Sara Irvani didn’t plan to become CEO of her family’s shoe business. Although she’d spent many school holidays shadowing her father at Okabashi Brands’ Georgia factory, she had no manufacturing experience. With an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, Master of Finance from Cambridge, and MBA from global business school INSEAD, she’d spent her early 20s in strategy consulting and venture capital in Switzerland and New York. Nevertheless, when her father, Okabashi founder Bahman Irvani, said it was time for him to step down in 2017, the then 27-year-old Sara was ready to step up. Since taking the helm, she’s reinforced Okabashi’s commitment to manufacturing high-quality, eco-friendly footwear in the USA while growing the business and seeing it through the pandemic.
“I’m probably still as naive as the first day I took over, in terms of the amount of work that it takes to run Okabashi, but I believe in sustainable American manufacturing and think there’s very strong potential here,” she says in her polished British accent, acquired from years at boarding school in England.
In 1984, when Okabashi was founded in Buford, Georgia, nearly 60 percent of American footwear was manufactured stateside. That figure has dwindled to 1 percent, with shoemakers offshoring production to save costs. To compete, Sara Irvani and her team have marshaled their resources. Rather than send scrap material to a landfill, they grind it up for reuse. Customers take part in recycling as well, by sending back their old shoes for 15 percent off their next purchase. The returned shoes are shredded and reused (or donated if in good condition). These efficiencies are working, as is Irvani’s focus on online sales, which has strongly contributed to revenue growth during her tenure. Since its founding, Okabashi has sold more than 40 million pairs of shoes and expanded to include three lines—its original line of Okabashi has been joined by Oka-B and Third Oak. Partners include retailers such as Target, Macy’s, Zappos, and Walgreens. The company’s 100,000- square-foot factory produces thousands of shoes per day.
“Being family operated, you feel personally responsible. Do I want to live in an environment where we’re polluting? No. So, we use recyclable materials and developed a closed-loop system,” Irvani says. “Sustainability is who we are. It’s in the DNA of the company.”
Doing what is right—rather than what is cheapest—is in Irvani’s blood. Her grandfather, once the largest footwear manufacturer in the Middle East, landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for paying men and women the same wages in the 1970s. After the Iranian revolution nationalized the Irvani’s shoe business, the family looked to Georgia, then a center of footwear manufacturing, to start over. When shoe production in the U.S. began migrating offshore, Irvani’s father, Bahman, remained steadfast in keeping the factory in Buford.
“My father made a commitment to our team and our customers. He wanted to see how people are treated and the materials that go into our products,” Irvani says. “My grandfather did what he thought was right versus the default way, and my father shares that very strong line of critical thinking. We wouldn’t be here if either of them had used conventional thought.”
Irvani’s commitment to the Okabashi team appears to be equally strong. During the first year of the pandemic, she was at the factory every day and avoided layoffs or furloughs. In fact, the company grew in head count and donated 10,000 pairs of shoes to frontline workers in 2020.
“The pandemic has been a time where family-operated companies as a category have been able to prove their value,” she says. “We take the concept of the ‘Okabashi Family’ very seriously.”
Vice President of Sales Jennifer Mason, a 15-year Okabashi veteran, also refers to the company team as a family where everyone feels a sense of ownership. Since Sara has taken over, Mason says, she’s added a dose of youthful inspiration and energy to the work environment and future ahead. “She came in and got her hands dirty. She learned everyone’s role in the company, how things were being done, and why we did them that way. It instilled trust right away,” Mason recounts. “We want to work with her and build the business with her year after year.”
In blazing her own trail, Irvani’s first moves as CEO included rolling out drop-ship capabilities. Under her leadership, Okabashi also launched the next-generation shoe brand Third Oak, geared toward millennials. The name embodies much of what Okabashi stands for—Sara is a third-generation American shoemaker, and the shoe’s proprietary plant-based material (made of approximately 45 percent soy) is a No. 3 recyclable. “Oak” refers to the company name and the trees surrounding the factory on the 200 acres Irvani’s grandfather purchased in 1981.
Walking through the Okabashi factory with Irvani, you get a sense of the collaborative relationship she’s developed with employees, from the line workers to the managers, who greet her warmly. The team mentality has been bolstered by giving employees the ability to provide anonymous feedback about the work environment and participate in an innovation competition, contributing ideas to advance the organization.
“No idea is too big or too small, and over the years they have made an incredible impact for both efficiency and quality of work experience,” Irvani explains. “I am proud of our open culture; everyone’s voice makes a difference. You can see this through the upward mobility in the company.”
Okabashi’s welcoming work environment is also evident in employee retention. “I wouldn’t trade anything for working here,” says Ashley Bowman, a packaging supervisor who has been at Okabashi for eight years. “We’re definitely a close family. Once you’ve been here two to three years, you just know you’re not going to leave.”
It’s hard to miss that the majority of the 250 team members are women, including much of the leadership staff, which speaks to the Irvani family’s strong female-focused ideals. “I truly believe in gender parity, and we all work to create a happy and supportive work environment that we all share,” Irvani says. She hopes nurturing this community-oriented work environment will help the company prosper into the future. Ultimately, she says, it’s all about the people.
“I’ve been so lucky. The team is incredible and really cares,” she says. “For any company, that’s the most important. It wouldn’t be possible without them.”