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shannon scott, 55, startup founder, los angeles

ageist EDITORS | february 22, 2018

For 26 years, Shannon Scott worked at the shoe brand ASICS. That number is astonishing in any modern working era, but in the age of rapid digital transformation and the gigging economy, it can well be considered a lifetime.

Indeed, she married again and raised two children during that time. She rose through the ranks from their import and export department to acting VP of marketing, learning most parts of the business in the process. Other opportunities came and went, but she had watched her father work for the government for his entire career, and she figured as long as she believed in the company’s mission, it was well worth staying.

“I thought that’s just what you do,” she says. “You find a company and stay there. Back in our parents’ day we just did that. I never felt like I wanted to look outside.”

Then an inevitable direction change ended with most of the senior management being let go and Scott, at 53, was in a position she’d rarely been in: without a job and in a position to take advantage of some hard-won free time.

“I was the one holding down the fort for 26 years. I thought, ‘I may take two or three years off and do nothing. I may just craft’,” she says, laughing.

But then she and her husband Sean took a walk around downtown LA after a Smashing Pumpkins concert in March 2016 and everything changed again.

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For most of Shannon’s career at ASICS, Sean was working on startup ideas of his own. He’d do stints at places like Vans and Toms, but also launched his own brand of skate shoe. Between them, they had spent more than five decades in the shoe business — enough time to see an evolution from top-end craftsmanship to the low quality of the fast-fashion movement spearheaded by companies like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara.

“The way China set up the whole manufacturing thing is that, by the nature of paying their workers so little, they taught us to devalue workmanship,” she says. “No one really appreciates what it takes to make a shoe, or make a pair of jeans. We talked a lot about sustainability of products in general.”

They wondered what it would be like to bring manufacturing back to the US and to start a company with sustainability as a founding principle. Shannon took a contracting job a couple of months after leaving ASICS in January 2016. But before she started, the two of them took a walk around downtown Los Angeles.

Where once there were only abandoned factories and the city's infamous Skid Row, they saw restaurants and shops, small businesses and galleries. It reminded Shannon of the downtown she loved to visit when first arriving in Los Angeles in 1986, full of warehouse parties, venues and restaurants.

“It literally felt like the late 80s,” she says. “I told Sean, ‘I can feel this buzz when I'm walking around. There’s something down here.’ There was all the creativity of people setting up new businesses, especially in the Arts District where we ended up. We saw a lot of small businesses reinventing what business is. To get to where we are right now, you have to drive Skid Row; you drive through a lot of abandoned warehouses and factory buildings. The street where we ended up, a guy told us there used to be 50 factories here.”

Almost at once, Shannon could see how it would all go down. The two of them would start a shoe business that aimed to bring manufacturing to the US and emphasize sustainability, incorporating the best of what they’d learned in their separate careers: “Let’s take all the good stuff and put it into this brand and figure out how to give back to LA. There’s a lot we can do downtown to reinvigorate a bunch of things.”

A little under a year later, in April 2017, they launched Comunity (yes, with one “m”) with founding partner Ryan Gumienny on Kickstarter, inviting friends and friends of friends to get first dibs on their shoe styles (there are currently three each in men’s and women’s sizes). The mission of Comunity is not simply to produce premium shoes, but to mandate that $10 of each sale goes to local community organizations — the “give back” Shannon was talking about.

She’d seen Sean (photo below) grind through the startup life several times in the years since they got married. She knew what to expect. What she didn’t anticipate was how familiar an experience it would be to a mother of two.

“You’re constantly thinking about the baby. You’ve got to keep the baby healthy and keep the baby fed,” she says. “We had this kind of gift of time where things were getting settled. [Her son] Griffin was getting settled and Chelsea [his older sister] had gone to San Francisco. We had this crack of daylight. And now we’re back to having a baby again. It’s seven days a week, 24/7.”

They’ve had to make some tough decisions — like whether or not they should have a space. Every consultant they brought in, and every piece of advice they fielded, told them it was a bad idea. But you can’t really call yourselves a community without being part of one. And an unexpected benefit came when they opened up their tasteful, open-plan space (with a small store in the front) on an Arts District street: members of the community came in and asked if they could rent it.

“We never thought to monetize it,” she says. “Our biggest financial liability is also our biggest asset.”

There have been many small pivots as well, and unforeseen difficulties — such as the cost of manufacturing and owning your own plant (which they do not, yet) in the US. But, as with child-rearing, Scott preaches patience. Experience helps too.

“Both of us were 53 and I was like ‘You know, this is a real great time to be doing this. We can get it going and get it healthy, and in five years get some people in to nurture it and have some more free time’," she says. "I just never saw myself sitting still. I thought I wanted a year, but apparently I didn’t. Having something you care about is important. It wasn’t a financial concern. It was about being challenged and giving back.”

 
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