Ahriana Edwards is the Founder and CEO of Vaila Shoes, where she provides women of forgotten shoe sizes (size 9-14) with access to modern dress shoe options that they desire and deserve. Ahriana noticed that the fashion industry has made strides in plus-size apparel, but there was still a gap within the plus-size footwear market (specifically dress shoes) that needed to be addressed. Established in 2021, Vaila utilizes the trends of today to create a seasonal dress shoe brand that satisfies size variety, fashion flexibility, and event-specific shopping. She’s on a dual mission to redefine beauty and retailer representation in the footwear industry. Aside from her business, she has a background in Business Entrepreneurship at Fayetteville State University and a certificate at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Footwear. She professionally held several sales and marketing roles with industry leaders such as Toyota, Nestle, and Facebook while also serving on the board of the Women’s Business Center of Fayetteville and mentoring with the Future Founder Entrepreneurship Junior Program.
What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
Ahriana Edwards: Being an entrepreneur is a profession of owning a business. However, entrepreneurship is a mindset. Your entire mindset is thinking about how the decisions and actions of today will impact the business, others, and the world. Many individuals can be an entrepreneur (ie. a business owner, those who have a side hustle, etc.) but the difference with entrepreneurship is the longevity mindset and practice of building something to be momentous and have a lasting legacy.
Tell us about your first experience with entrepreneurship.
AE: It honestly started when I was really young. My mom knew that I was going to be an entrepreneur before I knew (as she says). I found myself always being a problem solver and innovative thinker at a young age. Whenever I ran out of ingredients for my easy-bake oven and my mom didn’t have the money to buy me more; there I was googling ways and testing out baking formulas with household ingredients for an easy bake oven. When I was in middle school and I wanted to save up money to attend a summer camp, I sold candy (airheads were my bread and butter too!). When I lost all of my childhood weight and didn’t have enough money to buy clothes, I bought a sewing machine and taught myself how to hem my pants tighter. Whenever I didn’t have a solution to solve my problem or desire, I always found a way to get it done. So even as a young girl – I believe entrepreneurship was naturally engraved in me.
What is your company’s origin story? What is the biggest reason you started your business? What did those early days look like and teach you?
AE: Since middle school, I’ve always worn a larger shoe size that was more mature for my age. Talk about the struggle of going into a shoe store and wanting those cute sandals that all of my peers had in middle school and having my mom tell me that I’d have to shop in the men’s section. It was horrible growing up trying to be feminine and be current – but my shoe size would never let me.
It wasn’t until college when I decided to do something about it. It was Summer 2020 and like many people I was going through a reflection and transitional phase in which I started reevaluating how I wanted to show up in the world. I was cleaning everything including my closet. I was able to replenish everything but my shoes. It was a mess! I found myself going to multiple stores and shopping online for hours just to end up with nothing. Next thing I know, those middle school feelings of not being enough, not being qualified, not being beautiful rushed to my body at 21 all over again. I thought to myself, how am I supposed to show up as my “best self” if I can’t even find the shoes to accommodate me?
After that moment, it was clear: I needed to create Vaila to give us women with extended shoe sizes aVAILAbility. Those early days taught me to actually talk to women that were like me and figure out what the current footwear industry was missing and how to build the best footwear brand for them. I learned that they didn’t need any outrageous futuristic trends, they just wanted modern shoes that ladies with smaller feet had. In addition, they needed dress shoes because that was the hardest category for them to find. Lastly, they needed footwear that was actually designed for their feet. From there, I set out to create a footwear brand that did just that.
What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
AE: I wish that I took better note of who I was taking advice from. When you’re starting up a company, of course you’re looking far and wide for advice. However, if you stumble across the wrong advice – it can delay your entire process. I was talking to people about my idea who didn’t understand fashion, the opportunity at hand, extended shoe sizes, retail, footwear, etc. It left me running around in circles. When I was matched with my mentor, she was one of the first individuals who actually could relate, and she got it. The entire launching process looked completely better and made sense. Now, whenever I work with anyone or I build my team, I make sure that they are individuals that get the concept, vision, and impact. You’ll find that you save a lot of time and education by doing this.
What does “success” look like for you? We’d love to hear your biggest, boldest dream? What do you think will help you achieve it?
AE: Success to me looks like no women with an extended shoe size (of 9 and up) panicking about where to go to find dress footwear. I want all of our customers to look like Lola (for example): It’s Wednesday night and Lola has an event on Saturday morning. She’s been to several sites and several stores. She’s discouraged and frustrated because she cannot find a shoe that matches her beautiful outfit. Our banner/ad pops up on her Instagram feed and she orders a gorgeous pair of 3.5 inch satin black pumps that arrive at her doorstep on Friday morning. Lola then feels beautiful again, included, human again. She feels powerful, capable, attractive, and confident. That is our dream. To 10x/100x/1Mx Lola’s all around the world because they exist.
Extended-size footwear should absolutely be convenient and our biggest, boldest dream is to redefine beauty and footwear standards to achieve extended-size inclusivity. To achieve this, we plan on making our mark in retail all over the world.
What is your superpower as an entrepreneur? What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
AE: My superpower in entrepreneurship is my constant skill of being Futuristic. I am the kind of person who loves to peer over the horizon, and I can clearly envision what the future might hold within my company. The future fascinates and energizes me to strive to create a better product, a better team, a better life, and a better world. This will always be inspirational to me even when the present is frustrating or the people around me are negative. This not only applies to my company but to my team and my ability to energize them and raise their sights and spirits of what they can accomplish and where they can go. My futuristic strength also enabled me to be a natural motivator – which is needed when time gets tough.
