Northern Kentucky University is home to no end of unique and inspiring individuals. One example of a standout campus community member—Isaiah Kelly, a media informatics major—is making strides and opening doors left and right. He’s used the tools NKU has provided him to create his own shoe business and, in the process, competed in and won a prestigious entrepreneurship award.
And he does all this while pursuing his degree full time, working as a resident advisor on campus and holding a part-time web designer position with ICON, a Greater Cincinnati strategy, marketing and advertising agency.
Isaiah’s business is Smoove Creations, and he describes it as a service for “cleaning, customizing and restoring.”
“I take old shoes, clean them and make them look brand new or restored,” Isaiah explains. “If there's any cuts or scratches or anything like that, I can fix it and then make it look like a brand-new shoe. Or I can customize it or customize a new shoe.”
“I was a senior in high school, going into my freshman year of college, when I worked at Shoe Carnival,” says Isaiah. “Before I got that job, I didn't care about shoes. But being around shoes 40 hours a week, I started loving shoes.”
As he entered his freshman year of college, Isaiah was doing all in his power to save money, but his growing love of shoes (one brand in particular) put him on the hunt.
“I'm a real frugal person with my money,” Isaiah says. “I used to go on YouTube and type in ‘How to get Jordans for cheap?’ I came across this kid who was like 12 years old, and he painted a pair of shoes and sold them for over $700.
“In the summer of 2017, after I watched that video, I saved up my money, and I started doing it myself. It became a hobby all the way up until my junior year. I was just [making shoes for] other students, friends and family, but it was nothing serious.”
Then, Isaiah’s hobby took a turn into something much bigger.
“In March, Zach Strobl, who's the head of the INKUBATOR at the Haile/US Bank College of Business' Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, came into my classroom and started talking about the INKUBATOR.”
INKUBATOR is a business accelerator that takes an idea and, over the course of 12 weeks, turns it into a viable startup that can yield a profitable outcome.
When given this opportunity, Isaiah jumped on it. “I didn't know anything about being a business person or running a business,” he says. “But I applied and I made it. Now I have my own business.
“Around May, right after my last final, I got my first order. And from May to August, I was able to make over $5,000 in sales,” he says. “It kind of kicked off immediately. My first few orders were people that were across the country and across the world. I think the farthest I've shipped was London. And then New York, California and New Orleans. And there have been a lot of people here in the local area asking me to do my shoes for them.”
In particular, Isaiah says that fraternities and sororities have been a big market for his growing business. He’s currently in the process of becoming a licensed vendor so he can sell Greek apparel.
“The one thing that's really cool about the INKUBATOR is you get to network with other people,” he says, adding that participants are also given the opportunity to win a grant of $5,000. “But you have to earn the $5,000,” he says, explaining that one must hit milestones to show progress. “I made over $5,000 in sales, and I made a website. So I was able to get the $5,000.” He’ll put those funds toward his business so that Smoove Creations can continue its growth.
Isaiah expects to graduate this May, and his post-NKU plans, of course, involve Smoove Creations. But he doesn’t intend to stop at just footwear. “My goal is selling shoes, but I want to make like a whole entire brand,” he says. “I want to do shirts, hats, wallets and phone cases. I'm actually going to start doing my first phone here soon.”
He competed for the Global Student Entrepreneurship Award (GSEA) from non-profit Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and made the finals for the regional competition. Then, on Oct. 8, 2019, he and his team became the first NKU students ever to take the award home. Isaiah is currently preparing for a February trip to Silicon Valley to take Smoove Creations to the EO GSEA Finals.
If he wins the national award, he will then go to Cape Town, South Africa, for a global competition that would pit Smoove Creations against the top student entrepreneurs in the world.
Beyond readying his business for the prestigious competition, Isaiah is planning for future business success by obtaining a vending license, planning for a brand extension and making sure every pair of shoes he hands back to his clients look better than they did before.