Meet John Tawney, Founder of Common Ground

Facing an empty nest and in need of a challenging new chapter, John Tawney walked away from 15 years at Nike to launch a shoe company that inspires empathy to bring social about change. Common Ground leverages thoughtful design to provoke curiosity and catalyze conversation among its customer base. With collections inspired by gun violence, marriage equality, immigration, and gender among others, John’s team designs a unique pattern for the left and right shoe of any given pair in order to challenge customers to think critically and empathetically about complex social issues. John is passionate about starting a productive dialogue to drive progress in our communities and we recently had the privilege of sitting down with him to learn exactly how he intends to make that happen.

Common Ground is a shoe company committed to taking the necessary steps to catalyze conversation around social causes. We have to ask, of all the mediums and manners in which you could have pursued this goal - why shoes?

At our core, we believe empathy and conversation are necessary ingredients to solve problems and deliver change. Shoes allow us to communicate and reinforce those beliefs through familiar messaging:

  • Walk in somebody else’s shoes to build understanding.
  • Find common ground as a foundation for progress.
  • Work together, like two shoes, to deliver change.

And maybe most importantly, shoes remind us of the remarkable impact our steps can have on the lives of others. Having spent 25 years in the footwear industry I am aware of the unique role footwear plays in our culture, and particularly in youth culture. What you wear on your feet can be a powerful indicator of what you stand for. In the case of Common Ground, we stand for progress.

Before founding Common Ground you had a long and successful career at Nike, perhaps most notably leading their NIKEiD customization program. How did you end up in the shoe industry to begin with and how did your experience at Nike prepare you for social entrepreneurship?

I wasn’t a college athlete nor a shoe collector nor from a family of cobblers! What drew me to footwear was the opportunity to apply my mechanical engineering background to products that everyone could access and that would contribute to their enjoyment of life. That opportunity, combined with the entrepreneurial and creative work environment of Nike (Just Do It) led me down the footwear career path.

As it turns out, innovation and entrepreneurship share many of the same principles: resourcefulness, designing with empathy, valued partnerships, identification of deep consumer connections, etc. If I could pass along my top three, which I think apply to whatever adventure you’re undertaking, they would be:

  • Have Purpose. Utilize why you’re on this journey to strengthen and guide your team. It will help you get through the good times and the bad, the failures, and the doubt.
  • Jump In. There is nothing more important than learning from doing.
  • Leadership. Nothing just happens. It all takes incredibly hard work. It isn’t a short journey. Through it all, you must be agile yet lead with purpose. You must provide your partners with the necessary inspiration, encouragement, resources, and space to deliver remarkable work.

So whether it is an innovation project at Nike, an entrepreneurial endeavor like Common Ground, or the steps we take as individuals in pursuit of social change – take the steps and believe in both your abilities and that of your team to make a difference.

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Your career trajectory presents an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast the social and environmental influence of large and small businesses in the same space.

I actually started my career at Ford Motor Company … so I often say I’ve gone from the aircraft carrier (Ford) to the battleship (Nike) to the kayak (Common Ground). So why did I choose the kayak? I had recently turned 50, spent half my life in a dream job, and enjoy a wonderful wife and four children. All four kids were on the verge of venturing away from home and I needed to figure out the purpose of my next “work” chapter. I wrote down my professional priorities:

  1. Be challenged. Be Learning.
  2. Work with nice people.
  3. Do Good.
  4. Continue in footwear (based on my experience and love of product).

Those priorities evolved into starting a shoe company that inspires empathy to bring social change.

When considering social and environmental influence, we think of two related but distinct eco-systems. One is the consumer marketplace; the other the footwear supply chain. In terms of the consumer marketplace, being small has some distinct advantages. First, the larger companies have no monopoly on good ideas and new thinking. Their thinking is no more novel and original than ours. Second, being small and new lets us speak with an authentic voice. It is why we were created; it is why we exist. Third, being small means we have to be lean and creative. And leaving the best for last, being small means everyone involved believes in the purpose of common ground. This sense of ownership, of belief, of commitment to social change is our secret weapon.

