The COVID-19 pandemic pulled the rug out from under many small business owners, destabilizing purchase orders and upending balance sheets, but for US Army veteran-turned-entrepreneur Natasha Standard, the global health crisis helped her find her footing.
EQWAL Footing, that is. The retailer had been heading up Norie Shoes, a luxury line of Italian-made women’s shoes designed by Standard, and getting ready to relocate from Memphis to New York City to join Apex, the business incubator program at the NYU Tandon Veterans Future Lab (VFL) for ventures founded by service members, veterans, and military spouses, when the pandemic halted much of the world — and shoe-buying. With sales dwindling, Standard remembered another product that she’d been toying with: military-grade combat boots for women.
Today, that product idea is now a reality and Standard’s second company: EQWAL Footing. Its founding represents the resiliency that Standard cultivated during her 18 years in the military before retiring as a lieutenant colonel supervising VIP missions, Special Operations, and airfield logistics. She went on to chase her dream of joining the fashion industry, attending Parson’s art and design summer program in Paris before pursuing a Master’s degree from the Savannah College of Art & Design.
Standard didn’t stop there, going on to Arsutoria School in Milan to study shoe design and manufacturing. She’d just finished the course and was enjoying rapid growth with Norie Shoes when the pandemic struck, forcing her to consider other options. We spoke with her recently to learn about that about-face and other tips and tricks that could help entrepreneurs better stand on firm ground.
VFL: What compelled you to go to Milan, study shoe design, and then start a business?
NS: Probably I was crazy. [Laughs] When I do something, I go all in. I don’t play games, and I knew that if I wanted to get into an industry that I had no previous experience or background in, I was going to have to get educated. That was number one.
Number two was the school I chose. It has a feeder program that helps you start a relationship with an Italian factory. I chose [Arsutoria] specifically because I knew they could make it happen for me.
VFL: What local resources came into play in Memphis as you launched Norie Shoes?
NS: [Memphis] has a business development center called Epicenter, and I won a few grants there. I started off at Epicenter using SCORE, a SBA program that links new business owners like myself with mentors who are, in theory, in my same field, but we don’t have too many people in the fashion industry in Memphis. The center also provided marketing assistance, legal assistance — all free of charge.
Don’t focus on the negatives. Just think about how you overcome the challenges that every other business owner has to overcome. Focus on the solid, quantitative barriers and do your best with what you have. — Natasha Standard
VFL: You were a finalist for the 2020 Hofstra University Veterans Venture Challenge, and then a member of VFL’s Apex2021 incubator. How have resources outside Tennessee fit into the company’s development strategy?
NS: My business started October 2019, and in January, I went to Italy, came back, and then the world stopped, right? So, my Covid pivot was a military-grade combat boot in women’s sizes. The Hofstra Challenge was astronomical in the growth and development of [that] because it was just a concept at the time. They provided small business development teams; also marketing teams. This was instrumental because I wanted to call my boots Equal Footing, but the domain name was taken. The development and marketing guys were, like, “No, no, no, just misspell the name,” and that’s what I did: misspelled it. We spell it EQWAL Footing.
Also, the small business development team would give you all types of ideas on who could benefit [from your product] other than military women: female engineers who require protective footwear when they go into warehouses or structures that are under construction, police officers, security officers, corrections officers, and the 20 million women that hike.
VFL: How did Apex fit into this?
NS: In my twenties, I lived in New York City on 54th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. It was one of my favorite times of my life, so that’s why I applied to Apex because it would be the perfect transition. I eventually want to live in New York City again.
And Apex has been very instrumental. The staff helped me apply for a government grant. I didn’t get it, but in the process of going through the application, you learn a lot about yourself and your business. It’s extremely competitive, but it’s an excellent opportunity, so I’m going to reapply.
Apex also provided legal help. I have two companies — Norie Shoes and EQWAL Footing — so they helped me structure them so that they’re separate. If I have a deal with one company, it doesn’t affect the structure or income of the other.