Proudest Moment: Quitting my full-time job to go full-time Vaila and getting a 6-figure contract immediately after.
Darkest Moment: Being so distracted with business duties and spending lots of time away from family and finding out that my grandmother passed away.
What are your personal driving principals, your top values?
AE: My top values are authenticity, hard work, honesty, humility, and service.
How have those personal principles and values shaped your company’s values and principles?
AE: In fact, a lot of my values are similar to my company’s values because these were the foundations I used to be successful in the building of my company and are the same values that I stand by and continue to deliver for my community.
Vaila empowers women to celebrate their strength and embody their freedom of fashion expression
Vaila encourages women to show up as their FULL self while they achieve success in life’s pivotal moments
Vaila strives to have a tenacious culture that is capable of achieving anything and getting past any obstacle with persistence.
Vaila was founded on innovation and will continue to disrupt the industry for greater impact.
Vaila is at the core of redefining fashion standards to create a more inclusive environment for all.
What’s it like to work alone or with your partners?
AE: I love the balance of working alone and, also, with partners. Mainly because I’m able to create and facilitate with true thoughts and intentions and then I’m able to take that working process and make it better when I involve my partners. It’s a win-win.
Tell us about your mentor and what makes them valuable to you and your business?
AE: I have a lovely mentor who has helped me get to where I am in business. She has been incredibly valuable because she is also a lady with an extended shoe size (so she gets the company vision) and she has taken a product-based business from ecommerce to retail and has excelled. I envision myself reaching her milestone level in all aspects of life (business, personal, family) and that’s gives me motivation that I have proper guidance to get there.
What role does mentorship play in your world (as a mentor or mentee)?
AE: Mentorship is 100% important. Without being a mentee, I wouldn’t have reached nearly as many milestones with Vaila. From my mentorship, both parties are able to be confidantes, supporters, and guides. Most importantly, feeling like you’re not alone in the journey.
Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day?
AE: I wake up at 7am every day and, before I consume any social media or open my phone, I meditate and insert my mind with affirmations that help me start my day. For example, “You are worthy” and “You are meant to be successful.” When you wake up, your brain is the most vulnerable so whatever you intake first helps set the mood for the day. I also have a time budget that I follow every day. Rather than having a standard to-do list, I have a time budget which is a to-do list with time allocated to each assignment. This helps me a lot with managing my time and honoring self-control when other things pop-up throughout the day. My phone also is on Do Not Disturb every morning until 12pm to make sure that I am focused on accomplishing my must-do’s and reminding me that responses can wait. I also make sure that whenever I’m approaching a working burnout, I strategically plan to have small naps throughout the day to help me jumpstart my energy (because I’m not a coffee drinker). Lastly, I make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep.
What are you reading or have read?
AE: I’m mostly consuming podcasts nowadays! However, one of the best books that I have read (for personal & business) is Personality Plus by Florence Littauer. It helps you really becoming present in the world and learn how the power of connection with others can improve relationships and propel you forward.
Where do you go for inspiration?
AE: Podcasts (Slay Girl Slay & Product Boss), my favorite entrepreneurs (Pinky Cole and my founder friends), and my community/customers.
Do you have a favorite quote, mantra, or words of wisdom to get through the tough days?
AE: “You can’t say the right thing to the wrong person and you can’t say the wrong thing to the right person.”
Whenever I’m hearing all of the no’s and rejections, it reminds me that the right person and opportunity will be for me and there’s nothing that needs to be forced to get there. If they are the wrong person, it doesn’t matter how pretty you paint the picture – they won’t get it. But if they are the right person, they will get it and be in your corner regardless of how you present the opportunity at hand.
What is a problem that keeps you up at night?
AE: Like anyone who has an apparel business, your designs will not speak to all of your customers. I always wonder if I’m creating enough of what my customers want to keep them engaged, excited, and buying. As we know inventory management in retail/apparel is a beast in itself.
How do you think about helping others through your work?
AE: The beautiful thing about Vaila is that we’re able to tap into many different markets and give back while at it. We’ve been able to tap into LGBTQ, models, younger girls, moms, etc. and provide them with access to our products and support from our brand. Because they need it! We’re looking to start another giveback initiative really soon!
What advice do you have for fellow (and aspiring) entrepreneurs?
AE: Timing. We live in a society in which lots of things have a timeline associated. Think about retirement in a sense…there’s a notion that if we are working for an X amount of time at a corporate company, then we can retire around our 50s & 60s. On the other hand, social media for example has taught us that one can be an overnight success with one post. However, entrepreneurship is entirely different in the manner that we can decide our timeline and what occurs within it. Most importantly, an entrepreneurship timeline is different! I used to be so caught up that I needed to be tenured in business before I could make any sudden moves like raising money, or quitting my 9-5, or launching into retail. My advice would be to not get caught up in timelines and journeys because yours will look significantly different that your counterparts. Stay the course, follow your own path, and, last but not least, give yourself gratitude. Entrepreneurship is not an easy thing to do!
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as – as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
AE: I want to be the entrepreneur that was not afraid to step into overlooked spaces and create platforms for the underserved, undervalued, and under-appreciated. My legacy doesn’t just stop at shoes, it goes further to give back to my community, empower them to create better lives for themselves, and create spaces in which they can be successful. So, by the end of the fulfillment of my journey in life, I want my epitaph to read “She lived, she loved, she made a difference.” That’s exactly what I strive to do.
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