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Bianca Gates: My name is Bianca Gates. I'm the co-founder and CEO of Birdies. Birdies are deliciously comfortable, stylish flats for women. And our mission is very simple. It's to lift up all women. We started in our kitchen. We started buying shoes and cutting them up and studying the components and taping them all together. And we sort of got carried away with this idea of could we build this product to actually finding people that could help us make the product. We started Birdies very niche. It was just stylish slippers. But after a couple of years, we noticed that we had a lot of unhappy customers reaching out, letting us know that their slippers were disintegrating quite quickly. We asked our customers, "How are you wearing your Birdies?" And over 75% of our customers said that they were wearing them everywhere. And I thought, "Well, there's the problem." This is that one moment as a founder where you think, "Do I stay focused on the problem I was solving, or do I pivot and follow where the customer is taking the product?" Ultimately, we made the decision to follow the customer. We would sell them one shoe at the time. That was how we got started. And it wasn't until we raised a little bit of capital in 2017 where we were able to branch out of selling shoes from the back of our car to having a little bit of an online business and opening our first store in 2017.

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Bianca Gates: When we were building Birdies, it was our investors that said, you know, we should be working with a grown-up bank, an established bank. And when we were interviewing the team at J.P. Morgan, we recognized that, like, they understood what we were trying to build and what we were trying to do. And we've been thrilled with our team there ever since. Being first-generation American was not easy. I think it gave me that resilience later in life to just say, "Can't fail, won't fail." This is not just a business to sell shoes. It's a business to create community amongst women. And the rest is history.

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Perhaps no two founders more embody “thinking on your feet” than Bianca Gates and Marisa Sharkey.

It began in 2015, when the friends got to talking about how much they loved hosting dinner parties—but hated the pain that inevitably comes with being on your feet while entertaining guests. They marveled that they both always ended up ditching dress shoes and finishing the night barefoot, in socks or in slippers. 

They needed what Gates dubbed “social slippers,” but neither woman had seen anything like them in retail. They hadn’t intended to solve the problem themselves. But they couldn’t shake the idea.

“If we were to create this fictitious shoe, what would it look like?” Gates said. “We got carried away with the idea of, ‘Could we build this product? And if so, Who could help us do it?’ ” 

After experimenting with different prototypes, Gates and Sharkey landed on a design that delivered the comfort and style they were seeking.

But these weren’t just simple slippers. And the company Gates and Sharkey lead today is much more than the slippers business they originally conceived.

One step at a time

Gates and Sharkey built Birdies slowly at first, selling slippers from their cars at trunk shows and social gatherings. They marketed their footwear as “comfy shoes made for home entertaining that combine the support of a sneaker, the softness of a slipper and the style of a do-it-all flat.” 

By 2017, Birdies had developed a loyal following, and the co-founders had raised enough capital to expand their online business and open their first storefront. 

“This wasn’t just a business to sell shoes,” Gates said. “It was a business [designed] to create a community among women.”

That expanded community soon brought new customers—and unexpected feedback. The Birdies team received complaints about the shoes disintegrating. “We realized our customers were wearing their Birdies in a way we hadn’t intended,” Gates explained. “Over 75% said they were wearing their slippers outside of the house.”

The company was at a crossroads. “This was the moment as a founder where you think, ‘Do I stay focused on the problem I was solving?’” she continued. “Or do I pivot and follow where the customer is taking the product?” 

Ultimately, the Birdies team decided to follow the customer by creating a comprehensive footwear line built for both indoor and outdoor use. This decision not only solidified a thriving business, but also kick-started the Birdies community the co-founders had dreamed of back in 2015.

“My mom is from Bolivia, my dad is from Argentina. Growing up as a first-generation American gave me the resilience to not fear failure. I feel like the sky’s the limit.”

— Bianca Gates, CEO and co-founder of Birdies

Sole mates

Creative marketing and shoe design kept the customers coming, and Gates and Sharkey soon realized they needed a large financial partner with the expertise to help them get to the next level.

“We have always operated with a philosophy of being profitable and driving growth in a disciplined manner,” Gates said. “Our board [advised us] to only go after capital when we really need it. You get more creative when you can’t just throw money at a problem.”

Approaching JPMorgan Chase for business support felt right from the start, Gates said. “They understood what we were trying to build and trying to do. We felt very safe with them.” 

Since formalizing the relationship in 2021, Birdies has seen massive growth in its direct-to-consumer business. It’s also working with wholesalers to carry Birdies shoes in brick-and-mortar stores.

But Birdies is more than a shoe business. It’s also a Certified B Corporation dedicated to using business as a force for good. Among its philanthropic and community-building efforts: empowering high school girls, connecting Birdies fans and protecting the environment. 

The company’s commitment to its customers—and the greater good—has made an impression on the JPMorgan Chase banking team.

“It’s been such a privilege to support Bianca and Marisa on their entrepreneurial journey,” said Katie Taormino, a J.P. Morgan venture capital relationship executive. “Birdies has quickly established itself as not only an exceptional shoe brand with a loyal customer base all around the world, but also [as a company] deeply committed to elevating women through mentorship and community building. I can’t wait to see what they do next.”

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