Neely Woodson Powell: Founder & CEO of Charleston Shoe Company

Episode 535

In this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow, we're joined by Neely Woodson Powell, the visionary founder and CEO of Charleston Shoe Company. Starting her company 27 years ago, Neely discovered a gap in the market for shoes that didn't sacrifice style for comfort. From her first store in Savannah, Georgia, to an impressive expansion to Charleston and beyond, Neely has nurtured a dedicated community through retail, wholesale, online sales, trunk shows, and strategic partnerships. Alongside launching a professional line and founding the nonprofit Shoe Joy, which supports hospitals and women entrepreneurs, Neely continues to inspire with her commitment to quality and community. Tune in for invaluable insights on dedication, enjoying the journey, and building lasting relationships. Don't miss this enriching discussion, now live on the #TheKaraGoldinShow!

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go.

Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m super thrilled to have my next guest here, nearly Woodson Powell, who’s the founder and CEO of Charleston Shoe Company, and nearly started her journey with a very simple idea to create stylish comfortable shoes that can take women everywhere, from the cobblestone streets of Charleston, to the bustling cities around the world through travels, and so, so comfortable, so be loved. I know you’re going to recognize them as soon as you go online and, and see them or of course, go to Charleston, or maybe even find some in various locations across the country as they’ve grown since their first store, which was launched 27 years ago, we’re gonna get into that. The unique features consist of the treaded soles and elastic straps. They’re washability the designs are terrific, so much good about the Charleston shoe company. So nearly is entrepreneurial spirit, though, and dedication to her craft have not only revolutionized the way so many entrepreneurs think about what they should be doing next, but I can’t wait to hear more about Neos journey. So without further ado, welcome, Neely.

Neely Woodson Powell 2:05
Thank you, Kara. We’re here. Absolutely. Time Zones apart. Right. Exactly,

Kara Goldin 2:12
exactly. So well. Tell us a little bit about where did this all start. So 27 years ago, you opened up the store? You just briefly told me it actually wasn’t in Charleston, it was in Savannah. So tell me another great city, by the way. But tell me a little bit about where did this interest come from? And did you think you were going to be an entrepreneur?

Neely Woodson Powell 2:37
Oh, no. I mean, I didn’t even know what that meant. At that time. Right. I was in. I was in college. And you know, I was just making money to, to go buy clothes or something. But I started this 27 years ago, I grew up. My mother had a furniture business and my dad had a resort that they both built from the ground up. So I probably didn’t know the word entrepreneur. But I was destined to do that, as most of us are that are entrepreneurs. I really didn’t have a choice. But it didn’t look that way. Then I I started going to Central Mexico with my mom when she started her furniture business. And in college to make extra money. I met this cobbler in Mexico, and I would bring home the shoes and they were so magically comfortable. And when I go to furniture markets with my mom, I realized there were all these women walking around the markets wearing uncomfortable shoes. And that was the kind of turning point of how this all started because I realized there was a need, you know, in the 90s Comfort was a bad word, right? I mean, you were wearing easy spirits, tennis shoes are very uncomfortable shoes. And now we all have bunions because of it. But I decided to start bringing these shoes to market and selling them to these women that were on their feet for 10 hours a day. And they still wanted to look stylish and comfortable and professional. And so I go to these furniture markets with my mom in college and I would make a disaster in her booth. It was like filing basement and here’s my mom writing orders to Neiman Marcus and trying to be professional. And I’m on the floor with all these women making a scene. And by the time I got out of college, I had over 200 wholesale accounts. So I knew I was on to something. I didn’t make a dime for 10 years. And I think that it was more of an obligation to bring the shoes to the market than anything you know if I showed up without the shoes, the women would go wear the shoes. And so it was it was an obligation for to create fun and give these women something that they were excited about and and the journey continued on For the next 12 years, I went back to school when I was 31, in Savannah, and my daughter was a year old, took her halfway across the country and opened my first store in Savannah, Georgia in 2010. So

Kara Goldin 5:18
Wow. And it was not called the Charleston Shoe Company.

