Pandere Co-founder Ayla Rogers shares her story of growing up in rural Alaska and how Pandere Shoes changed her life.
REMOTE ALASKA SEEDS THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT
Sometime around the late 90s, growing up not far from the confluence of the Susitna and the Skwentna rivers, Ayla saw her future. At the tender age of eleven, she knew she could run a business. All the pieces clicked, and she felt in her young heart that entrepreneurship was her ticket to independence.
Ayla came to this insight through a multitude of obstacles in her early years. At 3, she went into Alaska’s foster care system. At 7, she was adopted into a family with lots of other adopted kids. Welcome to the Matanuska Valley, Alaska.
Her new world provided a complex landscape of physical safety and the corollary of emotional uncertainty. With Alaska’s natural beauty fueling her creativity, she began to acquire the building blocks for living her dream: self-reliance, fearless exploration, and empathy for others. One does not grow up in the context of foster care and adoption without a substantial amount of struggle and its counterweight of tenacity.
A FOSTER KID WITH HUTZPAH
As a foster kid, she honed her skills of independence and self-reliance. When an Alaska kid gets a big dose of self-reliance early, the natural manifestation is to become an adventurer. Ayla’s appetite for adventure has been unquenchable since she was a teenager. It came out in nearly everything she embraced from school age to adulthood. The net effect was a deep reservoir of intelligence and hutzpah for a kid that had a graduating class of 72 people.
And like a lot of entrepreneurs, she took her swings at bat. She curated the ability to channel the misses into learning. She had her Real Estate license by the time she was 22 and began investing in real estate shortly thereafter. In her mid-20s, she started a company to export used tires to Africa. She dabbled in developing an AI remote property monitoring business. And during all this time, she became a pillar of support to the local Anchorage startup community. By 27, she had already explored New Zealand and Europe
STARTUP WEEKEND - PANDERE FOUNDERS MEET
In 2016, Ayla volunteered to help get a local Startup event off the ground. The event - Startup Weekend - allowed each participant to pitch an idea for a new business. Then over the course of the weekend, groups would form to advance their ideas into a developed business model.
Pandere Co-Founder Laura Oden pitched her idea to make shoes for people who could not fit into off-the-rack shoes. More specifically, shoes designed for a very forgotten population, those with Lymphedema. (‘Lympha-what?!) Then Laura explained the potential populations that could benefit from having new choices in footwear, including people with edema, diabetes, and other medical conditions. Laura described her struggle with footwear in her own life, and the idea moved on to the next round. The third Co-Founder - Celia MacLeod, along with Ayla and Laura, formed a team and went on to win their first (of many) competitions.
So by the time Ayla met her Pandere Co-Founders in 2016, she came to the table with a well-developed mix of adventure, enthusiasm, and lived experience. The founding team has always said they had the perfect triad of Founders on the first day they met. And when Ayla heard Laura tell the struggle of millions of Americans that had been marginalized by the shoe industry, she could not help but be drawn in. The business idea had the ideal balance of helping people who were suffering and building a company from the ground up.
When you see a successful business, it often seems like it happened overnight. Pop culture is immersed in Startup examples, from podcasts to talk shows. When their stories are told, the day-to-day slog ends up evaporating from the tale. In Pandere’s case, the team met every Sunday from 9am till 1pm from 2016 to 2020. Only this summer did the Founders give up the weekly ritual of their Sunday morning meeting - they cut their Sunday meeting down to every other Sunday.
The first prototypes were ridiculous, expensive, and entirely unusable. Eventually, they made the right connections, and these early days, especially on Sundays, allowed them to envision their own company and develop their own message of hope and resilience for people who had been discounted by the footwear industry.
THE SLOG ON A ROLLERCOASTER
Starting any business is a roller coaster. The triad had plenty of low points, but the driving force behind the team was always the mission to provide mobility and dignity to people who have been in Laura’s situation. Ayla, as Chief of Customer Experience, has by now spent thousands of hours talking with people who have had problems with finding shoes and listening to their experiences. These are the stories that inspire Pandere’s innovative designs. They’re also the electricity that connects the company to its customers.
Pandere Shoes has survived the most difficult part of being born. Just wrapping up its fourth year together, Pandere has made it through concept, prototyping, launch, and wholesaling and now beginning to scale into other countries. Not to mention, they've kept the Pandere Headquarters in their off-the-beaten-path hometown of Anchorage, Alaska.
When her co-founders think of Ayla, they think of a tenacious spirit and a can-do attitude. Her lived experience leads her to instinctively put customers first. Celia, a fellow co-founder, says this of Ayla: “Startups are hard, and Ayla is often the ‘wind beneath our wings.' She brings such a positive attitude when we are working on solving really hard problems. She is never Pollyanna about the hard stuff, but she can bring Laura and me out of the gloomy places and always reminds us that our job is to make people feel better.”
CO-FOUNDERS AYLA ROGERS AND LAURA ODEN
After 20 years of searching and experimenting, Ayla has found a home in entrepreneurship. Building and growing Pandere Shoes has been a creative outlet and a way to hone in on skills adapted from her early struggle. She remains passionate about being a part of a company and team that is changing lives.