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Charles Hawkins wasn’t interested in forging a career in the shoe business when he graduated from DePaul University with a major in political science.
He was more interested in making money as a salaried employee than risk losing it as an entrepreneur.
So he took a job in investment sales at Harris Bank, then moved on to Continental (which was acquired by Bank of America) before landing at Northern Trust, and for more than three decades he sold investment products such as corporate bonds, commercial paper and CDs for investment managers, large corporations, municipalities and foundations as well as high-net-worth families.
It was an exciting, lucrative business. “I was very fortunate. I loved my career,” he said, looking back.
With his wife, Sheri, he moved to Evanston in 2010 to raise his children, Oliver and Ella. But as he drew close to retirement a few years later, he began to question his future. Hawkins, 63, was born in Georgia and raised on the South Side of Chicago. Summers he traveled back to Georgia to visit his grandparents. “One of my fondest memories is spending time with my grandfather during those visits,” he wrote on his website. “He was a man of few words and a moral compass that always pointed true north.”
In both Georgia and Chicago, adults looked out for kids and made sure they behaved responsibly.
“When I grew up my South Side neighborhood, Cottage Grove Heights, was pretty nice,” he recalled. “Families shared similar values and crime was low. Now many neighborhoods are facing challenges. So as I approached retirement I asked myself: ‘What can I do to provide some relief for people? What can I do to create a big impact with a small firm?’”
The answer, he decided, was shoe wear. As a kid he liked to play basketball and always loved the sneakers he wore on and off the court.
Taking the steps to shoe manufacturing
So he started to research shoe manufacturing and sales opportunities. He connected with experts in the sneaker field, such as legendary footwear designer D’Wayne Edwards and shoe manufacturer Mike Rancourt. He traveled to Maine to visit Rancourt’s factory and attended supply shows to source high-end sneaker materials such as Vachetta, a fine Italian leather.
Edwards remembered their first phone call. “I tried to talk him out of it,” he laughed. “Footwear is a tough business. So many sizes, so many colors. That’s a lot of inventory. And it’s a very personal choice, dominated by big brands.”
But the 32-year industry veteran, one of only six designers ever to design an Air Jordan, is rooting for Hawkins to succeed. “There aren’t too many Black people in footwear,” Edwards said. “His heart’s in the right place; his ideas are in the right area. He’s just gotta prepare for the long haul.”
A more unexpected hurdle was the pandemic, which set Hawkins’ timeline back a couple of years.
But today he views the delay as a stroke of good fortune: it gave him time to “learn more and more” about the business. Now the line of “ultra-luxury” sneakers branded Hawk & Sole is ready to launch from Rancourt’s factory in Lewiston, Maine.
“Finally it’s a business, not just in Charles’ head,” he said with satisfaction. So far he has made “a significant investment” in the business. Hawk & Sole shoes are priced at $545 a pair, on a par with other luxury sneaker brands, he said.
He conceded it’s not a mass market price. “We did an analysis of the price point based on expenses and labor in the U.S.,” he explained.
Uppermost was the need to pay his envisioned 30 full-time employees generously enough to lead “a dignified life,” including setting up an employee stock ownership plan. “I want it to be more than just a job. I want to make sure employees can benefit from our success.” And, of course, he needs to generate enough income “to ensure future production of a great product.”
He plans to be transparent about the firm’s finances even though Hawk & Sole will remain private, at least for the time being. “In Evanston, people like to know where their money is going and that we have a mission that’s meaningful to them,” he said.
His mission, he said, is two-fold: to produce a luxury sneaker with great design, quality and endurance; and inspire other entrepreneurs to do something similar to help people and “generate meaningful change.” To that end, he has been in talks with a South Side alderwoman about eventually building his own factory in Chicago.
Rancourt, his Maine manufacturer, is on board: “I support his effort 100%. His mission to help the community is great. I’ve told him: it’s not easy running a factory. But it certainly can be done.”
Young urban professionals make up the primary market for luxury sneakers. “Sneakers have become the new dress shoe,” Hawkins said, noting that a typical celebrity outfit consists of suit and sneakers.
To market the product Hawkins plans to connect with celebrities who can be “good ambassadors” for his line of footwear, and to get the product in front of the public through exposure in the press and elsewhere.
He said he hopes to start generating a profit by 2024 selling as many as a thousand pairs a year. Right now the shoes are geared to men, but eventually he plans to devote a line to women as well.
His website sums up his aspirations: “American assembly, and timeless design with a social mission at our heart and soul. We are proud to be a company that is helping our community achieve financial equity and generational wealth.”
He’s also quoted as saying: “Money is important to live, but the real currency of life is banked through meaningful work that contributes to the greater good.”
In the meantime, he’s happy with what he’s doing. “It’s been a labor of love,” he said.