Charles Hawkins was uninterested in 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 an employee than risking losing it as an entrepreneur.
So he took a job selling investments 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 wealthy families.
It was an exciting and lucrative business. ” I have been very lucky. I loved my career,” he said looking back.
Along with his wife, Sheri, he moved to Evanston in 2010 to raise his children, teenagers Oliver and Ella. But as he neared retirement a few years later, he began to wonder about his future. Hawkins, 63, was born in Georgia and raised in south Chicago. Summers, he returned to Georgia to visit his grandparents. “One of my fondest memories is spending time with my grandfather during these visits,” he wrote on his website. “He was a man of few words and a moral compass who always pointed to true north.”
In Georgia and Chicago, adults watched children and made sure they behaved responsibly.
“When I was growing up, my South Side neighborhood, Cottage Grove Heights, was pretty cool,” he recalls. “Families shared similar values and crime was low. Today, many neighborhoods face challenges. So, as retirement approached, I asked myself: “What can I do to relieve people? » What can I do to create a big impact with a small business? »
The answer, he decided, was shoes. As a child, he loved to play basketball and always loved the sneakers he wore on and off the court.
Skip the steps of shoemaking
So he started looking for opportunities to make and sell shoes. He met sneaker experts such as legendary shoe designer D’Wayne Edwards and shoemaker Mike Rancourt. He traveled to Maine to visit the Rancourt factory and attended sourcing 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. “Shoes are a difficult profession. So many sizes, so many colors. That’s a lot of inventory. And it’s a very personal choice, dominated by the big brands.
But the 32-year industry veteran, one of six designers to ever design an Air Jordan, wants Hawkins to succeed. “There aren’t too many blacks in the shoes,” Edwards said. “His heart is in the right place; his ideas are in the right field. He just has to prepare for the long haul.
A more unexpected obstacle was the pandemic, which pushed Hawkins’ timeline back a few years.
But today, he considers the delay a stroke of luck: it gave him time to “learn more and more” about the company. Now the line of “ultra-luxury” sneakers stamped Falcon and Sole is ready to launch from the Rancourt factory in Lewiston, Maine.
“Well, it’s a business, not just in Charles’s head,” he says with satisfaction. So far, he has made “a significant investment” in the business. Hawk & Sole shoes cost $545 a pair, on par with other luxury sneaker brands, he said.
He admitted that it was not a mass market price. “We did a price analysis based on US expense and labor,” he explained.
Most important was the need to pay its intended 30 full-time employees generously enough to live “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, it must generate enough revenue “to ensure the future production of a great product.”
He plans to be transparent about the company’s finances even though Hawk & Sole will remain private, at least for now. “In Evanston, people like to know where their money is going and that we have a mission that makes sense to them,” he said.
Its mission, he said, is twofold: to produce a luxury sneaker with exceptional design, quality and endurance; and inspiring other entrepreneurs to do something similar to help people and “generate meaningful change”. To that end, he was in talks with a South Side alderwoman about possibly building his own factory in Chicago.
Rancourt, his builder from Maine, is on board: “I support his effort 100%. Its mission to help the community is great. I told him: it’s not easy to run a factory. But it can certainly be done.
Young urban professionals are the number one market for luxury sneakers. “Sneakers have become the new dress shoe,” Hawkins said, noting that a typical celebrity outfit consists of a suit and sneakers.
To market the product, Hawkins plans to connect with celebrities who can be “good ambassadors” for its shoe line, and to bring the product to the public through exposure in the press and elsewhere.
He said he hopes to start making a profit by 2024 by selling up to a thousand pairs a year. For now, the shoes are aimed at men, but eventually he also plans to dedicate a line to women.
Its website sums up its aspirations: “American assembly and timeless design with a social mission in our heart and soul. We are proud to be a company that helps our community achieve financial equity and generational wealth.
He is also quoted as saying, “Money is important for living, but the true currency of life is earned through meaningful work that contributes to the greater good.”
In the meantime, he is happy with what he is doing. “It was a labor of love,” he said.