Ole Miss Alumni Review: Heart and Sole

Alumnus pairs compassion with fashion

Much time and consideration went into finding a suitable name for one of the world’s first social-impact fashion labels.

Patrick Woodyard (BA 10), co-founder and chief executive officer of Nisolo, a Spanish word meaning “not alone,” chose that name because it embodies dedication and compassion that go much deeper than the label placed on the company’s handmade leather shoes and accessories.

“When I was in school, there was a poster on the second floor of the Croft Institute that I always used to walk by that would grab my attention,” Woodyard says. “It was a picture of the Earth, but it was just all ocean and one country right in the middle. At the bottom it said, ‘We are not alone,’ and the idea behind the poster was to stop acting and thinking like we’re alone in the world. We are global citizens and not just citizens of the U.S.”

A native Southerner, Woodyard graduated from Lakeside High School in Hot Springs, Ark., in 2005.

“I knew I wanted to stay in the South for school,” Woodyard says. “I had heard about the Croft Institute and the [Sally McDonnell Barksdale] Honors College, which definitely influenced my decision to come to Ole Miss. But I didn’t apply to either before I went to college because I kind of wanted to see what college was all about before diving deep into academics.”

Initially majoring in business administration when he enrolled in fall 2005, Woodyard knew that his true passion lay in international development. He enrolled in the Honors College for the spring 2006 semester and the Croft Institute the following fall.

“When I started at Croft and Honors, I was immediately engaged both around students that were extremely bright and teachers that were very brilliant who challenged us,” Woodyard says. I really feel like that has a lot to do with where I am now.”

Service Centered

Shoemakers display a handmade leather shoe from Nisolo’s manufacturing headquarters in Trujillo, Peru.

Woodyard excelled both academically and socially. He found volunteerism and campus engagement to be extremely important as they provided an avenue for him to give something back and make a difference.

A member of Sigma Chi Fraternity, Woodyard served as president and founder of Hope for Africa/EDUganda and Respect Mississippi, as well as director of community service for the Associated Student Body.

“My sophomore year, I realized that at Ole Miss you have a student body that, for the most part, grew up in affluent families and had a lot of resources,” he says. “It just hit me that there were all of these students around me who were interested and passionate about serving other people and their communities when they had the opportunity to do so, but in 2006 I didn’t see a lot of opportunity to do so. That’s when I decided to really get involved in several things that could create those opportunities.”

Spurred on by an interest in economic development and the plight of extreme poverty in Africa, Woodyard and two classmates decided to throw their first benefit concert for a nonprofit organization in Uganda.

The results were encouraging to say the least.

“Approximately 300 people showed up, and we raised about $5,000 on the first night,” Woodyard says. “I realized with just a little bit of energy we could get a lot of students really motivated to come out and support important causes.”

Woodyard counts Sparky Reardon (BAEd 72, PhD 00), former Ole Miss dean of students, as a huge motivator throughout his endeavors.

“Patrick is probably one of the most service-centered students I’ve ever known,” Reardon says. “Everything about him was about helping others and doing good for the good of society. He came to my office quite a bit just to kind of visit and bounce ideas off of me, and to find out ways to get things done that he wanted to do. I was always inspired by his visits.”

Path to Peru

Energized by his success stateside, Woodyard spent the summer of 2007 in Uganda, working with a nonprofit organization that donated most of the money raised to fund the education of children orphaned by parents with AIDS.

A recipient of the Honors College’s Barksdale Award in 2008, he returned to Uganda and went on to set up a program similar to World Vision, where alumni at Ole Miss could support one student’s education directly.

Then, Woodyard truly saw that once people were given the opportunity to serve, their excitement and passion continued to build.

After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2010, Woodyard decided to put his educational background and passion for poverty alleviation to good use – which ultimately changed his life.

Possessing a strong interest in Latin America, Woodyard, a Spanish major, accepted a job in Peru with a small microfinance organization whose work had a positive impact on impoverished communities.

“I moved to Peru in the summer of 2010 and took a job in microfinance with an organization called Sinergia, which is the Spanish word for synergy,” Woodyard says. “I worked in microfinance for a year, working with impoverished women, helping them grow businesses. One day I was visiting with one of the women in her home, helping her organize her finances for a small store that she owned. That’s when I met her husband, Willan, who was hand-making a leather shoe.”

Solemates

Shelves of inventory line the walls to be shipped to Nisolo’s 50-plus domestic retailers, including Oxford-based Neilson’s.

One of more than 30,000 shoemakers living in Peru’s third largest city, Trujillo, Willan was quite the talented shoemaker but still unable to financially provide for his family.

“We were sitting in the middle of their dirt floor, metal-roofed home, having this conversation about how, despite the amazing quality of the shoe, he couldn’t afford to provide for his family or keep his kids in school,” Woodyard says. “It kind of brought me back to people that I had met in Uganda, where there was a common theme among everyone – in so many different parts of the world you confront people that have so much talent and potential, like Willan, but can’t provide for their family.”

