Walk A Mile In Her Shoes: How Tiannia Barnes Went From IT To Shoe Design
Most women can relate to Tiannia Barnes’s love of shoes. But what’s extraordinary about Barnes’s love of footwear is how she turned into a career, and in the process left behind a career in IT with no regrets.
Barnes, who grew up in Oklahoma City, holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and industrial engineering as well as an MBA, but she’s always had a passion for designing –she designed her own prom dress. Today, she is a footwear designer and owner of the Tiannia Barnes luxury shoe brand,
Barnes’s shoes are Italian made and have names like”Jackie, which was named in memory of Barnes’s mother and is a 4-inch stiletto decorated with fringe. Or “Reign” a pump that can go from office to happy hour and comes in cobalt suede and black patent leather. And Barnes’s shoes are for serious shoe lovers–the prices are run from $350 to $595.
The sassy to-die-for heels and cute flats in her line have already made her popular with celebrities such as Tyra Banks. The brand’s success is more than Barnes dreamed of when she left her 9 to 5 as an IT Program Manager. Barnes, who lives in Connecticut with her 11-year-old son, debuted her line in fall 2015. Read on to see how she made the exciting and risky leap from Corporate America to entrepreneur and footwear designer.
MadameNoire (MN): You went from a career in IT to owning your own shoe company. How did that happen?
Tiannia Barnes (TB): I’ve always been into fashion and shoes. I have tons of shoes and believe that the right shoe will transform your look and how you feel in your attire. I love putting outfits together and looking and feeling great, but I always say “shoes chose me”
I began sketching shoes about five years ago based on visions that I had. I started raw sketching as a hobby of sorts, per se. As I collected sketches in my book, I decided to take it a step further and take a class “for fun” just because it piqued my interest that I had all of these beautiful sketches and wasn’t doing anything with them. I did my research and found a small class to learn pattern making and building/constructing a shoe. After the class, I fell in love with everything about shoe making. After all, I physically made my own prototype of one of my own designs. That was monumental! I was hooked and knew I had to do something about it.
I found my passion. The next month I started my business, trademarked my logo and got all of the back-end organizational and structural things in place and began to build my small team and make contacts in the footwear industry. In June 2014 I took a trip to Milan, Italy, where I had a business meeting with a consulting firm’s lead in the retail space. That moment solidified that women’s luxury shoes was my new path and journey. Since then my shoe business continues to progress in the right direction. Learning and creating along the way is such a fascinating aspect, but shoe design is my solace.
The icing on the cake is finding your passion, mine happen to come in the form of shoe design. Once I discovered my passion, I could not rest until I took the next step and that was starting my business. I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I’m a very independent thinker and love autonomy. I think my natural inclinations along with my passion drove me to starting my own business. In addition, I get to incorporate all of my corporate and IT experience as a Program Manager into building my new business and my e-Commerce (technology) site.
MN: Since you were in IT, did you notice any increase in diversity? Or is there still a major problem?
TB: There has been an increase in diversity in Technology and I think some of that is attributed to Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) programs. I think the large push from many national programs and organizations around STEM helps bring awareness to the associated fields that are traditionally less diverse.
I will say that the STEM fields are still more male dominated, but women are making many strides and excelling in Engineering and other Technology related fields. I conduct STEM workshops for young girls to encourage them to explore the sciences and understand what opportunities are available to them with having a STEM educational background. The world is more digital than ever before and it’s important that diversity is at the forefront of careers in technology if we want to stay competitive educationally and economically. It’s also never too late to change fields. It’s all about transferable skills that can allow an individual to enter into the IT (information technology) space.
MN: What was the biggest adjustment to make when entering the field of entrepreneurship?
TB: In corporate you have an expectation that individuals will respond in a certain time frame and will get back to you with the same level of urgency in which your email, etc. was sent. Not the case in the fashion business; people are busy and their priority is not the same as yours. Hence, it requires patience and being less “corporate” in behavior, not so formal and structured. Definitely a change in behavior for me. There are no 9-5 hours in entrepreneurship. You work when you need to work, however you still must maintain balance in your life in order to keep going and not get burnt out. It’s important to take care of yourself mentally, physically and spiritually and remain whole at all times. That is my number priority!
