Ian Williams started out mopping the floors at Nike HQ. Three years later, he was designing shoes.
Portland is a shoe town. Nike and Adidas are both headquartered there. Downtown, sneaker geeks wander from boutique to boutique, searching for their favorite classics in rare colorways. Many of them work for the big local shoe companies that, in the Twentieth Century, defined not only footwear, but branding itself.
Amidst the stores, a narrow sliver of doorway leads into a small coffee shop called Dead Stock Coffee. The interior is half-gallery, half-museum, all dedicated to sneaker culture. Sit for awhile and you’ll meet sneaker lovers of all shapes and sizes—teenage skaters, middle-aged basketball enthusiasts, Nike executives bringing their sons by to hang out with the owner. Even the name is an insider reference to the shoe industry.
The owner in question is a man named Ian Williams. He seems to know everyone who comes in, doling out coffee and conversation to a strange and distinct community of shoe fans. He seems a bit like a merchant in an ancient bazaar, distributing wares and wisdom for those traveling through the Land of Sneaker.
Ian is perfect for a job where disparate groups come together to celebrate shoes (he calls himself a “hypebarista”), because he was once a janitor at Nike’s global headquarters until, somewhat miraculously, he convinced them to give him a chance as a product engineer. He has seen the very top and the very bottom of creative corporate, all through the lens of shoes....
How did you end up in such a notoriously white place like Portland?
I’m from Newport News, Virginia. I moved to Portland when I was 10 years old with my whole family. My brother got a job at Intel out of college, and my dad was really sick with cancer, which was the only thing that was keeping us in Virginia. My dad passed, and there was nothing tying us there. My mom decided it would be an opportunity for us to start over, so we moved here. I've been in Oregon since then. Grew up in Hillsboro, little suburb outside of Portland, about 30 minutes from here.
Were you the only black kid?
I was definitely the only black kid in Hillsboro. One of the only ones in all the schools that I went to while I lived here, public school and private school. I just always knew that I was a representation for what everybody else was going to expect to see from black people for the rest of their lives. Which is kind of crazy to understand when you're 10 years old.
Did you understand that?
Yeah. I've always been an old soul. One of the last things that my dad said to me was take care of your mom, you're the man now. From nine years old, I felt that. When we moved, I was like that's what I'm doing.
A surprising number of the successful people I've interviewed lost a parent when they were young. Do you think that it contributed to your success in some way?
I mean, I would give some of it to that. That's not necessarily something that you could ever be prepared for or set yourself up for. You're not like, okay, just in case my dad passes away, I got to be ready to be grown.
What I mean is, does it make you more ambitious than most?
Possibly. I think at the same time, it can calm you down. If you're a crazy person, it can really slow you down and put some things in perspective. I guess that is a type of drive, but I also know people whose parents have passed and really don't do anything but stay the same.
Where did your love of shoes come from?
I’m from Virginia, where Allen Iverson is from. Seeing him growing up, he was dominant in basketball and football. He won a state championship in both, as a junior, and then never even had a chance to play his senior year and still went full ride to Georgetown and was a first round pick for the Sixers. That's crazy. His first shoe at Reebok came out around the time when I was going to a private school with uniforms. I got one pair of shoes a year, and that was my school shoe for the year.
From there, I loved the way that he expressed himself on the basketball court. He didn't really care about who he was in front of others, he was himself. For me, that kind of told me that hey man, just be yourself. Even in this place where it's extremely foreign, people who don't look like me. That was where my love and my passion for sneakers came from.
How did you start working for Nike?
Around that time, I also realized that the people around me within the school, all the parents and everything like that, they owned businesses, they were high up in companies. That was kind of what told me I needed to start paying attention to what's going on. Even when you go over to people's houses for dinner, ask them what they do, how long they been doing that, how they got there, where they went to school, blah, blah, blah. From 12, 13 years old I was already on the what's the next step phase in my mind.
So I graduated from high school and I didn't really have any motivation to go to college, so my plan was just to find a cool job doing some stuff I like, so I sold cars, detailed cars. I just wanted to be around cars for a while. During the summers, I taught a go kart racing camp. I worked at a place where I was answering phones. I had all sorts of odd jobs, and I was buying shoes with my money, so I figured why not just find something where I was going to work with footwear and figure out a way to get paid to wear shoes instead of paying. So I took a job at a Nike store, just as a seasonal worker.
You were a janitor, right?
Well, no. I was retail at the Nike store. Then from there, I took a temp job making airbags. That was a manufacturing job, 12 hour shifts, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, every other Monday, 5:30 am to 5:30 pm. I was 19 years old with this manufacturing job, no life, no nothing. I didn't get to hang out with my friends, I went to bed, went to sleep, woke up, went to work. From there, I realized I wasn't going to get any exposure so I quit that and took a janitor job on the Nike campus.
How did you go from janitor to shoe engineer??
