Making A Mark

“The soul of my foundation is the sole of my shoes,” declares Etu Evans, founder and director of Solesville– the Etu Evans Foundation, a Harlem-based nonprofit that provides footwear to enhance the professional attire of those who want to not only be the part, but look the part.

Evans, 39, started Solesville in 1998 while working as the assistant director for the Institute of Entrepreneurship in New York where he mentored urban students and taught them everything from how to dress and prepare for job interviews to how to exude poise and self-confidence.

“During a session, one of my students commented that he liked the pair of Gucci loafers I was wearing,” says Etu, who also designs shoes. “Out of this experience, I noticed that many of my students lacked appropriate footwear for job interviews.” After challenging the student to improve his grades, which he did, Evans gave the pair of $400 designer shoes to the young man–thus beginning his foray into revitalizing his community.

Evans strongly believes that proper footwear can aid the success of an individual by enhancing his or her professional appearance. This belief gave birth to his desire to provide for those who lacked appropriate shoes. Evans became so passionate about his cause that he began collecting shoes from the streets of Harlem and repairing them or designing new styles and giving them to students and others in need.

Operating on an annual budget between $700,000 and $1.5 million, Evans says the bulk of Solesville’s funding comes from various corporate and private donations. One of the largest corporate donors to date is Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. The organization donated more than $8,000 in 2006. Up until 2005, Evans funded nearly half of Solesville’s operating costs through his personal savings. His personal funds now comprise just 10% of what it takes to run the organization. Corporate and private donations make up the difference. Evans says he has shipped dozens of pairs of refurbished and new shoes to schools, nonprofit groups, and other facilities across the country and internationally including the Caribbean and Africa. “At one time, I had to store some shoes in my oven because I had run out of storage space in my home,” says Evans.

One program that Evans is very proud of is the organization’s “Six Footprints to Change” initiative. This initiative features an after-school program called the Shoe Surgeon Apprenticeship where students learn how to refurbish shoes and make accessories such as handbags and belts. They also learn the basics of entrepreneurship and business. Each year, 60 students chosen from two Harlem high schools are given the opportunity to work in the Solesville repair shop for one year. At the end of the year, they are eligible to receive a $200 stipend and a certificate of trade completion.

Evans, a nominee for black enterprise’s 2005 Rising Star Award, has designed shoes that have been worn by celebrities such as Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, Danny Glover, and Queen Latifah. However, in the wake of a sour economy