The [former] director, Grant [Fox], and I used to have weekly meetings that really helped me focus on my business model and value proposition, which is extremely important when you’re talking to investors and people who want to buy into your business. You have to be able to execute and conduct that business-speak.
Had it not been for my military service, I don’t think I would be where I am. I was a commander in Iraq, right? The most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, and you know what I learned? How much pressure I can take without breaking. And you know what my boss said? Pressure makes diamonds. — Natasha Standard
VFL: But sales of makeup and certain kinds of clothes fell during the pandemic as many of us began working from home, and events were all but canceled. How did Norie Shoes weather the storm?
NS: Our sales decreased drastically. They’ve come back since March of this year — to the point that they’re covering operating costs, which is important for a business.
But yeah, I just had to weather the storm. The PPP was extremely helpful. I got it the first round. I got it the second round […] That money has been very, very helpful in keeping my business afloat, paying for marketing because you have to restructure your marketing message. Who cares about luxury when people are dying?
VFL: Yet, in 2019, the company donated a portion of its proceeds from the sale of shoes with prints to It’s a Girl’s Life.
NS: Yes, it’s a Memphis-based program. It’s associated with the United Way.
VFL: And during the pandemic, Norie Shoes donated 20% of its sales to the American Red Cross, and the company is also working to establish a foundation.
NS: Yeah, we donate a portion of the proceeds of specific products through the Norie Foundation to different organizations in association with girls and women empowerment. To date, we’ve donated $2,500.
VFL: It’s like you can’t stop giving back even after protecting Americans for 18 years. What motivates that?
NS: My grandfather was a business owner and would always say that you always want to try to give back to people. If they’re in a precarious situation and I can help them because I’ve been fortunate, why not?
VFL: Your generosity around women’s empowerment is interesting because female founders are underrepresented in the startup world. Tell us what it’s like to operate under those conditions and the advice you’d give to women vets and military spouses who want to start their own companies.
NS: Don’t focus on the negatives. Just think about how you overcome the challenges that every other business owner has to overcome. Focus on the solid, quantitative barriers and do your best with what you have. Like, I was blessed enough to be a successful military officer, so I bring a lot to the table. I bring leadership, management, logistics experience, conflict resolution. The things you know you’re short at? Like, I’m not really great at hiring, so make sure you either educate yourself or hire someone who can fill those gaps. I would not personally concentrate on being a minority or whatever. I don’t focus on what society says are negatives, because how does that help you?
VFL: There’s so much you’ve taken from your military experience that you’ve applied again and again.
NS: Had it not been for my military service, I don’t think I would be where I am. I was a commander in Iraq, right? The most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my whole life, and you know what I learned? How much pressure I can take without breaking. And you know what my boss said? Pressure makes diamonds.
VFL: That’s true, yet you’ve said that starting your own business is more difficult. That’s coming from someone who spent decades in the military, jumped out of planes, and managed multimillion-dollar contracts.
NS: Oh, yeah, there’s no blueprint, but the fundamentals of building a business — building a brand, financing your company, having a web presence — all the functions that need to happen for me to sell shoes is stuff that I learned being in the military: organizational structure, management, financial assessments, risk assessments.
The military is very regulated, but being a business owner, it’s not like that. You better jump on opportunities, take it and run. It’s challenging, but I love every challenge.
VFL: For vets who may be thinking of joining Apex or starting their own business, how would you advise they deal with the lack of structure in entrepreneurship?
NS: If you think the military structure was good for you, then create your own battle rhythm, because if that’s important to you and gets your juices flowing, stick with that.
And I would say embrace the civilian side. It’s not wrong; it’s just different. Accept it for what it is. Don’t say, “They don’t know what they’re doing.” It’s unorganized to us, but it works. You’re more fortunate because you’ve seen organizational structure and how it works. That’s an advantage.