Big Shoes to Fill

When you're a high school girl with a size-11 foot, a cute pair of shoes might as well be made of platinum or diamonds. They don't exist. Yes, there are practical shoes, orthopedic shoes. "But they're not cute," Kathryn Kerrigan says.

She should know. "In high school, I remember driving with my dad to every shopping mall looking for prom shoes," says Kerrigan, who stands 6 feet tall. A basketball player while attending Lake Forest College in Illinois, she had friends even taller who had even bigger feet. For these young women with size-13 or -14 feet, even athletic shoes didn't fit-they had to wear men's. When they approached graduation, they couldn't find nice dress shoes for job interviews.

While getting her MBA at Loyola University in Chicago, Kerrigan drafted a business plan for a Web site selling stylish shoes primarily in sizes 10 and larger. After graduating in 2005, she continued to do research and found the need was greater than she imagined. More than 35 percent of women wear shoe sizes 9 and larger, while shoe factories stop production at sizes 10 or 11.

So she took her business plan to the bank and secured a loan for $30,000 and went to work-literally starting from nothing. "We had to create the molds for every shoe size, and in every heel height," she says. "These cost about $2,000 each." Kerrigan drafted sketches and specs for her first line of dress shoes and started working with a craftsman in Italy to produce her designs.

"At one point, I had to find humility and ask for help."

Although factory reps told her they didn't make the larger shoes because retailers didn't ask for them, Kerrigan found plenty of demand. Her first shipment sold out shortly after the site launched in December 2005. And, after being in business a short time, retailers started coming to her. Now her shoes are sold in more than 40 boutiques across the nation, and her sales nearly tripled last year.

Opening her own retail store wasn't in the business plan, she says, but the need was there, "and we had to do it." Last year, Kerrigan opened KK Shoes in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, and plans call for a second retail store on Chicago's exclusive North Shore in the next few years. Revenue tripled in 2007, Kerrigan says, and sales through January 2008 exceeded those from the same time period last year.

Kerrigan also plans to expand the shoe collection for teens, including more casual styles at more moderate price points. "We have moms calling our office who have daughters who are 13 or 14 and they're wearing shoe sizes 13-14," she says.

Now 28, Kerrigan remembers all too well her own footwear frustrations, and she's eager to provide trendy shoes for teens, and to help inspire confidence in them-like the motto on her Web site, "For Women Who Stand Tall."

She enjoys speaking with teens, going into classrooms or helping coach a girls' basketball team from time to time. "I love talking to young girls because there's so much garbage out there that influences these adolescent ages," she says. "I know it's important for them to see something positive, someone they can look up to, someone who can show them that you can have it all and be well-rounded.

How She Did It

Motivation: "If I knew everything I know now, I may not have gone into it. Sometimes, I'd hit a roadblock and then hit another roadblock. What kept me going was all the women who kept coming up to me crying and asking for shoes that fit."

Asking for help: "I'm used to being successful and being a great basketball player, and at one point I had to find humility and ask for help. And I realized there are so many people willing to help you without any ulterior motives."

Staying the course: After seeking advice from mentors and doing her own research, "I always came to the point when I had to make a decision. But you just do what's right and follow your instincts and stay true to your vision and your mission."

Advice: When you're planning to start your business, "Multiply everything by 3. It's not a magic number," she says, but it's important for entrepreneurs to be realistic "about everything from money to your sweat equity and time commitment."

On balance: "You love what you do and you want to do it all day, but you have to shut it off at a certain point," she says. "I have to leave laptops and shoe-related things at the office because if I bring them home, I'll work." Kerrigan also runs or lifts weights every day. "It's a great mind release after being so dedicated to one thing all day."

Giving back: "When it's all said and done, I want to be able to know I've influenced women and girls by being a positive person."

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