“Inspire, inspire, inspire. ” with Penny Bauder & Casey Kerrigan

One myth is that a woman in STEM or Tech is nerdy and/or boring. All you need to do to dispel that myth is spend one night hanging out with the Charlottesville Women in Tech group here. They’re arguably the most fun group of women in town. Dr. Casey Kerrigan, a Harvard Medical School graduate […]

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One myth is that a woman in STEM or Tech is nerdy and/or boring. All you need to do to dispel that myth is spend one night hanging out with the Charlottesville Women in Tech group here. They’re arguably the most fun group of women in town.

Dr. Casey Kerrigan, a Harvard Medical School graduate recognized internationally for her peer-reviewed published research on gait (walking and running) and the effects of footwear, left her perfectly good job at the University of Virginia (UVa), where she was the first woman tenured professor and chair of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R), professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and professor of sports medicine, to make OESH.

For over 20 years she studied gait, beginning at the University of California, Los Angeles where she did her post-graduate residency (and simultaneously received a M.S. in Kinesiology). She returned to Harvard Medical School where she created one of the first sophisticated 3D gait and motion laboratories in the United States. Later, she was recruited to UVa where she developed an even more sophisticated laboratory that could especially break down the biomechanics of both running and walking.

Casey is well known for dramatically changing the way we think about gait and footwear–ripping apart old, sometimes disastrous concepts and rigorously testing new ones–that have now become standards of normal understanding. Casey is the one who first discovered a link between high-heeled shoes and knee osteoarthritis back in 1998 (which was widely publicized in numerous major news outlet including the New York Times, Time Magazine and ABC’s 20/20). And she is the one who published in 2009 that traditionally designed running shoes also increase knee joint torques. She received the highest honors and level of support from numerous national and international entities including the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Throughout her career, the NIH repeatedly honored Casey’s work through its highly competitive peer-review process, with continuous funding for her research.

Casey’s research, along with her years of clinical experience treating the wide variety of problems linked to poor footwear, led her to develop OESH. Additional motivation derives in part from Casey’s experience as a distance runner at the University of Chicago, where she set several school records in the early 1980’s and from her devotion to her three athletic children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I never thought I’d be a cobbler! I’m the Harvard M.D. researcher who discovered a link between high heels and knee arthritis back in 1998. I was on 20/20, quoted in Cosmo, the New York Times, USA Today and more, but that discovery was only the beginning of what I later found — that all women’s footwear from high heels to clogs to even running shoes abnormally increase impact on the joints.

I talked to major shoe companies and tried to convince them to create shoes that would reduce rather than increase impact on the joints in the body, but they were not interested in changing their products. In fact, it soon became clear that the implications of my research were threatening to them. I realized that the only way to get healthy shoes made was to make them myself. So I quit my full-time position at the University of Virginia — where I had a well-paying, prestigious job as a tenured professor and department chair — and started my own shoe company. I managed to convince my husband, Bob Kusyk, to join as the CEO.

I (not my husband!) built a factory in Charlottesville to create the disruptive footwear designs I knew were needed to improve overall body health, but ended up disrupting the manufacturing process as well. It turns out the changes we needed to make to shoes were not easy to produce, so I needed to invent new manufacturing processes. For a while, we had an injection-molding machine and were molding shoe soles one pair at a time. Before that, we were winding carbon fiber springs around steel mandrels with a machine that was designed to make rocket fuselages, not shoe soles! But even with these manufacturing struggles, we’ve built a loyal following of now over 12,000 repeat buying, fiercely loyal customers we call Oeshers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Probably the most interesting story was figuring out how to 3D print rather than injection mold the unique springy material that we were using to make shoe soles. I knew that 3D printing could allow us to make a superior sole structure that no other manufacturing process could make. However, the typical 3D printer couldn’t print our material, so we had to invent a 3D printer that could. With our own tools and machinery in house, we built a series of 3D printers with special extruders that could 3D print the material we wanted, which also happens to be 100% recyclable. We were fortunate to receive $900,000 in grant funding from the National Science Foundation to support the research and development to develop this now patent pending 3D printing process. Instead of an injection-molding machine, we now have on the back wall of our factory an army of 3D printers each making a pair of shoe soles. At the other end of the factory are the machines that we use to continue building more 3D printers as we grow and expand.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Probably the funniest mistake was buying the wrong type of “water chiller” for our computerized waterjet saw. We needed the waterjet saw to make these carbon fiber springs for our first shoe soles. I didn’t know anything about water chillers; only that we would need one and so bought this aquarium water chiller from the pet store. It was only when we were all set up for our first production did I appreciate that this dinky little water chiller couldn’t possibly chill this ginormous piece of machinery! The problem was that it would now take an additional month to get an industrial sized water chiller, which would have killed our production schedule.

Out of desperation, I drilled two big holes into a chest freezer, filled it up with garden hoses all connected together with one end coming into the freezer from the tap and the other going out to the waterjet saw. That barely worked just long enough for us to get through that first production until the real, industrial sized water chiller arrived.

The lesson learned is that mistakes like this are actually pretty common in manufacturing but that with a little bit of ingenuity and elbow grease, you can usually figure out a solution. We still rely on our waterjet saw (and water chiller) to cut the frames for our 3D printers.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re the only shoe company that makes footwear for women that are truly healthy based on peer-reviewed medical and biomechanical scientific research. This commitment to designing footwear based not on fad or fashion but on meaningful scientific research, whereby form follows function, results in shoes that are unique to the industry. All our shoes, regardless of whether they’re athletic or dress shoes, have a completely flat and very springy sole, combined with a shape that fits the natural shape of a woman’s foot with a wide forefoot and narrow heel.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The 3D printing process we developed and the sole style of our latest two styles, the “Salon,” a knitted clog and the “Townie,” a d’Orsay flat, allows for an assembly process that is quite different than the typical assembly process used in shoe manufacturing. Our patent pending 3D printed sole design is such that assembly can be done very simply outside of the factory with one row of crochet. That means we can eliminate the most toxic part of shoe manufacturing, which is adhering shoe components together using toxic adhesives, primers, heat tunnels and dangerous hydraulic presses.

