Fashion mogul Steve Madden came to Howard University to speak to students about the challenges and rewards of owning a successful business. Madden participated in a casual question-and-answer interview session with Arian Simone, co-founder of Fearless Fund, and Howard students. The event was held on the fourth floor of the Louis Stokes Health Science Library on Nov. 4.
Madden is the founder and CEO of Steve Madden Ltd, a company that designs and produces footwear, jewelry, handbags and outer garments. At the event, many audience members were wearing Steve Madden boots and sneakers and carrying Steve Madden handbags. Some audience members even sported Steve Madden gift bags, which were free tokens of an earlier pop-up shop Madden hosted on campus.
About half of the audience members were School of Business students, and some of their first questions pertained to Madden’s early life.
Before becoming a world-renowned fashion designer, Madden was involved in retail. He gained experience in the shoe business as a teenager when he sold shoes for a retail store. To this end, Madden emphasized the significance of involving himself with the hands-on aspect of the shoe business.
“A lot of people say ‘well I designed this sneaker, I’m going to go into my own business’, but you have to learn the business,” Madden said. “At least give yourself a year or two…Work in the field first. If you want to learn clothing, go work at Zara.”
However, while working in the field as a teenager, Madden dealt with personal obstacles that seemed insurmountable.
“As a kid I had ADHD,” he said. “I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t keep a thought in my head. I was all over the place. So I self-medicated with drinking and drugs when I was in my twenties. I was almost non-functional. It was really bad.”
In addition to having a drug addiction, Madden also faced jail time for fraudulent actions in the stock market, including money laundering and stock manipulation.
He explains these early-life struggles in his novel “The Cobbler,” which he included in the free gift bags that he distributed to students at his pop-up shop. In the book, he details his path from delinquency to sobriety, and explains how he got his life back on track.
When Madden was able to focus on his dream of building a successful fashion empire, he had to find people who he could trust and help him expand his vision. He underscored the importance of being able to rely on a team.
“The big idea is that you build your team so you as the founder, as the entrepreneur, can think big. It’s very hard to do it all yourself,” he said.
Madden then gave an example of when having a team is crucial to sustaining his company. When selling the product doesn’t go as planned, Madden explained, he and his team come together to discuss how to do things differently in the future.
“You learn as you go. You learn from your mistakes. We have a meeting –‘What did we do wrong?’”
Interviewer Arian Simone, who is also an entrepreneur, added, “Having certain people on your team is going to be a gamechanger…You want to get great talent and people who fit the culture of your business.”
“So — what keeps you inspired about the business today?” Simone asked.
Chuckling to himself, Madden responded, “I’m very motivated by money. It’s sort of like a scorecard, you know, but I wanna win – I really wanna win. I want everybody to wear my shoes. That’s, to me, that’s the big payoff. I have a fantasy — all shoe companies go out of business, I’m the only one left.”
Some of the students who attended the event gained some major takeaways from Madden’s words. Kayla Scott, a junior accounting major at Howard, spoke words of appreciation for Madden’s lessons.
“I was really inspired by his drive to win and be successful in his business,” Scott said.
Another audience member expressed his goals of entrepreneurship to Madden and explained how he wanted to follow a similar career path as Madden.
He said, “I really want to break into the fashion industry and my goal is to become my own boss.”
When asked about possible future collaborations with Howard, Madden was straightforward.
“Look,” he said, “I don’t have time to sugar-coat it — we’re looking to hire more Black people in our company.”
Copy edited by: N’dia Webb