Stillman students moving businesses forward after Green Print

A black female college student and two black men hold an oversized check
Bridges, Gibson thankful for mentors, “home” environment on campus

By David Miller

There’s no greater feeling than showing off a new pair of shoes at school. Brand, style, color – the more style points, the better.

And if the wearer designed them? Well, that’s a rare and ultimate flex.

Customized sneakers are a unique space of fashion that greatly reflect one’s personality and often allow for creativity beyond what’s designed at the factory.

In 2016, Malcolm Bridges, then a junior at Fairfield High School in Birmingham, became the “sneaker guy” when he donned a pair of self-painted pink Nike Air Force 1s to a school awards show.

“Kids then started telling me about their own shoes they wanted me to clean and customize,” Bridges said. “I didn’t have a job, so I saw it was a way to make money.”

A young black man sits at a table during a panel discussion
Malcolm Bridges listens during a Black Male Initiative event.

Bridges, a junior business administration major at Stillman College, has since grown his sneaker restoration and customization enterprise from working on up to four pairs of shoes a month to taking in four-to-five new pairs each week. He credits strong relationships with customers, learning to manage time, and mentors at Stillman for helping guide his entrepreneurial path.

“You can really network at [Stillman] and find people to help you do what you want in life, even if it doesn’t classify to your major or minor,” Bridges said. “[Stillman] can teach you something about life.”

The Stillman College School of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Computational and Information Sciences has a keen focus on fostering entrepreneurship on campus, both in direct mentoring from faculty and in experiential learning opportunities. The latter includes partnerships with organizations like HBCU Wall Street, a digital financial literacy platform that provides credit, budgeting and investing solutions to help stimulate Black economies and communities.

HBCU Wall Street partnered with Stillman and Motley Fool to host “The Green Print” investing workshop on campus during Homecoming Week. There, Bridges and sophomore accounting major Kaylah Gibson each won a $500 grant toward their respective startups. Gibson has an eye-lash application business that began in 2020.

“I’d emailed HBCU Wall Street with information about my business, my [3.3] GPA, and the goals I have,” Gibson said. “I’d planned to just go to the panel discussion to listen and learn some things, but when they came up to me and told me I’d receive the Fellow grant, I was surprised and happy.”

Winding roads to Stillman

Unsurprisingly, Bridges found his direction via YouTube, a site that is as much an entertainment platform as it is an omnibus of tutorial videos.

His skills, along with a love for sneakers, quickly blossomed into a startup. Still, he needed structure to grow his client base, market his designs, and mature as an entrepreneur.

A collage of sneakers
Bridges’ custom sneaker designs.

Bridges would enroll at the University of Montevallo, where he would learn how to manage his time “down to the second” to balance classwork and keep his enterprise afloat.

But while Montevallo was “small like Stillman,” he sought a more tight-knit college community. After two years at Montevallo, Bridges transferred to Stillman, which “felt like home.”

“The people” at Stillman appealed the most during his visit and have influenced every aspect of his growth as a student, leader and entrepreneur, he said. He credits Demarcus Hopson, executive director of the Williams Institute for Leadership at Stillman, as a key mentor, and Michael Hubbard, senior director of technology at Stillman and his work-study supervisor, for “being like a dad.”

“Back at Montevallo, I didn’t have a job … it was just canned food or no food,” Bridges said. “But when I got to Stillman, Mr. Hubbard helped get me a work-study position with IT, and I got a feel for it and picked it up as a minor. He’s teaching me and showing me the ropes on technology at Stillman and how people in the workforce operate.”

Similarly, Gibson, a native of Patterson, New Jersey, transferred to Stillman in search of “home.” Her cousin, Walik Gibson, a Stillman student and enrollment management specialist, pitched Stillman as a “great place to grow.”

Kaylah transferred from William Patterson University in fall 2021 and enrolled at Stillman, a “more friendly” environment that’s been key to helping her blossom into an outgoing and engaging person. She’s since joined The Pulse, a campus activities and service organization.

“From being more introverted, I wasn’t really promoting my business like I should,” Kaylah said. “But through The Pulse and seeing everybody at Stillman chasing their dreams, it gives me motivation.”

Scaling up

A black woman and black man pose for a photo at an outdoor shopping event
Kaylah Gibson, left, supports cousin and fellow Stillman student entrepreneur Walik Gibson during Black Wall Street, a campus shopping expo featuring Black business owners.

Gibson started her eyelash business during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. To that point, she’d never bought or applied eyelash extensions – a billion-dollar fashion industry – but it “fit” what she wanted to do. So, she watched others apply lashes, took a class, and become certified as a lash technician.

Now, Gibson sees roughly four clients a week. Each session can last up to three hours, which can create scheduling challenges with schoolwork and studying. But Kaylah is researching other revenue streams in the cosmetology sector that won’t require as much time, such as “strip” lashes.

“Some people want strip lashes because it’s quicker and easier for the same style,” she said. “I don’t really see it shifting that way, but I’ve sewn some strip lashes just to see how it would go.

“I’m also thinking about selling clothes and lip gloss.”

Bridges is targeting a storefront to grow “MBKicks” in either the Tuscaloosa or Birmingham areas once he graduates.

“There are a lot of sneaker shops in Birmingham, and I’m trying to be like those guys – learn from them and be better,” Bridges said. “I’m a one-man army right now, and I do this for the money and the service – a love for people.

“But as one of my professors, Dr. [Floran Syler] Woods, says, ‘there’s a language to business, and to be great, you have to speak it.’ I’m still learning that.”