Last spring, during my final semester of business school, my entrepreneurship class required each student to come up with a business idea, write a plan and model for it and pitch said idea to local investors. I was immediately drawn to the idea of coming up with a product that revolved around two of my passions, sneakers and social consciousness.
I was brainstorming names, arguably the most difficult part of any business pitch, and one of the ideas I landed on was "Common Ground". (My classmates can attest!)
Here's the plot twist: While digging deeper into existing footwear-turned-mission-driven companies, I came across a REAL, and ubiquitously successful, brand of the same name!
I reached out to its founder and he selflessly spent more than an hour on the phone with me going over his business model, distribution details, etc. to help with my project. AKA, he’s a pretty nice guy.
I'm so humbled to feature John Tawney, Founder and CEO of Common Ground Footwear, a shoe company whose mission is to find a path for progress on important social issues through empathy and authentic, constructive conversations between real people.
(Oh, and he's also the co-founder of Nike ID, Nike's customization feature.)
The sneaker designs focus on 4 social topics: gun violence, immigration, marriage equality and gender equality. ( <-- Check them out!)
No matter your political views, Common Ground is bringing these conversations to the forefront through a simple question, "Cool shoes, where'd you get them?"
The Reference Club: You started your career as a product design engineer at Ford and then spent 15 years at Nike. What motivated you to start Common Ground?
John Tawney: There were two “planning” phases that went into the birth of Common Ground®.
Phase One focused on important personal values – an ongoing desire to take on new challenges (learn by doing), a desire to focus my energy on something capable of delivering “social good”, and a desire to work with really good people (talented and nice). The net result of this phase was a decision to start my own business.
Phase Two focused on determining the “purpose” of the new business. Some boxes were easy to check. I knew I wanted to stay in the consumer product space. I knew I wanted to create a brand that would allow a connection with consumers. I knew it made sense to leverage my footwear experience.
But the question of “purpose” was more difficult. Initial work explored business concepts grounded in “giving back” – “you buy from us; we’ll do something on your behalf”. Those models do incredibly good things and are relatively straightforward to market/measure -- but their focus tends to be on alleviating symptoms of a broken system rather than addressing the underlying problem. So we shifted our thinking to this idea of helping people become better problem solvers, better changemakers.
And based on my experience, the odds of solving any problem (particularly difficult ones) improves when empathy and conversation are used. Thus we decided to start Common Ground, a Portland based shoe company focused on inspiring empathy and sparking conversation on the issues that divide us.
It is important to call out that these decisions would not have been possible without the unwavering support of my family and friends. Knowing they were there to throw me a life line if needed, made it much easier to jump in and start swimming.
TRC: Your intentions are so relevant and commendable. Why shoes?
JT: The planets were aligned as footwear delivered a familiar set of messaging for the brand:
- Walk in the other shoe to build understanding.
- Work together (like two shoes) to move forward.
- Never underestimate the power of your steps to impact the lives of others.
TRC: How do you measure success when it comes to Common Ground’s mission to “find a path for progress on important social issues through empathy and authentic, constructive conversations between real people”?
JT: This is the most difficult question we ask ourselves (and are asked by others) and was the most difficult hurdle to overcome when we created Common Ground. For our own business purposes, we desperately wanted something concrete (e.g., trees planted, homes built, books donated, water bottles recycled, socks donated, etc.) to help guide our actions.
The problem we faced was the path we chose – empathy, conversation, social change – couldn’t be measured so cleanly. But we also felt that a lack of clear measurement should not sway us. From our perspective, empathy is the greatest goal we could aspire to since solutions come when people begin to understand each other, and empathy is the first step down that path.
So we decided on two important steps:
(1) Donate a portion of net sales to Start Empathy, an initiative of Ashoka (the largest network of social entrepreneurs), dedicated to building a future in which every child masters empathy. If the sale of our products helps a child master empathy, we’ve done a good thing.
(2) Be content simply knowing that each day our products inspire the wearer (and others) to think a little differently; to imagine another’s point of view so as to create a richer understanding of others despite differences. If our products generate new thinking – we’re content knowing that we provided those seeking real change a little spark to help them on their journey.
TRC: I remember covering this when we spoke on the phone last spring. Investors seem so focused (understandably so, I guess) with measuring success in terms of data, ROI, etc.. It's refreshing to see Common Ground breaking that mold. Not everyone grows up in an inclusive, progressive environment where they naturally learn to empathize. Was there someone or something that inspired this passion of yours?
JT: It is hard to pick specific events, as the process of using empathy in our daily lives is a much more subtle thing; almost a way of living. But if I had to pick a two:
- Family. My parents (unknowingly to me at the time) planted the seeds of empathy in me by how they lived. I’m forever thankful to them for this gift.
- NIKE. My work at Nike required me to practice empathy on a daily basis – as a tool to create solutions and guide those innovations from the “lab” to the market.
But I can’t stop there…..
I’m inspired when I travel as it opens my eyes to how others see the world.
I’m inspired when I read. Using our imagination to transport ourselves into other worlds or characters is tremendous fuel for empathetic thinking.
I’m inspired by art and its ability to highlight how we can all see the “same” thing but yet see something completely different.
I’m inspired by simply meeting new people, as each person has a story.
I’m inspired by people that recognize how progress requires their participation. Their ability to open their minds and do the necessary work to find common ground with others is what will move us forward. It gives me hope.
I’m inspired by our customers, those that have joined us on this mission. It gives us great comfort that they are joining us on the path towards progress.
TRC: Which winter Olympic sport is your favorite to follow?
JT: I’m partial to the cross-country skiing (those Norwegians have it down!) and some skeleton (childhood sledding memories x 100).
TRC: Fun fact: One of my boyfriend's brother's fiance's bridesmaids (following?) competed in this winter's Olympics on the skeleton team! Your shoes represent social issues such as gender equality, gun violence, immigration and marriage equality. How did you choose which social issues to feature?
JT: We chose topics that could be easily humanized by the wearer; that offered them an opportunity to try and imagine the “other” side of the issue.
We also picked issues which we believed would unleash unimaginable human potential with even the smallest increment of progress.
TRC: Because of recent events and shifts in leadership, today’s political climate seems to highlight the issues your shoes represent more so than in past years. Has this affected marketing opportunities at all?
JT: Yes and no. We’ve found it interesting to be selling “common ground” in a world that has become increasingly “binary”. You’re either for guns or you’re against guns. You either want illegal immigrants to have a path to citizenship or you want to build a wall. You’re either for Trump or against Trump. Even acknowledging a desire to listen to the “other” side is frowned upon in many circles, let alone working with the other side in an attempt to forge a path to progress. But we’re not discouraged.
We know the world isn’t binary. It isn’t black and white.
We know that empathy and conversation are critical to understanding our differences.
We know that the only path forward is to work with those holding different views (the “other” side).
And we’re confident that we’re not alone in this thinking; that others will join us in taking a Stand for Progress®.
TRC: What’s the worst piece of career advice you ever received?
JT: Pass. I’ve always been grateful for the advice that has been offered.
TRC: Tawney 2020?
JT: Not that far off! I keep my goals simple – stay healthy, stay happy, work with good people, keep learning. If we do that, everything will work out (usually better than we could have imagined).