When Tanya Heath moved to Paris from Canada in 1996, she quickly discovered that local expectations of how women should dress were different — and demanding. On top of sharp fashions, perfectly styled hair and impeccable makeup, working women were expected to wear high heels, no matter how long or tiring their day.
But in this problem, Heath saw a business opportunity. “I wanted to create a beautiful shoe that could adapt to us, so we don’t ever have to compromise between comfort and allure,” she says.
Heath is the driving force behind a fashion company that bears her name, Tanya Heath. She makes chic shoes with interchangeable heels that allow women to change heights depending on their needs of the moment — low heels around the office, mid-height during a business meeting, sky-high for dinner out — and sells them around the world. This simple, practical concept has won her a loyal and increasingly global fanbase.
Heath says her company mission is to meld innovation with fashion to solve problems for women, if only sartorial ones. That desire to solve a problem is a common startup motive for entrepreneurs the world over, and one that women business owners frequently cite. Of the enterprising women involved in our three-year 1,000 Stories project — including Heath — 41 percent said they started up to fill a need or solve a problem.
Finding motivation in a practical purpose has paid off for Heath. She opened up shop in September 2013, and last year achieved (unconsolidated) revenue just shy of the €1 million mark, she says. With 40 percent of sales coming through her website and the rest from Tanya Heath stores in Paris, Lisbon, Los Angeles, Toronto and elsewhere (with more locations in the works), hers is a true international brand.
Adjusting to a Foreign Culture
Heath was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, but always wanted to live and work abroad. After studying international relations at the University of Toronto and Carleton University in Canada, she realized those dreams by moving to France. She later enrolled at the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris to get her business degree and brush up on her French.
From the start, she was frustrated by notably — even, at times, oppressively — traditional gender attitudes. “When I first arrived, I remember being at dinner parties where women wouldn’t even open their mouths; they were happy to let their husbands speak.”
According to Heath, the traditionalism was replicated in unfortunate ways at the office. She recalled one instance, before becoming a business owner, when a male coworker who coveted a promotion that instead went to her “came over with a stack of photocopies and told me to ‘get busy.’”
Experiences like these made a mark. But rather than discourage her, Heath used them to inspire her to find an innovative way to ease the burdens of her fellow women.
Building a Fashion Empire
Heath describes what first pulled her toward entrepreneurship as “a combination of positive fascination with the startup environment and the negative experience of being a female in a foreign society.”
For startup funding, she sold her apartment, pursued grants and sought loans and gifts from friends and family. It wasn’t easy to get going. “Initially, nobody really wanted to work on the product. They didn’t believe [a shoe with interchangeable heels] was possible,” she says. Heath says she also encountered ample sexism along the way.
Yet she experienced good fortune, too. Most importantly, there were benefits to starting a shoe venture in Paris. “It is well known all over the world that France, and Paris in particular, leads in fashion. But we also have possibly the best engineers in the world,” she says. “That gives us access to not only fashion skills, but also luxury production manufacturers to work with. It’s a unique mix.”
In all, it took two and a half years — and five trial versions of her shoes — to bring the product from inception to completion. But once she opened her first store in Paris, Heath began to win awards, including the 2015 MAPIC Award for Best New Retail Concept.
Today, Heath credits Paris for playing a leading role in her success. “The critical nature of some French people pushed us to make the product fantastic before we felt comfortable selling it,” she says. “And the pace in France can be very slow. In a lot of ways, that can drive me crazy, but it forces you to take the time to do things properly.”
Looking ahead, Heath has ambitions of hitting €400 million in sales within the next decade, and she wants to expand her offerings.
She also wants to ensure that life is easier for her employees than it once was for her. Always valuing the time and dedication of those who work for her is another goal Heath has set for herself.
The hardships that plagued Heath earlier in her career influence her to this day. Her six Parisian employees don’t work the long hours she used to maintain when she was an employee — and when they do work extra hours, they may do so from home.
Heath has been married to her husband for 20 years, and has three children, 16 and 11-year-old girls and a 13-year-old boy, so she understands the desire for work-life balance.
It’s all part of why, for her, creating a healthy workplace is not a luxury — it’s a matter of principle, and one more way to better the lives of women through her enterprise. “I’m not destroying family life,” she says.