Neely Woodson Powell 5:22
No, it wasn’t it was called Savannah shoe company. Because while I was in college, going to classes with these, you know, late teenagers, early 20 year olds and 31, they’re making like, six inch blue suede, studded, you know, fashionable, trendy shoes. And I’m just trying to figure out how to make something practical and cute and comfortable for mothers on the go, and, and all this and I realized in Savannah, that there were all these tourists, and they were all at, you know, Paula Dean getting biscuits and buying coffee mugs. And I wanted to give them something more fun than that, right? And so I said, Well, what about these shoes? Let’s make that a souvenir. So I opened the store with all these designs, and I called it Savannah shoe company. And, you know, it was the perfect souvenir for any woman. It’s a great travel shoe. It’s walkable, it’s versatile. And it’ll remind you of the time you came to Savannah, Georgia.

Kara Goldin 6:26
That’s terrific. And did you keep that store?

Neely Woodson Powell 6:29
I kept that store, I still have it. It was an interesting beginning. Because you know, I thought all these people are flocking down the street to Paula Dean’s. And I had to intercept them somehow. So because no one knew who I was, I mean, I’m starting a brand from scratch. And I come out of the store and I decided to put on two different shoes and stand on the street. And I figured, either they’re gonna think I’m totally crazy and come in the store and feel sorry for me, or they’re going to think I’m cute and lovable and buy shoes anyway, somehow, I’m going to get a customer out of this, you know, humble act, right? So I did, and one by one these women came in. And it was just magical how it all happened. These, these women would come in, they fall in love with the shoes, I knew if I can get it on their feet, because the comfort was so amazing that I would have a customer for life. But what I didn’t realize is that when these women left, they’d come back with friends and come back with strangers that they passed on the street or met at a bar. One time these, these two women walked down the street. And about three hours later, they come back with the entire tour bus of women. And it was just it was awesome. Because I was doing something different. That wasn’t your normal retail and women were having fun. And and the momentum just kept going. It was like shopping in your best friend’s closet.

Kara Goldin 8:05
So how many skews Did you launch with when you first were opening that store?

Neely Woodson Powell 8:10
I launched with about 16 skews. So I had I had four styles in four colors each. I’m not going to tell you how many skews I have now because it’s terrifying. And it’s the one well yeah, lose sleep, inventory, HR and inventory. Those are my those. That’s what keeps me up at night.

Kara Goldin 8:31
HR and inventory. I totally agree. Was it difficult to get? I mean, obviously, this was very comfortable. And that you talked a little bit about that. But to get the style right, to get comfort with style. I bet that has I bet that’s really challenging, right? And then things are constantly changing to what people want. And it’s just how did you kind of how did you figure that out?

Neely Woodson Powell 9:00
I mean, I think my so I went back to my original cobbler that I had met in the in the 90s. And he was already a magician of comfort. He’s a fifth generation cobbler and I knew he knew I knew how to do that. But my biggest thing was designing for women, right? You know, when I started in the 90s, the term Shoe Dog was a real thing. There were men in the shoe market and you know, they had all their appointments and they’re in their suits. And, you know, I come into the shoe markets, and I’m wearing two different shoes and some crazy headpiece and standing in the house and talking to people. And that wasn’t really how it was done. You know, men were shoe salesmen for women, which never made any sense to me kind of like why did a man invent a mammogram machine? You know, I mean, it’s the same thing. We need to make shoes women need to make shoes for women not only for comfort, but Have a classic style that’s not trendy, that’s timeless. I mean, I’m selling shoes now that I started 25 years ago, and they’re still getting recognition because they never go out of style. And they’re comfortable, they’re classic, they’re timeless. And, and that’s really what we do. And so I, I don’t design based on trends, I design based on what my customers request and what they need. And that’s why I still work in my stores to hear these women, this women’s feedback, you know, I work all day, can you enclose this shoe? Or? I have bunions? Can you make more elastic here? And so it’s it’s, that is the process and it continues to morph. Every day, we we come up with new designs based on our customers and our employees.

Kara Goldin 10:54
So what are the most popular items? Currently? And and I guess, has that changed over time, it sounds like you have some that have sort of stood the test of time that people just keep coming back for.

