I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the greatest, most knowledgeable and inspiring generational experts in this space during the past few years. It’s one of my favorite things about this job. This week’s interview with Raaja Nemani, co-founder of BucketFeet, was especially a treat for me. I’m a big fan of his shoes and his mission, connecting people through art by allowing artists to design shoes he sells in more than 20 countries.
Nemani, a millennial, graduated from Northwestern University in 2004, began his career in investment banking and then took a sharp turn. I was curious as to why he left the corporate world and his path since. Entrepreneurshipis tempting, but I’ve always wondered how Gen Y entrepreneurs make up for the perks that come with a “regular” job — health care, PTO, learning and development. I interviewed Nemani, who shared his story and how he’s making it work.
Give me a little backstory. What led you here?
Nemani:I went to Northwestern University and majored in economics. After working in investment banking and private equity for four years, in 2008 I decided to forgo business school and a promotion to backpack around the world for a year. I ended up traveling to 25 countries on six continents, and pretty much had the most amazing experiences of my life. I thought it was a unique time in my life to do something different and get away from the “path” that I was on. I met my eventual co-founder (Aaron Firestein) volunteering in Argentina. It was very serendipitous and we really just became friends through that shared experience. Only later did I learn he customized shoes, and I bought a pair for the rest of my travels.
As I went around the world, people from all backgrounds, cultures and walks of life would comment on my shoes, and I had an interesting story to tell about Aaron, the inspiration for the design, and how we connected. After one and a half years of this happening, I eventually reached out to Aaron, who I had stayed in touch with, and asked him if he wanted to turn his hobby of customizing shoes into a real brand. The idea was that there are millions of talented people around the world just like him, that don’t have a large-scale platform to reach new audiences. Every product we create is designed by a different artist, but we’re more than just a shoe company. Our mission is to connect people through art because we believe art is for everyone. Every product has a story, and so does every artist and every consumer, and we want people to connect through these things.
That entrepreneurial spirit in millennials is talked about a lot, and you’re a great representation of it. What about an entrepreneurial environment do you think interests Gen Y?
Nemani:I think the idea that anything is possible is what resonates with Gen Y. We are not our parents’ generation, meaning many of us are a lot luckier than our parents were. My parents grew up in a village, immigrated to the U.S., and eventually were able to give me a better life than they had growing up. I am very lucky. Because of that, I think I am able to take more risks than they did and I never forget about the opportunities they created for me. That idea that we don’t have to be bound by what we’re supposed to do is what I think excites our generation.
There’s a risk in leaving a more corporate, cushioned job to start your own company, and some think millennials follow their passions blindly and ignore those risks. What would you say to that?
Nemani:I’ve written a lot about risk-taking. I think leaving a corporate job to start your own company is pretty much not risky at all in the grand scheme of things. Most people in this country and around the world take real risks and make decisions that are truly scary and difficult. To compare starting a company to that I think is a bit misguided. To me, the hardest thing about starting a company is just taking that first step. Once you take the first step, you just start checking things off your list, and before you know it, you’re moving. The inertia of staying in a corporate job or otherwise is what is really difficult for many people to wrap their heads around. I think putting life in perspective is very important, and once you are able to do that on a consistent basis, you can begin to follow your passion. The worst thing that can happen is you fail and take another corporate job!
Being in an already established organization has its perks. There’s development and training that’s ready for you, along with a career path sometimes set in stone. You lack that in an entrepreneurial company, so how can you make sure you’re still learning, still developing, still on a track?
Nemani:I agree, I think the “process and organized feeling” that exists in an established company is sometimes missing in a startup. That said, I can say without a doubt I have learned more in the last three years of BucketFeet than I have in every other job I’ve had combined. What startups sometime lack in organization, they make up for in “there is way too much stuff to do and someone needs to figure out how to do it.” I think the learning and developing is natural. That said, I think it’s important to give ongoing feedback and make sure people have some sense of understanding of how they fit into the greater whole.
What do you think is going to happen as millennials get older and take over top leadership roles? How will this entrepreneurial spirit affect their leadership style?
Nemani:I’m not sure it’s all generational, but maybe personal. The largest companies of our time were still started by a previous generation, and that will not likely change anytime soon. I think it comes down to the people, and whether in an old company or a new company, I think there are different types of leaders. I think we’re seeing that the entrepreneurial leaders continue to innovate and break the mold with growth trajectory, while those who resist change tend to die slowly.