It is our belief that small brands have an obligation to be fully knowledgeable as to their entire supply chain, seeking out factories and suppliers that follow those industry leading standards. It isn’t something that you can leave to others.

In terms of the footwear supply chain, large business can use their leverage to lead and innovate. Recent advancements have come about due to years of investment and cooperation between the large brands, factory partners, and suppliers. Fortunately, most of those learnings are freely shared for the benefit of the entire footwear industry. Small businesses will struggle trying to impact the supply chain but they do have the opportunity to adopt and implement the standards created by the industry leaders. It is our belief that small brands have an obligation to be fully knowledgeable as to their entire supply chain, seeking out factories and suppliers that follow those industry leading standards. It isn’t something that you can leave to others.

So you took what you learned at Nike and launched an innovative brand whose intended impact reaches far beyond high quality footwear. How does empathy influence your design process at Common Ground?

During my work in innovation, I learned that one of the best things you can do is help someone become a better innovator. If you can do that, you’ve unleashed someone who can solve all kinds of problems. I reasoned that if our company could inspire empathy, then we’ve put someone on the path to becoming a better problem solver; a better changemaker. A good example of how empathy plays a role in our design process is to explore how we create unique left and right graphics for our footwear. The brief for a particular social issue requires the artist to address the following

  • Different, yet equally weighted viewpoints for each foot
  • Continuity between feet, symbolizing our connected humanity
  • Opportunities for discovery and interpretation

We found that the process of creating the art – physically capturing different points of view – was an extremely rich and rewarding experience for the artist, requiring the artist and team to assess their capacity to “walk in the other shoe”.

And how do you aim to inspire empathy in your customers?

The art in each collection – with its unique left and right design – invites discovery and interpretation of each social issue. It draws attention to the issue and provides a spark; an opening for conversation and engagement. Our collections fall into two categories: Equality and Gridlock.

Equality: These are issues of education, not compromise. These are issues that require those outside of the oppressed group to engage with empathy, to seek to understand the feelings and views of the marginalized person, to look beyond prejudice and bias to recognize and appreciate our differences. Common Ground stands firmly on the side of equality, currently offering Gender and Marriage Equality collections.

Gridlock: Our differences have become divisive, resulting in conflict and paralysis in the face of increasing challenge. Opinions are formed from fear rather than understanding. Common Ground seeks a different path, one in which people from all sides of an issue commit to working together to seek out mutual understanding. Common Ground stands firmly on the side of progress, currently offering Gun Violence and Immigration collections

What consumer trends is Common Ground trying to respond to?

Today’s politcal environment reminds us of the many challenges facing our highly divided and polarized society. Calls for innovative programs that get people out of their “bubbles” and talking to each other across the political divide are growing in number and volume. Tune in to any newscast, and you are likely to hear a call for common ground.

Common Ground has been listening. We are reaching out to those that see gridlock and frustratingly slow progress on issues of equality. We are reaching out to a market that is optimistic, yet cautious and realistic. We are reaching out to a market that recognizes progress comes as a result of their actions; their steps.

You’ve been able to produce some beautiful products without compromising your values. The fashion industry at large is full of opportunities to minimize your footprint and maximize your social impact. What impact can customers expect to make when they purchase your shoes?

We want our products to open minds and to help start new conversations. Authentic conversations rooted in empathy and honesty. Authentic connections despite our differences.

Unlike so many other social enterprises, people don’t buy our products so we will do something on their behalf. They buy our shoes as a symbol of the progress they want to see in the world and their belief in the power of empathy to solve problems. They buy our shoes as a catalyst for new thought and conversation, and as a representation of opposite sides working together to move forward. They buy our products to be identified as a foot soldier for progress.

We want our products to open minds and to help start new conversations. Authentic conversations rooted in empathy and honesty. Authentic connections despite our differences. That’s the path to progress, and it’s one we can all walk together.

There are more choices available to consumers than ever before, and we’re glad Common Ground products are among the mix. Tell us, what values and standards do you look for when purchasing clothing and accessories from other businesses?

  1. Goods I can own rather than simply use or consume.

  2. Goods that inspire or equip me to do great things.

  3. Goods that make me smile (these are the ones I tell friends about).