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Foot in the Door for Sustainability

Terp Helps Make Sure Nike’s Sneakers Are All Green

By Chris Carroll

Nike shoe

Nike's Space Hippy line of shoes was developed with the help of Kelley Baek '05, MBA '11, the company's director of sustainable footwear materials, and incorporates recycled materials to lessen its environmental "footprint."

Image courtesy of Nike

The days of tanned cowhide and canvas as state-of-the-art shoe materials are long past, but are you ready to step into the future of footwear—donning a pair of kicks crafted from Flyleather, perhaps?

“No, it’s not actually leather from a fly,” said Kelley Baek ’05, MBA ’11, director of sustainable footwear materials at Nike, who oversaw a project to turn leather waste into an attractive and durable material. The name elicited a few chuckles, but it’s now available in the company’s shoe lines.

Kelley Baek ’05, MBA ’11 headshot

She plays a central role in the athletic footwear, apparel and equipment giant’s Move to Zero initiative aiming for carbon neutrality and the elimination of landfill waste. Not everyone burns through shoes like a competitive runner, but we all fuel an industry that generates an estimated 1.4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the United States alone discarding 300 million pairs of shoes each year.

Baek manages scientific and engineering efforts to create better, greener materials for shoe parts, whether plastic bag-derived uppers or soles incorporating chunks of colorful recycled foam, as in the Space Hippie running shoe line, which she helped develop. The imperative to meet the company’s performance standards while setting new environmental ones makes for an intriguing challenge.

“Luckily, the enthusiasm for people all across the company to do things more sustainably is very high,” she said.

A biological sciences major, Baek worked in the biotech industry before realizing her true interest lay in coordinating science and business. So she returned to UMD for an MBA, and in the process went to Israel for an entrepreneurship fellowship through the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship that required her to make repeated pitches to a gruff group of venture capitalists, “Shark Tank”-style.

The experience carries over to far more pleasant meetings where she presents innovative—even odd—ideas to Nike execs. “If I communicated clearly or gave a great presentation, I attribute it to that weekly throwdown with the VCs who tore apart everything I said.”

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