“If you ask my parents, they’d tell you I knew how to draw a shoe before I knew how to write,” said Daniel Abaraoha ’18, founder of Vita Shoes Company.
Abaraoha says he has been “infatuated” with sneakers “just about forever.” Growing up, he didn’t have the money to buy expensive name brand sneakers, so he drew them instead.
“I remember my friends having the Reebok Answer IV’s or the classic Nike Air Force One’s, while I was stuck with Shaq’s, Airwalk’s and a bunch of other Payless shoe brands I’m embarrassed to mention,” he said. “Because I knew I couldn’t get them I just started to draw them.”
Describing himself as a “preacher’s kid,” Abaraoha cited mission trips as some of his favorite church activities.
“[The trips] brought some of the biggest joys of my life when I would hear a ‘thank you’ for just building a ramp or painting a wall,” he said.
In sixth grade, Abaraoha started creating his own sneaker designs, and in January 2015, he began developing Vita Shoes Company. One of Abaraoha’s mentors realized his potential and suggested he center Vita around his two passions: designing sneakers and giving back to his community.
Abaraoha’s Vita Shoes Company was established as philanthropy-driven shoe brand that allows customers to give to a homeless shelter or charity at an affordable price. Through Vita, Abaraoha said he aims to create products that will benefit society, proving that businesses can build communities, not just increase profits.
“With all the bad connotations that sneakers have in today’s society — unethical production methods, ridiculously high markups on prices and violence over the rare sneakers, I want to show people that there can be some good to come of this article of clothing that I love so much,” he said.
According to Abaraoha, the average retail price for sneakers starts at around $65 and can reach $100 or more, so he estimated $50 as a good average price for his shoes.
Abaraoha said he hopes to sell out most of his current inventory and fill the pantry of Austin Street Center — a homeless shelter he worked at in Dallas. For every pair sold, 10 percent of the retail price goes to Austin Street Center.
The Vita logo is an ankh — an Egyptian hieroglyphic meaning ‘life’ and a symbolic representation of his homeland, according to Abaraoha.
“I love the ankh because it is African,” he said. “Africa — Nigeria, specifically — is my actual birth home but a place I never knew. Any time I see the ankh on a Vita shoe, it gives me comfort that I get to express to the world my admiration for a life I never knew but one I cherish and love.”
The first sneaker in the Vita Shoes line is called ‘The Vita One,’ and its design was inspired by drawings from when he was twelve years old, according to Abaraoha. He said he plans to work with a factory that “operates ethically and with environmentally friendly materials” for his next design.
While Vita is currently a “one-man show,” Abaraoha called the company’s founding one of the “most fun decisions” he has ever made.
“After I finish the sketch of the design, I go and research some materials I can use in the shoe,” he explained. “I always have options for different materials in each part so I can be considerate to what is available for my manufacturers. Then I go to them and we discuss what works for the shoe … After a few weeks, they send me a sample. I test them out and wear them around for exposure.”
Abaraoha added that running Vita has given him the opportunity to incorporate everything he has learned from his parents, his past experiences and his studies at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.
“It’s like having a baby,” he said. “It’s honestly giving me a whole new outlook on the sense of the word ‘learning.’”
The most challenging part of the company’s growth so far has been boosting exposure, according to Abaraoha. With just over 130 pairs sold as of Thursday, Abaraoha said Vita has had a “modest start” but is “still growing.”
“It’s been pretty difficult and frustrating this summer, despite all the success, to try and spread word about Vita because of how many blogs and other outlets have turned me down or when prices to advertise seem astronomical,” he said.
However, Abaraoha said he “can’t complain” about Vita’s growth, especially given the positive feedback and overwhelming support he has received from his friends and family.
Destiny Holtzman, Abaraoha’s childhood friend, called him “the most hardworking, headstrong and passionate person” she has ever known.
Mahin Dewan, also a childhood friend, said Abaraoha is a “tremendous leader,” adding that he expects Vita to eventually gain nationwide recognition for being a “unique and extraordinary brand.”
“Daniel has so much support behind him because his ambitions are big and his heart even bigger,” said Madeleine Roglich ’18, Abaraoha’s friend at Cornell.
Whenever he feels “despair about the company,” Abaraoha said he always thinks back to one moment to remind himself what success is really about.
“My mother always asks if I know the customer when I’m preparing shipments in the evenings,” he said. “I usually reply ‘yes’ since most of my sales have been to friends and family. A couple weeks ago, I replied ‘no’ for the first time, and my mother smiled and gave me a hug.”
“‘I’m telling you, son, Vita is a success — no more of a ‘will be’ or a ‘future goal,’” Abaraoha recalled his mother saying. “‘You’ve done it.’”