Upstart Laura Shumaker has always been one of those people who looks at something and imagines a better way to make or do it. After completing a mechanical engineering degree from MIT, she realized that her natural non-linear design-oriented mind coupled with her logic-driven engineering degree made her uniquely equipped to bring her ideas to the market.
What are you currently working on?
I design rock climbing shoes for my company, SFT Climbing. I’ve designed the first pair of climbing shoes that can be adjusted to suit each climber’s individual style, and now I’m working on preparing them for manufacturing.
Many climbing shoes aspire to provide all-around performance: comfort, sensitivity, and support. At best, however, these shoes offer a compromise on the scale between comfort and aggressiveness. SFT’s shoe design is the first to offer the wearer control of the shoe’s parameters - it can be adjusted from a comfortable state ideal for warming up or belaying, to a downturned state which rivals the most aggressive bouldering shoes on the market.
SFT’s patent pending design incorporates a toe box whose position relative to the wearer’s heel can be changed, thereby adjusting the downturn of the shoe and the position and freedom-of-motion of the wearer’s foot within it. The shoe design is lighter than the average shoe, takes less than 2 seconds to adjust (2 times faster than removing most shoes to relax your feet), and offers its wearer the precise performance point desired at all times.
What has been the most surprising part about being an upstart?
The shear diversity of people attracted to being a part of Upstart has surprised me. Its value is definitely in how it leverages all the benefits of a large pool of investors and entrepreneurs, while creating a uniquely personal background for the interactions it facilitates between people who might never otherwise cross paths.
What advice would you give to people considering becoming upstarts?
Upstart breaks down into two aspects: funding and network. Funding is straightforward to understand and can be attained through many avenues, but what sets Upstart apart is the network they’re growing. To maintain this network, then, upstarts have a responsibility to their backers and to the Upstart community as a whole. If you’re considering becoming an upstart, make sure to consider whether this aspect appeals to you and what advantages it might bring you.
You have a degree in mechanical engineering. Any ideas on how to encourage more people, especially women, to study STEM?
Legos. No Child Left Without Legos. Legos are amazing because they’re arguably sexless and allow anything from casual play to developing extremely complex structures. The barrier to fun is low but not insulting.
The Lego model - neutral and approachable but scalable - can be applied at any of the entry points to a STEM career. This means toys, games, school projects. We don’t need to make engineering “girly” in order to attract girls to it (there’s a parallel in outdoors gear: ‘Shrink it and Pink it’ often has the opposite effect on intended buyers). Making STEM approachable also means focusing less on “this is why you should not think that STEM is scary or boring,” and instead focusing more on “this is why STEM is awesome and fun.”
A year from now, what personal/ professional achievements do you hope to be celebrating?
I cannot wait for the first time I see a stranger wearing my shoes. Since the plan is to offer them for pre-order this June, hopefully I won’t have to wait a full year before that happens. However, I know I’ll celebrate every time I see someone climbing in SFT’s shoes for a long time.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Early on, Anna Mongayt told me, “Learn how to hustle.” Even if doing so is second-nature, having a backer say that is an excellent reminder to communicate your story in a focused, logical way.
Do you have a piece of advice or quote that keeps you motivated and focused?
There isn’t precisely a quote, but at the end of the day, I like to step back and ask myself, “Have you done everything you can do today so that you’ll be able to hit the ground running tomorrow? What could go wrong, and do you have a plan to address possible issues?” It’s a mentality I picked up while I was a product designer at a consultancy, and I usually deployed it before a prototype or factory build - it’s always worth checking yourself three or four times before ordering PCBs fabricated or injection molding tools machined. It also turns out that the same questions apply to most stages of bringing a product to market because it reminds me to always go the extra mile.
If you could have dinner with one person, dead or living, who would it be and why?
The practical part of me would like to have dinner with Charles Cole, the founder of Five Ten Shoes, because I could learn a lot from his experience. But that could be a pretty one-way conversation, which gets awkward. So instead, I’d love to have a dinner conversation with Janelle Monae. I’ve been listening to her thematic albums on repeat while building prototype shoes. Her music has a seductive depth, lyrically, tonically, and rhythmically. What’s more impressive is that she set out to tell a story that spans multiple albums and requires tight control over her production - something very few artists carve out the freedom to do in their industry. If her career was a startup, people might call it disruptive. Since I aspire to bring a similar disruption to my field, it would be fascinating to get to discuss her experience and inspiration with Ms. Monae.