How ‘Having More Books Than Shoes’ Helped Nike Footwear Designer Cheresse Thornhill Land Her Dream Job

5 tips to take your dreams from design to action
May 28, 2015

In 1999, 14-year-old Cheresse Thornhill scribbled her dream on a piece of paper: to work for Nike. Seven years later, she started her first day as a footwear design intern. Today, she is the footwear design lead for Nike’s emerging markets product creation team, leading two designers in creating cricket, running and sports footwear for Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and India. And it all started with a dream and a pencil.

Most dreams begin as a spark in our hearts or an idea in our heads, but the design might not always be clear. Sometimes we just have to start by writing it down, like Thornhill did.

The journey of Cheresse Thornhill, who is lauded on a number of popular sneakerhead blogs and already holds a number of design patents, offers a glimpse into how you can take your dreams from design to action:

1. Write down your dream.

Putting her dream to paper was something Thornhill says helped her make her dream come true. “I think that if you have a dream but you don’t tell anyone or write it down at all, it’s more of a wish,” Thornhill says. This classic principle was the difference-maker between simply dreaming a dream and making it come true.

2. But it’s OK if you don’t always think it’ll come true.

Thornhill admits, “When I wrote it, I didn’t believe that it was going to happen.” At some point, believing in your dream is necessary, but it doesn’t mean those moments of disbelief in your dream are unreasonable. Write it down anyway. And then the real work begins.

3. Develop your craft.

Thornhill attended the Miami arts magnet high school DASH that encouraged her artistic pursuits and afforded her school hours to draw and develop her product design major. She spent at least 20 hours of her school week on her artistic craft and another 5-10 hours each week at home. “I would watch TV and sketch—or there was always a Jordan sneaker I wanted but could never afford, so I would draw it out.”

Before her dream of designing for Nike materialized, Thornhill was designing for herself. She dedicated herself to learning about the shoe industry. I have more books than shoes, and I have a lot of shoes,” she says. “I have tons of books about sneakers and sneaker history.”

What skill, if highly developed, would most help you achieve your dream? How many hours are you spending on developing that skill each week? Don’t beat yourself up if the answer is zero—start small and carve out an hour or so in your week that you can dedicate to whatever craft or skill that could most accelerate your dream.

4. Show your work.

What was Thornhill specifically doing those dedicated hours per week? She was assembling her portfolio, something she had learned would be necessary if she were to have even the smallest chance of her dream coming true. She attended the prestigious College of Creative Studies in Detroit and learned that a Nike recruiter was going to be at the Detroit Auto Show. So she went and hung around, trying to get the recruiter’s attention. She got a business card.

But it’s what she did next that set her apart. She followed up. She built the relationship. She sent her work. And when her junior year of college rolled around, she sent the portfolio she diligently worked on for years. And she got an internship.

5. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do.

Thornhill continued practicing her work ethic and eventually got a job in Nike women’s training as a footwear designer. Actually getting the job, she says, “was surreal. I’ve been here for eight years and I still have moments where I just sit… and I still can’t believe that this happened.”

And it was never just about getting a desk at her dream company—it was about doing the work and deciding what direction to take, even when she was unsure where to start designing. “I really learned that you can’t wait for anyone to give you anything to do. Even at a job where you are being paid to do a specific job, you can’t wait on someone to tell you what to do. I really had to go out and find things to do.”

When she really wanted to be a part of the Jordan brand, she asked a colleague who was working on it, D’Wayne Edwards (who is now the founder of PENSOLE, a leading footwear design academy), about getting involved. It’s amazing what can happen when you ask. As Thornhill puts it, “D’Wayne said, ‘I’ll give you projects to work on.’ I did my first 12 projects with his team.”

“You kind of just have to do things. Sort of like, just do it. No pun intended.”

Think your dream job is just a myth, something unattainable? Find out 5 reasons why you’re wrong.

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