June 5, 2015

An Idea with Sole: The Shoe That Grows

Plenty has been written about that split-second feeling you get when you’re hit by an idea, there are tons of ways describe it too, we’ve all heard about the ‘Eureka’ moment the ‘Aha’ moment and of course the (much doodled) ‘Lightbulb’ moment. If this has happened to you, it’s safe to say that the feeling is almost electric! So imagine if your idea can be used to help people across the world – it must feel like a thunderbolt right? Here’s a story of an inspired idea with some powerful potential.

Throughout his travels, Kenton Lee, founder of The Shoe that Grows, had seen children growing up in impoverished areas who couldn’t afford to buy shoes for their growing feet meaning they were exposed to health dangers that would be solved by two rubber-soled companions. So he had his own ‘Lightbulb’ moment: What if the shoe grew too? Writer Dave Adams had a chance to speak with Super-Kenton about his journey from idea to product.

While volunteering at an orphanage in Kenya, Kenton noticed a young girl in a white dress. Her shoes were way too small. He thought, “Why is she wearing these shoes? She should really put on bigger shoes.” The question bothered him. “It bugged me. To know that things were going on around the world that I just didn’t know about. It stuck with me.” This time, a practical, compassionate solution sprung into his head. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a shoe that adjusts and expands as kids do the same? Yes, yes it would.

The idea brewed in his mind. He researched the internet to see if there was a company that already made a shoe like this. The internet shook its digital head from left to right. Nothing. After hearing loads of support for the idea from his friends and family, Kenton set off to create a solution.

First, he contacted all the big shoe companies. After a bunch of unreturned phone calls, he decided to take the first steps on his own. With no practical shoe design or manufacturing experience, Kenton bought around 20-30 pairs of rubber shoes to better understand shoe construction. He sliced and diced to try to understand how simple shoe design worked. After finding himself laying in a pool of scrap rubber, he decided to look for help.

Bouncing around from one connection to another, Kenton was eventually referred to Gary Pitman. Gary is a former Nike bigwig and current President and CEO of Proof of Concept, an expert footwear design company. He loved Kenton’s “shoe that grows” idea. Gary’s team started designing the product immediately. Although their urgency to do good is praisable, it wasn’t exactly an easy design process.


Kenton initially thought the shoe might work best if made in two pieces that connected almost like Lego bricks. Gary vetoed the brick kicks. The team chose to make them with a consistent sole. Both parties agreed that they didn’t want to have any mechanisms or gears on the shoe. Excluding complicated ingredients like gears would eliminate some of the difficulties manufacturing as well as using the shoe.

Prototyping is where you kill some of your darlings. Originally, Kenton said he wanted a shoe that could “grow ten sizes and last 1,000 years.” Can you imagine wearing the same pair of Nike Roshe Runs in the year 3000? Gary informed Kenton that the millennium shoe was just not in the cards. The darling died.

The team started with 20 prototypes, got it down to five, then two, then one. Gary and his designers had picked a winner.

“It arrived in a simple box. I vividly remember sitting in my office about to open it. I thought, ‘All of these years, all of this effort. I could be really disappointed. It could be a big let down.’”

Spoiler alert: Kenton loved it. Gary and the team made 100 pairs and, in the summer of 2012, Kenton brought the first batch to Africa. Since then, they have monitored the shoe’s performance, taking note of areas where it can improve. Overall, the children and adults have been delighted with the shoes. After donating 25 pairs to four different schools, Kenton received hugely positive reactions from the kids as well as the adults who look after the children. The adults were happy since they knew first-hand (and foot) just how quickly the kids grew out of shoes. They were also very keenly aware of the potential medical problems caused by being barefoot. Kenton will surely monitor the shoe’s performance and make applicable updates on the second iteration. Kenton and Gary – you’ve shared your story about how an original idea combined with great design can have a whole lotta sole.

This story of design-done-good, followed Gary’s three design mantras:

1. Make It Last

Children run, jump, play, tackle, slide, kick, and grow. The shoes needed to be durable enough for a kid to be a kid. Kenton’s aim was five years.

The shoes’ straps are made out of high quality leather. The buckles and rubber are no slouches either. With heavy-duty buckles fit for Batman’s utility belt and a rubber sole fit for a Ford F-150’s wheels, these shoes are going to achieve healthy mileage.

2. Make It Grow

Here’s the secret sauce. The shoe can grow up to five sizes. By simply adjusting the front, back, and sides of the shoe, size changes are a cinch. The adjustable aspect of the shoe was the original mantra so the team wanted to ensure that it was easy to use.

Our parents probably wish we had these when I was a kid. Sorry, Mom.

3. Keep Costs Down

The high quality materials that are essential to making the shoe last aren’t cheap.

Kenton and the team did have the option of building the shoe with more cost-effective materials. They decided to go with a more high quality leather for the straps. And as for the sole, Ford F-150 rubber comes with a price. But this shoe was supposed to last. They shelled out the dough for the good stuff and the “shoe that grows” went into prototyping.

If this has also inspired you, here’s how to help. Kenton and his team are on crowdrise.com trying to get funding for the next order of shoes that grow. Click the link and help get kids up and running.

Words by: Dave Adams


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