MN: I understand you always had a love of design, why did you chose not to pursue it earlier?
TB: I always say that I didn’t choose shoes, they chose me! That is a true statement. I would have never thought that I’d be in the position that I am in today and I love it! Yes, I’ve always loved fashion and had discovered some talents in design at a younger age but my life’s journey took me a different route, obtaining my education in traditionally less diverse fields of study was my path first. Timing is everything and shoe design and business came to me at the perfect time in my life. This wasn’t a lifelong dream, it was more like an undiscovered or unleashed passion that led me to my purpose.
MN: How has having your MBA helped your footwear business?
TB: By having my MBA, I understood all of the foundation things that I needed in order to establish my business; how to create a business plan and how to strategically think about my business model and where I wanted to grow and expand. This gave me a jump-start to starting my business, but there are certainly things that I am learning along the way that was not taught in B-school. There are many things in life that you have to learn by experience. Everything is not taught in business or life in general, but having my MBA allows me to speak a certain language (have the business acumen) with other business professionals in the fashion/footwear business (i.e., financiers, marketing/advertising professionals, etc.). I’m in a good position because I can use my creativity and business mind to accomplish my dreams. Exciting!
MN: What has been the biggest surprise been about being in the footwear industry?
TB: The biggest surprise is how small the industry is. It is a whole new world for me but it’s also not as large as I thought. However, it does require lots of networking.
MN: How do you compete with the big boys in footwear?
TB: It is best to know and understand your niche and target audience. If you know those two things well then you have created a lane that you can thrive in and be successful.
MN: What makes your product different?
TB: My product is different because it’s a reflection of me and my life’s journey–through my domestic and international travel/cultural experiences, my background, love for beautiful palette of colors, class, and style. I produce a beautiful product that shows exactly who I am. You must stay true to who you are and that’s how you stand out. My shoes are made in Italy of the finest leathers and suedes with delicate, detailed craftsmanship. I have created a line strongly targeted towards fashionably conscious women on the go. I envision the TB – Tiannia Barnes women as a go-getter, confident, chic, timeless and empowered. She appreciates style and comfort. Whether she works in corporate, owns her own business, philanthropy, stays at home and/or occasionally likes to hit the town, etc., she has a TB shoe that matches her attitude–bold, fearless with a little edge.
MN: How do you market your footwear?
TB: I currently market my footwear brand through all social media channels, my website, industry events/media, editorials, networking and through stylists. My target audience is very specific due to my price point, so it’s key to tap into the right marketing channels. In this industry you need know the right circle for a breakthrough. It’s important to connect with individuals that can help introduce your brand to the world.
MN: How have you been able to attract a celebrity following?
TB: You have to get to stylists and utilize PR to attract celebrities unless you have a great network of people who can connect you with celebrities.
MN: What has been the biggest business lesson you have learned?
TB: The biggest obstacle for me is money/funding. My business is self-funded which means that resources, planning, and timing is very critical to my progress and growth. You have to stay focused, have faith and really believe in your vision to keep going. The biggest business lessons are with the financials. It is key that you know how to create a budget, read a P&L, understand your margins, etc. You need to know what to spend your money on, when and how much should be allocated. It is very easy to overspend on services in this industry because everything and every detail has a price tag. You have to be judicious with your money and really do your research on business associates and organizations that you do business with. This is where having a mentor in the business is of great benefit.
MN: What do you love the most about what you do?
TB: I love most the ability to find peace and autonomy in creativity. Design for me is about finding inspiration in the little things that are free in life. It cost nothing to look at the sunset and find all the beautiful hues that it produces, then to transform that into something tangible like a beautiful shoe…that’s amazing! It’s an awesome feeling to pursue something bigger than self.
MN: What advice would you give other women thinking of leaving a career and heading into entrepreneurship?
TB: My advice to anyone looking to take the leap into being an entrepreneur is to just do it, take the first step, and keep going– go for it. I didn’t know everything, but I was smart enough to understand that and had enough tenacity to find out how or find the person that could help me. It’s good to do your research, take a class(es), speak to people in the field of interest, but don’t get overwhelmed or be too prepared because it could prevent you from taking the next steps. For example, if I knew upfront how much money in detail that it would cost to start my business I may have been fearful and would not have started or would have delayed my start.