Before designer, activist and founder of his namesake shoe company Kenneth Cole (’76C) addressed the senior class of 2015 for Class Day on Thursday night, he asked them not to judge him.
“Disclaimer: I’m not a speaker; I have a day job — I sell stuff, some days more than others, in different places, in different colors and sizes,” he said to the seniors, who filled Glenn Auditorium near its 1,200 capacity. “But you’re going to judge me, because that’s what you do. So I’m going to ask that, before you judge someone, you walk a mile in their shoes — preferably mine. And if you don’t like them, then you’re a mile away from them, and you have their shoes.”
For the annual Commencement Week event, Cole took Emory’s graduating seniors for a walk in his shoes, not only through personal anecdotes that sent waves of laughter through the audience, but also by describing his feelings upon returning to his alma mater, which he said he has visited “periodically” since graduating in 1976.
“I was here at Emory a few years ago, and I took easy classes, I drank beer, and I’ll admit I smoked pot, but it was medicinal of course,” Cole said. “I find it interesting that on Monday, you’ll be walking across the same lawns, sitting in the same chairs, with the same shapeless gowns, the same unflattering shapeless gowns and square hats for your round heads, with tassels no less, and you’ll only be distinguishable by your shoes.”
He described his plan to start a business in the 80s, when he stocked up on Italian-made leather shoes and registered a company called Kenneth Cole, Inc.
“I used my own name, because it was easy to register, and it would make my mother happy,” Cole said.
But he hit a dead end when it came to finding a place to sell his inventory in his home city of New York. A friend quickly shot down his plan to sell footwear straight from a street trailer: “This is New York — you can’t park a bicycle for 10 minutes, let alone a trailer for 10 days.”
Cole then called the mayor of New York at the time, who told him he could legally sell goods on the corner of Sixth and 56th Streets either as a utility company or a production company.
He quickly changed his company’s name to Kenneth Cole Productions and began filming “The Birth of a Shoe Company” — he sold 40,000 shoes from his trailer in two and a half days.
“I tell that story, because it continues to remind me and my associates that the best solution is rarely the most expensive one, that you have to get creative,” he said.
Cole also recalled his involvement with awareness campaigns during the AIDS epidemic since his business — still called Kenneth Cole Productions — took off, albeit not without the stigma generally associated with the disease.
“If you said ‘AIDS,’ everyone would assume you were either Haitian, an IV drug user or gay,” he said, then added, jokingly, “I was a single male designer, so I knew everyone would assume I was Haitian.”
Cole’s involvement with the AIDS awareness nonprofit amfAR stretches back to 1987, when he joined the organization’s board, of which he is now chair. At the Class Day event, he recalled one of many advertising campaigns meant to foster AIDS awareness, including one that featured women and children photographed by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz.
“Everyone loves beautiful women, and nobody hates children, until they get older, get opinions and make you pay for their college education,” Cole said, as the seniors erupted in laughter.
Then, taking a more serious tone, he pivoted his focus from past anecdotes to the future awaiting the class of 2015.
“The world is changing today at such an unfathomable speed,” Cole said. “Some associate asked me, ‘Where do you think we’ll be in five years?’ and I said, ‘That’s an irrelevant question.’”
Cole marveled at the instantaneous growth of sharing companies like Uber and Airbnb, the income gap in the U.S., the national pay gap between men and women and other social issues.
But he mostly expressed his awe at the power of social media.
“Today I’ve realized that everyone has their own brand,” he said. “People curate their own audiences — they don’t just curate their content — and that is transformative.”
He encouraged the soon-to-be-graduates to use the power of online social media to “find your voice,” “commit yourself to community building” and not to spend too much energy worrying about their first jobs.
“I know many of you are anxious about your futures and your careers, and many of you have anxiety and have resorted to substance abuse and psychoanalysis,” Cole said. “But a job is not who you are … It needs to be a tool to get you to where you want to be.”
College senior Ashley Ferreira, a fellow of the Kenneth Cole Foundation’s Emory-based Community Building and Social Change program, which Cole launched in 2001, said she found it interesting to hear Cole mention the fellowship that changed her college experience for the better.
“It’s one of the best, most inspiring things I’ve done at Emory,” she said of the fellowship, which trains students to actively push government bodies, businesses, nonprofit groups and ordinary people to help enact social progress in urban communities, according to the program’s website.
Andrew Teng, a College senior, said he appreciated Cole’s spontaneous manner of speaking.
“I thought it was awesome and especially liked how he used all these little jokes,” Teng said. “And it seemed very casual, like he’s probably told those stories before, but it definitely wasn’t rehearsed.”
For last year’s Class Day event, lead Entourage actor and sustainability activist Adrian Grenier spoke, while former Atlanta Braves player Chipper Jones addressed the class of 2013.