Neely Woodson Powell 11:07
That’s right. I mean, there are some, like I said, that have been around for about 25 years, I’ll modify things here and there that they remain the same up or sometimes and I’ll change the soul up. But I think, you know, at the end of the day, it really having done this for almost three decades, it’s so it is such it’s so true how styles come and go and come back and go back. And, and so we’re lucky in that, that we’ve remained this, this constant, you know, steady, steady company that that has been able to, to watch the ebbs and flows of design. I mean, my favorite right now is an epidural called the cannon, we have it about an inch lower called the peach tree, I think you’ve seen that one. And we all of my shoes have rubber soles. So it doesn’t, it looks like an aspirin drill. But it’s rubber. So it never phrase. And that’s what makes it so comfortable. And you can throw them all in the washing machine. So it’s, it’s amazing. That’s

Kara Goldin 12:19
terrific. So you have such a loyal community and following and obviously 27 years ago, when you first started, there wasn’t, you know, Instagram and Facebook and all the rest of these communities. That right, it was, you know, people calling you on the telephone saying, Hey, I was just visiting one of your stores, and but how has that changed for your business overall, just I guess, not only communicating with your consumer, but also, I guess, your direct to consumer business, too.

Neely Woodson Powell 12:53
Yeah, you know, when I started, I mean, I used to have to fax my orders to Mexico. And remember, and that’s really how I pivoted from Wholesale to retail, add facts, my order of 60 pairs of black shoes, and I’d get 100 pairs of yellow ones. You know, there was not all only a Lawson, translation from Spanish to English, but there was also just communication obstacles all the time. And when you order something for wholesale, you get all this, this is what this store ordered. And but for retail, I could then sell all those yellow shoes in the store regardless, as I’m selling them direct to consumer, if you will. So I really, you know, my dad always said that you never have problems in business, you only have opportunities. And that is always been a constant in my life. If I’m going to get a box of 100 pair of yellow shoes, I’m going to figure out how to sell it and I’m going to make it fun. And it’s the same thing. You know, with everything I’ve done throughout the years after I open Charleston shoe company or Savannah Shoe Company. Four months later, I opened a store in Charleston. And four months after that, I opened another store in Charleston. So within the first nine months, I just kept seeing this need and this excitement amongst these customers that didn’t necessarily we had cell phones then but we didn’t have Instagram. And these women were just coming in to the stores and they were my marketing group forming. You know, they would meet people out they the stories just came every day and they were funny and they were cute. You know, I’m in an elevator with this woman and I looked down and their three other pairs of Charleston shoes, and we all bond about it. And I think that that was my marketing then was my customers. I didn’t rely on Instagram. I didn’t really Lie on the web, I relied on retail, I relied on building these relationships. Because at the end of the day, regardless of what business you’re in, it’s all about the relationships that you build not only from your employees who are my family, but all of my, you know, customers who invite me to their weddings and their children’s graduations and, and they’re the ones out there spreading the word and letting strangers try on shoes. And, and if that’s not the best marketing ever, I don’t know what it is. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 15:36
no, definitely, I think word of mouth is is clearly so important for any brand, especially a new brand. So that’s, that’s incredible. So when you think about challenges along the way, in building your business, what what would you say? What comes to mind? What has been probably the biggest challenge for your business overall, that you obviously got through otherwise you wouldn’t be here today? But can you share a little bit about that?