Looking at this crochet attachment step as a way to help empower women with this skill who cannot easily work outside the home, we recently partnered with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) of Charlottesville, VA, an organization that does extraordinary work for our community by seeking out opportunities for refugees and other immigrants to thrive here. As they report, “many refugee women face barriers to more traditional employment opportunities outside the home, including limited English language skills, and limited access to transportation and affordable child care.” OESH’s model of employing refugee women to crochet the shoes not only helps to remove these barriers but also empowers these women by enabling them to contribute to their families’ economic self-sufficiency in a way that balances their families’ needs. We’re excited as we continue growing more lines of 3D printed shoes (we’re busily working on a couple new lines for the spring) to provide income opportunity for more and more refugee mothers.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No! We need more of us! My 15 year-old daughter is in a math and engineering high school program that is great, but still caters to an old way of teaching that seems to work well for boys but doesn’t really excite girls. I’d like to see more creativity and story-telling brought into STEM teaching. Robots and rockets don’t inspire girls as much as thinking about what those robots and rockets can do to make the world a better place. When a class of middle school or high school students comes to our factory for a tour, the girls are typically more excited than the boys about what we’re actually making with our 3D printers and how that product helps to create real change in people’s lives.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The only real but formidable challenge is breaking into a field that has been historically occupied by men. A great way to address this, I believe, is for women to build their own successful STEM companies where they don’t have to deal with the ingrained prejudices common to academia and typical male-run companies. I felt much less prejudice building my own factory than I did in academia and the prejudice I did face didn’t affect what I was trying to accomplish. In fact, the prejudice I encounter now is almost entertaining — it’s not uncommon for people visiting Oesh for the first time to turn to my husband (who is decidedly non-mechanical) rather than me when they ask about the 3D printers or the manufacturing processes we use. Most men I’ve interacted with, whether it’s online, on the phone or at the local hardware store, have been extremely helpful and encouraging. Those few who are not, I choose to avoid. And that’s something I just couldn’t do when I was in academia.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One myth is that a woman in STEM or Tech is nerdy and/or boring. All you need to do to dispel that myth is spend one night hanging out with the Charlottesville Women in Tech group here. They’re arguably the most fun group of women in town.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

• Don’t hire the guy who tells you he knows it all. Three times I fell for hiring the guy who told me he knows how to do everything machine-related because he’s been using tools all his life and also knows how to fix cars. None of those three times worked out very well. Not only did they NOT know how to do everything, they were resistant to learning how to do things from a woman.

• Hire the person who wants to learn. I’ve had the best experience hiring the person who says, “I don’t know, but I’d really love to learn that.” My experience has been that that person will be the first to figure out how to get the broken laser cutter working again.

• I wonder how much being a woman makes me really hate having to fire someone. My advice is that you can often find something else that a person is better suited to doing that will contribute in ways you might not have thought of. I once had the worst executive assistant who hated her job as much as I hated having her do it. But she was incredibly talented at drafting letters and writing grant proposals and was incredibly happy and successful when that became her full-time job (and I found a new executive assistant).

• Know your strength as a woman to ask for directions. I have no problem asking the dumbest questions that I’m not so sure a man would ask. Whether I’m at the local hardware store or am communicating with tech support, I have no problem admitting what I don’t know, which in the beginning, was quite a lot.

  • Your best help comes not from the university engineering professor writing his fifth book about manufacturing, but from the rare machinist or injection-molder still here in the U.S. who really does know everything.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Inspire, inspire, inspire. Not only should you admit what you don’t know, present what you don’t know as a challenge to others to find solutions, answers, and new ideas. I once gave a guest lecture to a class of college industrial design students who were so inspired by what I was trying to do, that they volunteered their entire winter vacation to help me. Everyone needs to understand the overall mission and feel like they are substantially contributing to that.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

My advice is to treat everyone like family. Welcome everyone with his/her own families into your home. We’ve had holiday parties with hundreds of people take over every part of our house (which isn’t that big). We’ve had interns living in our house. That class of industrial design students all stayed in our house over their winter break.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My dad, who passed away just as I first discovered a link between women’s shoes and knee arthritis, was a brilliant chemist. In fact he was the smartest person I knew. He wanted to make the world a better place with his work in nuclear fission, creating clean energy without any toxic waste. Sadly though, he knew that his research would only be used to make better bombs, so he quit when I was young and became a mailman. He wanted me to be a scientist like him, but just didn’t want me to go into a field where my research could potentially hurt people. He thought I should get an M.D. rather than a Ph.D. because that way I could only help, not hurt people. Our shoes help the women wearing them, the people making them, and the planet. My dad would be proud.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Oesh shoes help the women wearing them, the people making them, and the planet.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Inspire a movement where shoes that don’t hurt women are the new sexy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.”

– Vincent van Gogh

As long as I can remember, this has been relevant to my life. I’m always curious, always doing, and always going full steam ahead with passion.

There’s another more recent quote I like that applies to our research and development over the last ten years:

“If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters — 204 if you’re in Japan.”

– Claire Cook

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Oprah Winfrey. Because I know she would appreciate my research and could, better than anyone else, effect a world where shoes that hurt women are no longer thought of as fashionable. She’s also the one famous person I’d be fully comfortable talking to about being a woman with non-white skin.

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