I would be there when people were getting off work or when they were getting ready to leave. The last thing they really wanted to do was talk about work, so I would talk to them about their kids, talk to them about music, sports, all to get their mind off of work and get them to know me, so that whenever that opportunity came where I needed a a job or wanted something, I could approach them as a friend, not as a dude who takes out the trash.
Being at such an elite company, were people condescending towards you at all?
Yeah, especially those at the top of the food chain, right? They're the pinnacle of footwear. They're what everybody wants to be. All the brands, not only footwear, but technology and marketing companies, everybody aspires to be them. So some of the people were definitely jerks sometimes, but that also was why I knew I needed a different approach than just "Hey, please, let me get an opportunity." I became a friend.
You were making friends with these people whenever you could?
Yeah. I would get in trouble for talking too much, and they would move me to another area, and then I would meet a new crop of people. I would do a good job there, get to know everybody, get in trouble again, move to a new area!
I got shit from the other side too. A lot of the leadership in custodial, we didn't see eye to eye. They were in their jobs for five, ten years being a janitor, and I'm trying to be there for months and people were giving me stuff. I was going to dinner, I was going to parties. I was hanging out with these people who were supposed to be my customers, who were told not to talk to me. My managers all just kind of hated on it.
So what was the key to convincing people that you could do the design job?
It took three years and I quit two times. One time, I just was kind of over it. I was like, man I'm done, and I told some people who were mentors of mine who were designers and stuff. It was like, "I'm getting ready to quit, I'm done. Can you guys help me find another job?" They were like, "All right, just hold out a couple more weeks. Let me find you something before you quit."
That's when you figure out who your real friends are, probably.
Yeah, it really is because there were definitely some people who, no matter what, didn’t want to give me a chance. To this day, they still treat me like shit because they feel like that's what they're supposed to do because they're better than me. But who says they're better than me?
Anyway, I kept asking for any job, and finally the skate department gave me a chance to present some ideas. They were the ones that really wanted to give me a chance. They really listened. I presented this pack, called the Custodian Pack, it was a three shoe pack. There was a Windex shoe, a shoe inspired by Windex, one inspired by my vacuum that I had, like the carpet from Nike and the vacuum cleaner colors and the orange extension cord and all that stuff. Then one that was inspired by the slippery sign, the caution sign.
Some of them thought they were garbage, but they actually released one! The slippery sign one. Then somebody finally was like, "Look, man, I see you working hard, I see you hustling. Here's a shot." He said, “fill in for me for a couple months while I'm out of town."
"There were definitely some people who, no matter what, didn’t want to give me a chance. To this day, they still treat me like shit because they feel like that's what they're supposed to do because they're better than me. But who says they're better than me?"
What was the first day like when you came in as an actual employee of Nike?
Well we were employees, the custodians, which is kind of funny because a lot of people didn't treat you like an employee.
Oh sorry, that was me just saying…that’s my own classism coming through.
It’s okay. Yeah, that first day, I mean, it was different, but it wasn't. I had been around that team for so long, I had been doing that exact job for so long, all that really mattered was that now I clocked in early, I didn't clock in late. As much as I want to say it was life changing, it kind of wasn't because I was supposed to be there. That was what I wanted to do, it didn't matter. They could have kept paying me to be a janitor, I still would have done it. I knew that the respect for me was both going to change, but some people looked at me like a joke still. Even moreso.
So how why did you leave to start Dead Stock Coffee?
About two years in I realized that the company was more about making money and not so much about the art. I wasn't really getting chances to do what I wanted to do. I was embracing everything I could, but there was a lot of empty promises. I had a lot of managers and every time a new manager would come in, I'd have to kind of restart. Over the four years, I had five managers. That's crazy, you know? Every manager wanted to watch me for six months before I moved on, then when that six months is over, that new manager comes in.
So I started curating art shows under another company I had called Greater Than Good. We started doing little pop up, single day art shows inviting people within the industry. It was just to get everybody together, kind of to celebrate us and our passions. I started to brainstorm. I wanted to open a gallery, but galleries make no money. What can make money, but that still brings people together? Coffee shops are the pulse of the community, whether it be the actual geography of where you are, or what you’re interested in, that's your community that you build. The hope was to create a place where people who work in the industry could go to hang out, because once you start going from job to job within companies, it's quite small. If I work at Nike, you work at Adidas, we can't hang out at either of those places.
Do you even drink coffee?
I don't drink coffee. I drank a coffee today, but mainly because I wanted to try something new, but I only drank half of it. I probably drink maybe two coffees a week. I drink the same drink, it's mocha. I don't even really like chocolate, but it's what helps me mask the coffee flavor.
That’s hilarious. Alright final question. What’s your favorite shoe of all time?
Oh, Reebok Question. The white one with the red toe. Allen Iverson is the best basketball player of all time, hands down. Don't ever ask me to dispute it, you will lose.