Neely Woodson Powell 16:09
I mean, you know, people always asked me what my favorite thing about the businesses and I sarcastically say HR, because it’s different. But at the end of the day, it is, it’s such a catch 22 Because without without HR I could never have when I have and I love so many of my employees there. Like I said, they are like family to me. And but that is a challenge. You know, it’s very hard to get people on your team that feel as passionately about something as you do. And, you know, regardless, we have this magical product that’s comfortable. And it’s easy to sell, because women just the minute they slip it on their feet, they just, you know, they’re transformed. But you’re never it’s going to be very hard to find people that are as that dedicated that, you know, they they eat, sleep and breathe and you know, still take out the garbage and they’re still humble in everything they do throughout the business. I mean, I remember in the early days, it was hard to it still is hard. But it was really hard done. And I was recruiting people like I was on King Street one day, you know, mind you, I’m traveling from Memphis, to Savannah to Charleston and bat three stores. I have a two year old at the time. And this woman comes in, she buys a couple pairs of shoes, she comes back the next day, and I said, Are you here for some more? And she said, No, I haven’t slept a wink, you’ve overwhelmed me so much. And you have to hire me. And I was like, Okay. And these women started coming out of the woodwork to help. You know, one of my best friends was like, Haley, you cannot do payroll and pay the bills and do all this. And so she at night after she put her kids to sleep, she do all my books. And you know, people started gravitating towards that. I mean, I remember one trunk show I went to had my mom and my sister and my child is building forts with shoe boxes, and my husband’s in the corner, you know, ringing up credit cards, and all I hear Him say is, oh, no, your bunion doesn’t look big in that, and I can’t see your hammer toe, you know, and I had no idea that he even knew what those words were so but I think all of that is the journey, right? And employees are, they’re the lifeline of my company. And we’ve had some great stories, and we’ve had a lot of fun. And, and you have there’s a fine line between delegation and trust. And, you know, unfortunately, I trust everyone because I feel like they’re all my family. And one time I trusted my bookkeeper too much, and she stole half a million dollars from me, and, you know, I didn’t have any money to make payroll or pay my lease on 10 stores. And, you know, there are those challenges, but the opportunity in it is that I learned how to do it differently. And I got on the road, and I inspired all the employees I did have because I went I am not coming home until I sell enough shoes to make payroll and keep this company afloat. And, and I’ve you know, the challenges are what make it make it grow and make it pivot and make it stronger and and make it sustainable in the next, you know, year 10 years, however long it takes.

Kara Goldin 19:53
It’s so true. So as a female entrepreneur in the fashion industry So, what advice would you give to other women who are thinking, I’m gonna go start my business? I love what Neely has done? What advice would you give to those people before they actually, maybe before they start? Or maybe they’re they have just started? What are kind of the key things that you would say to them?

Neely Woodson Powell 20:21
I mean, look, like you, if you, you’re so blessed to be doing something that you love. I mean, how lucky are we right? And if you find something that you believe in, and you want to, quote, unquote, be an entrepreneur and make that dream, a reality. I mean, that’s the biggest gift there is. Because we get to do that every day. And so with that comes dedication and hustle and humbleness, to be able to continue, you know, this, God given gift that, that we all are blessed enough to have if if we decide to take that route in our life. And I think if you if you never lose sight of that, and you’re dedicated, and no matter if you fail, you have to get up every day and try it a different way. Write it again, back to opportunity. If I try something one way, and it doesn’t work, the next day, I’m going to try it a different way until it does work. And I think that’s harder these days, with the internet and Instagram and all these instant, overnight successes, we forget that, in actuality, it’s really about the journey and about learning how to do something to the best of your ability and enjoy it, enjoy the journey, enjoy the ride. And, and it’s not a sprint, and it’s not to cross the finish line, that it’s just to, to be thankful for this life we’re given. And you can’t sweat the small stuff. You know, I mean, I’d make myself crazy if I went home at night, and took come all 20 employee issues that I had that day or the customers that need help, or, you know, the bills I have to pay. And I think that, you know, taking it all, step by step and easily and not really focusing on those big things and making them all seem smaller, if that makes sense. I really, I’d go crazy if I didn’t.

Kara Goldin 22:37
Yeah, and I think to your point, too, you have to really love what you’re doing. Because I think if if you don’t, those hard days will really get you because it there, there’s going to be some and I think you really have to really have a passion and you obviously had a purpose. You were trying to bring your shoe to a lot of other people. You’ve expanded beyond your few stores. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? Not only how many stores and obviously online too, but you’re also working within stores? Correct? I

