When Min Santandrea ’06, founder of SantM shoes, was working in the fashion industry and traveling constantly for her job, she noticed an issue: looking good was a pain. Literally. Dressing nicely for work meant wearing high heels every day, and long hours and traveling had worn out her soles and her patience. When she looked more closely at the market, she saw a stiletto-shaped hole where comfort met fashion and affordability. Her answer? Building a shoe brand that would support women, in every sense of the word. Read on to find out how Santandrea built her business and created her perfect fit.
Why did you decide to get your MBA?
I had been working in the fine art world, but I wanted to transition into retail. I quickly discovered that no one would hire me in retail because I didn’t have a merchandising degree. I chose Columbia because it was in New York City—the fashion capital—and one of the top business schools. It made sense and also had a really strong retail program which is exactly what I wanted. My CBS network, from classmates to professors—especially Mark Cohen, director of Retail Studies and William O'Farrell, adjunct professor of business—have been incredible in every aspect of building this business.
What inspired you to start SantM?
As a career woman, I was traveling a ton—when I worked at Uniqlo I was in Japan every fourth week. At that point, I also had my first child. When I was traveling for work, I always was dressed up. I’ve never been a casual jeans-and-sneakers type of person, even when casual became the new way of dressing. I always wear heels. At a certain point it became too much: I was sometimes carrying my daughter, other times carrying my laptop and bag. I started doing research on comfortable heels, but what I found were the ugliest shoes I’d ever seen.
There was a plethora of shoe brands out there, but everyone was doing the same thing. There were the high-end brands sold at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, where the average shoe on the luxury floor is about $1,200. And then you have the low-end prices with other brands that are simply mimicking high-end designs. I realized no one was owning the $300 to $600 market and speaking to businesswomen like myself and my friends. I thought if I could craft well-made, comfortable shoes at this price point for women, there would be a huge market for it.
What makes SantM different?
I think consumers are sick and tired of getting treated poorly by retailers. I think direct-to-consumer selling is coming back, like the days when the Avon lady used to come to your house and sell you products in your own living room. Customer service is becoming a top priority to many brands—but I’ve always thought it should be the top priority. Your customer has the money to spend, it’s her wallet you’re trying to take a share of, so why wouldn’t you treat her like the most important thing in your business plan?
Part of customer service is also teaching people how to be better consumers. Even if people don’t buy my shoes, I want them to know what to look for. One of my advisors when I was building my company was a podiatrist who taught shoe design at Parsons. I got a massive education on how to construct good shoes. For example, not all heel cushions are exactly the same. Some brands use synthetic material that is as soft as cotton, so it gets packed down and doesn’t bounce back. For my shoes, I chose a hard gel for the cushion that would actually provide support over time. After learning how important foot health is, I even launched a wellness blog on my company’s website to educate people. I want my consumers to be conscious of what their bodies' needs are and to break away from the norm to do what is healthy. That’s why I host trunk shows at corporate offices—it allows me to sell my product in person and also to talk to women, both about shoes and about entrepreneurship and self-branding.
How did you choose your designer in Italy?
I started by going to a shoe-industry show called Micam in Milan. I went from factory to factory in Italy meeting people and networking. Finally, through a connection, I found my designer. I chose him because he’s extremely capable—he has experience designing for top brands—and he told me, “If you really want to be a good designer, you need to work in the factory and understand how the sole fits the heel and how the zipper moves.” I hired him and then we found a factory in Italy that has been in operation for 99 years and is run by a fourth-generation family. I fell in love with it. They specialize in a technique called sacchetto which means “small bag.” It is a very technical and expensive way to make shoes. A conventional shoe has an upper and an insole which are sewn together, but a shoe made in the sacchetto style is made from one piece of leather that has been shaped. It allows for flexibility in your feet and for you to move ergonomically.
How do you stay on trend with your designs?
Actually, I hate trends. I think trends are a disservice to the fashion world and to sustainability. As a business owner, I would rather produce something that lasts. My styles are evergreen, modern, classic—a staple in your closet. My version of sustainability is to make something that can last you much longer than the current standard. We don’t put out new collections each season and follow the fashion calendar. That also puts me at an advantage in production from a raw-material perspective, because I can avoid the busy times.