A product of America’s public school system, where hard work and dedication opened the door for numerous opportunities, Woodyard became passionate about providing those same opportunities for impoverished workers like Willan around the world.

In a city known for being the shoe capital of Peru, competition was fierce and wages were minimal at best. However, Woodyard quickly realized that with guidance and resources, the possibilities to improve the shoemakers’ lives and working conditions were endless.

“I recognized that I had a lot of friends back in the states who would want the shoes because not only were they made with quality but also because they could have a profound social impact with their purchases,” Woodyard says. “So I decided to start Nisolo in the spring of 2011.”

Armed with little more than a passionate vision and a vast, willing workforce, Woodyard reached out to all the teachers, mentors and friends he could find for advice on how to make his dream a reality.

“I recognized that I didn’t have much background experience in the fashion industry, and I was really going to need somebody who did,” Woodyard says. “A mutual friend and classmate, Harper Ferguson (BBA 10), was living in New York, working in the fashion industry, and introduced me to Zoe Cleary, who became my co-founder.”

Perfect Pairing

Nisolo showroom at the company’s corporate office in Nashville, Tenn.

Cleary and Woodyard first met via Skype and instantly realized they shared the same passions, visions and interests.

“I told her all about my idea, which was to pretty much do the opposite of the fashion industry and instead put producers first,” Woodyard says. “To pay fair wages and ethically produce goods that had a profound impact on the lives of people making the product, as well as their families.”

At the time, Cleary had been working in the corporate side of the fashion industry for three years and had become dissatisfied with her career.

“I started researching different fashion brands that had a more social cause behind them, and a friend of mine said I should meet Patrick,” Cleary says. “A couple of weeks later, I flew to Peru to tour the city and really get a good understanding of the potential that existed there and the level of craftsmanship that existed. I met a bunch of the shoemakers and their families, and instantly my heart was in it. I quit my job and headed back to Peru on a one-way ticket in June 2011.”

The company officially launched in the U.S. in October 2011 out of Woodyard’s parents’ garage in Oxford. A launch party was held at the Powerhouse, positioning the company as an e-commerce footwear brand focused on social impact.

“The reality is that people make the products that we consume, and the impact that has on them can be a very positive or very negative one,” Woodyard says. “The fashion industry today employs over 200 million people, but millions of them are held in poverty because of the poor wages they are paid. Often times, it’s pretty much a condition of slavery that still exists. We’ve become very passionate as a brand about changing that.”

From its modest start of a $100,000 interest-free loan from family and friends and an employee base of about 15 people to generating $1.3 million dollars in revenue in under three years and a team of more than 50 employees and growing – it’s safe to say Nisolo is on the rise.

Patrick Woodyard

“As a company we have partnered with over 50 retail stores throughout the country that sell our products, and we have sold shoes through our e-commerce website in all 50 U.S. states and over 30 countries around the world,” Woodyard says. “We are just getting started. We are tiny right now compared to where we expect to be.”

Woodyard says the company’s goal is to be a household name brand not only in footwear but eventually getting into the apparel market as well.

“We know the size of the impact we can have in Peru or wherever we manufacture our goods,” he says. “Lives and whole communities are being deeply affected as a result of it. We also see ourselves eventually leading the industry in a new direction that first and foremost is about providing quality, well-designed goods to people but is also about creating a positive impact in the world by producing goods in a very ethical and transparent manner that’s really changing the game for those 200 million people in the fashion industry.”

While hard work and dedication have been the driving force behind Nisolo’s success, Woodyard knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help and support of the Ole Miss community.

“While I was in school, Debra Young (associate dean of the Honors College) was a huge inspiration to me,” Woodyard says. “She motivated me to apply for the Barksdale Award and was always so encouraging with Hope for Africa and the things I was involved with. Also, Dean Douglass Sullivan-González at the Honors College, Dr. Kees Gispen (executive director of the Croft Institute) and Dr. Susan Allen (associate professor of political science) were very helpful.”

One longtime supporter and friend couldn’t be more proud of the success both Woodyard and his company have achieved already.

Each piece is carefully handcrafted by Peruvian artisans with generations of experience.

“I’m just thrilled but not surprised,” Reardon says. “I think Nisolo is only the tip of the iceberg of what Patrick Woodyard is going to accomplish in his life. He’s a great guy, and he and so many others are the reason I was blessed to have had my job.”

While the company’s future looks bright, the most fulfilling part for Woodyard comes from the lifelong friends he has met and the life-changing impact Nisolo is making.

“I can say that it has been 10 times harder than I ever imagined it being,” Woodyard says. “And I can also say that I can’t imagine myself doing anything else in the world right now.”


By Annie Rhoades. Photos courtesy of Nisolo.


This story was reprinted with permission from the Ole Miss Alumni Review. The Alumni Review is published quarterly for members of the Ole Miss Alumni Association. Join or renew your membership with the Alumni Association today, and don’t miss a single issue.


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