Neely Woodson Powell 23:13
am Yep. So we expanded that first year, open three stores, and then pretty much every year for the next five or six years that open one to two. If I hadn’t had a crystal ball, I probably wouldn’t have opened 15 stores in 2019 which put us to 32 stores in March of 2020. Which was amazing at little oh me and my amazing team of about 250 women and three men. But you know women are or women are built to be mothers. And if there’s anyone that’s going to do a job and be an entrepreneur, it should be a woman because we do like 45 more things than a man can to the one. So I totally I totally respect all of my employees because I know a lot of them are mothers and they’re trying to balance things as well. But we we really expanded the retail footprint. We also sell to about 700 retailers around the country. And we have a big web business now which really took off during COVID Obviously because we had this close about close all of our stores for a period of time and then we closed about eight stores permanently. Since COVID. We’ve we open two stores last year our first stores since COVID. And then three so far this quarter, which is very exciting because I love retail. We also you know, for about five years I was on QVC so I’d fly to Philadelphia and sell shoes on on line like joy and her mom Epson had had a lot of fun doing that as well. So we also do a huge trunk show business, which is where I started. Because that was kind of instead of Instagram, that was the, you know how we got out and tried different markets and met new people without advertising in magazines, and online and all of that we did trunk shows. So we, we do about 70 to 100, trunk shows a year, and then home shows for women like Tupperware parties, we do that as well. So we’re always trying new things and doing new things. And, yeah, it’s exciting. That’s

Kara Goldin 25:41
terrific. I mean, I love how innovative you’ve been. And not, I mean, oftentimes, people will just open a store and close stores if they’re not working. But it seems like you’ve tried a lot of different things. And I think that the other thing that people should always think about too, is that, you know, maybe you’re not going to do a trunk show in that city again. But you know, if you like the shoes, then they’re going to become customers, right? Or the next time they’re in Charleston, or they see one of your many stores that you’ve opened up. So that’s really, that’s really terrific. So look into the futures. The last question, what can we expect from Charleston shoe company, and I know you’ve expanded a little bit beyond shoes, too. But if you could talk a little bit about that? Sure.

Neely Woodson Powell 26:31
Yeah. Um, so I actually, in about in 2020, I launched a professional line, because I found a lot of women love to wear sandals, and, but they wanted to wear them to work, because, like you said, they’re all day wear, I mean, you can take one shoe to Europe, and only wear that, you know, on a travel abroad. And so I started this line for professionals and in the hospitality business in the medical fields. Because they’re machine washable, they’re comfortable, they’re, they’re slip resistant. And in 2020, I went to launch the line, and COVID happens. So all of my conventions were closed. So I decided to, in a way to bring all my employees back to work, I decided to start giving away these shoes to hospitals around the country, and nurses on COVID floors. And so we started this nonprofit called shoe joy, because we found anytime we gave a woman a pair of shoes, she was joyous. And, and there was something different about you know, they weren’t just getting free pizza, they were getting a free pair of shoes, and these women were just ecstatic. And it was a way for me to bring employees back because I had to furlough all of them pretty much. And, and so they would figure out which hospitals to give to and, you know, do all the logistics to get all the products there. And, and, and after COVID I said, Well, we have to keep this going. This is amazing what we’re doing and the joy we’re bringing, and what other organizations can we give to and, you know, how can we keep keep this shoe Joy going. And so we have we have really, we’ve given over $2 million worth of shoes in the last three years, to countries all over the world. And to women that are starting businesses and need capital to start their businesses, they sell our shoes. And you know, at the end of the day, this is just one more of those relationship building and bigger than choose kind of things that, you know, makes you excited and makes you proud and and if anything, you know, I look back over the duration of the 27 years I’ve been in business and it used to be about shoes and I realize now that it’s just so much bigger than that and, and and I can sleep better at night knowing that that I’m doing something more than more than selling shoes and and creating jobs and creating inspiration for my customers and my employees and giving shoes to people that need them.

Kara Goldin 29:26
That’s terrific. So Neely Woodson Powell, founder and CEO of Charleston Shoe Company, thank you so much. We’ll have all the info in the show notes as well. But if if anybody is interested, go online right now and also pop into one of her many stores to nearly thank you so much and congratulations on everything.

Neely Woodson Powell 29:49
Appreciate it. Thank you.

Kara Goldin 29:51
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would be benefit. And of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. I would love to hear from you too, so feel free to DM me. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my Wall Street Journal, best selling book undaunted, where I share more about my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for listening and goodbye for now.