a magic ball. You’re the one taking all the risk to develop the idea. Nobody else stepped up and you can’t really find out what works unless you make some bad decisions along the way.
5. Let go of the weirdness of the idea that you might be a catalyst for big change. If you can envision it in great detail, you’re the guy.
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?
If I could start a movement I would focus on wealth inequality. The disparity between the richest and poorest is just nonsensical. How bout we just trim the edges a little. Take a ½ percent of some of the richest in the world to solve the problems of the people who don’t have access to generational wealth, who are stuck in food deserts, who lack adequate sanitation.
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. :-)
I would love to talk to Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Bloomberg’s wife. She played an important role in the development of Gimlet Media. Alex’s podcast “Startup” was unfolding just at the time that we were planning and prototyping Pandere. The episodes were surprisingly timely and relevant. Alex interviewed Nazanin on many episodes and she joined the team at Gimlet shortly in. Her own story is incredibly inspiring and I am sure she would have a lot of interesting insight on women in business or overcoming obstacles that plague any startup or how to get heard amidst all the noise.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best place is keep up with what we’re doing is to sign up for our newsletter on our website: pandereshoes.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!