Ahriana Edwards, Vaila Shoes

This story was originally published on cdcloans.com.

When Ahriana Edwards landed her first corporate internship, she was thrilled—until it came time to shop for shoes.

For Ahriana, the limited shoe options available to women with larger feet had been a source of frustration and insecurity since middle school.

I’ve always found myself limited to wearing basic flats or one pair of heels that felt outdated. Women who wear larger sizes can always find sneakers, but professionally appropriate and fashionable dress shoes were something I didn’t see in the market.

Photo of Ahriana Edwards

In 2020, Ahriana, then a business administration student at Fayetteville State University, decided to do something about it. Just three years later, Ahriana’s company, Vaila Shoes, is available at select Macy’s stores and online at macys.com. To reach this point, Ahriana has had to overcome challenges that Black female entrepreneurs face all too often.

Building from the ground up

Ahriana had a vision for her product but was starting from scratch when it came to shoe design. “Google was my best friend at first,” she joked.

Before launching Vaila in March 2022, she spent two years on research and customer discovery. Ahriana named the company for her goal of making stylish shoes available in extended sizes. That work included reaching out to women ranging from athletes to corporate professionals to understand their footwear needs better. “The primary response I heard was simple. They just wanted to be able to wear the same styles as their colleagues,” she said.

Ahriana tapped into her network of graduates from Fayetteville State and other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This helped her identify designers who could help her bring her vision to life. “We position our shoes to be classic but with a twist,” she said. “They’re styles that are acceptable in the workplace, but with a little pizazz to bring out your authentic self. We designed them with the larger foot in mind, with a larger toe base and insoles that cover the width of your foot, to ensure comfort and prevent the development of foot problems over time.”

While she perfected her product, Ahriana also worked to secure initial funding. She pitched to over 200 competitions and grants, including Pharrell Williams’ Black Ambition Prize. She took home over $70,000 in funding to cover Vaila’s startup costs. Without a physical prototype to bring to early pitches, Ahriana said, the key to success was connecting personally with judges. Even if they didn’t share her specific experiences.

Sometimes that meant asking a panel of all men, “How would it feel if you couldn’t wear your standard black or brown dress shoes?”

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity brings new obstacles

Ahriana’s big break came six months after she launched Vaila when she landed a purchase order from Macy’s. The opportunity was a dream come true, but it also meant that Ahriana needed to scale.

Unfortunately, her efforts to meet this demand proved a little flat-footed.

“I had to be really proactive with finding capital to fulfill the order,” she said. Even with a lucrative purchase order from a national brand, dozens of lenders rejected Ahriana’s loan applications.

I thought I could leverage the purchase order and my excellent credit score in those conversations, but it wasn’t enough. I remember having conversations where people would say, ‘I’ll fund your second purchase order, but not your first.

By this point, Ahriana had quit her job to focus on Vaila full-time. She funneled her savings and contributions from friends and family into the company. “For months, I was up in the air about where I was going to get the capital from to fulfill the Macy’s order for spring,” she said. “I was eating noodles and grinding it out and beginning to feel broken down.”

Momentus Financing Fills a Market Gap

Photo of Ahriana Edwards

Ahriana’s financing challenges were not unique. Black women make up the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States. But they are disproportionately denied access to capital. Research shows that Black business owners’ applications for bank funding are rejected at three times the rate of white business owners.

That’s exactly the funding gap a new partnership between Macy’s, Inc. and Momentus Capital addresses. S.P.U.R. Pathways: Shared Purposed, Unlimited Reach is a multiyear, multifaceted funding program. It aims to advance entrepreneurial growth, close wealth gaps, and shatter systemic barriers faced by diverse-owned and underrepresented businesses. The program offers loans, impact investments, training, access to education, and other financial support to diverse-owned and underrepresented Macy’s, Inc. suppliers.

For Ahriana, the program launched at just the right time. Her Macy’s buyer quickly connected with CDC Small Business Finance, the small business lending arm of the Momentus Capital branded family of organizations.

As part of that process, she met Nick Maluso, a loan underwriter with CDC.

Nick understood my story and my vision. He looked beyond the age of my business and what was in my bank account to see me as a founder and a person. I tend to lowball myself—which may be a woman thing, or a Black thing—so I’m used to taking less and hustling to find the rest. Nick told me to ask for what I actually needed for the business so I could leave that rat race. That was a game changer.

Momentus, through CDC’s small business loan program, offered Ahriana a $75,000 loan. It was enough to cover the remaining costs of her initial Macy’s order. With funding in hand, she immediately stepped up production. This April, her shoes will be available at select Macy’s locations, including its flagship New York City store, and online.

“It was clear from our first conversation that Ahriana has the talent and drive to succeed,” said Nick. “Her business plan and product were solid, and she already had a buyer. She just needed someone to make that investment to let her take her company to the next step.

Momentus Capital was created to support exactly these kinds of entrepreneurs. It’s exciting to have partners like Macy’s who recognize our mission and work with us to expand our reach to the network of diverse small business owners they work with.

For Ahriana, Vaila in Macy’s is just the start—and she plans to continue working with Momentus as she grows.

“I don’t see them as just a loan provider but also as a mentor when it comes to finances,” Ahriana said. “We don’t generally get these opportunities as Black and brown women, so I’m really looking to make the most of it.”

In her story, Ahriana sees a clear lesson for other founders, especially women of color.

As entrepreneurs, we’re constantly doing multiple things and trying to reach out to start conversations. But the biggest thing that made me successful was leaning into those who got it. When you find a group of people who understand who you are as a person and the potential of what you’re building, the strength of that community can take you to more places than you can ever imagine.