Raaja Nemani CEO & Co-Founder
Bucketfeet
How do you define your leadership style?

I’m a leader that delegates as much as possible. I subscribe to the idea of servant leadership, being that everything I do is in service of my team. I make sure that they have no obstacles in their way. I try to listen and help employees find new ways to run as fast as they can. I do this because I think the attitude of not ever feeling like you know everything is a good way to start. I’m constantly learning from and learning with them.

How is leading different from managing?

I think being a leader is not the same as being a manager. Sometimes a leader is a lone wolf, but they perform really well in their given field and set the bar. They lead by example. A manager may not be a leader, but they know how to get the most out of other people and a team.

Was founding Bucketfeet a journey or a destination?

It’s been a journey. My background is actually in finance, but in 2008 I quit my job to travel around the world. I visited six continents–30 countries total in a year and a half. I believe if more people could connect on a personal level, we would realize we are more similar than different, and there would be less problems in the world. We only have to go to our social media news feeds to see all of the negativity and hate around the world and that’s where it ends for us: at this misunderstanding. The inspiration for Bucketfeet was to create conversations between people so that we could foster a sense of understanding at the individual level. Our creative way to bring people together is through consumer products. Shoes are our way to spark conversation about what’s going on around the world.

How do you use your international background to approach leadership?

My travels and experiences in different cultures have positively affected my ability to connect on a personal and professional level with different people. We have artists from 120 countries, we retail our products in 15 countries, and just in this office we have employees from all different walks of life. Being aware that people come from different places and that their backgrounds affect the way they are and how they communicate is essential to my leadership. This helps me listen a little better, and listening is very important to leadership.

Who are your heroes? Influencers?

My mom and dad. My mom taught me that being nice to everyone is more important than anything else in life. My dad has sacrificed and has taken far more risks than I can ever imagine in immigrating to this country to create opportunity for myself and my siblings. This is similar to many immigrant stories, which is why it’s so important for us to embrace the multi-cultural appeal of a country like the United States.

What inspires you and how do you take that to inspire others?

Many times the first reaction people have to Bucketfeet is that we make cool shoes designed by artists, but that’s not why I wake up in the morning. Our promise as a brand is to create a brighter world. We don’t talk about the what–the making of our shoes or the how we made them, but we spend a lot of time talking about the why. It all comes back to making the world better. We continually remind people what all this is in service for. We are trying to build something that outlasts all of us–that impacts people in a positive way. How many people will get to say that?

What keeps you up at night?

I am a new father so the baby [laughs]. A lot keeps me up at night. The biggest thing is that we have this incredible opportunity–we have incredible investors, incredible growth potential, but we are not out of the woods. We are still a start-up and not executing on something could be disastrous for our business. I think a lot about our team. I think about the many folks that left high-paying jobs, or this is their first job out of school. These are folks that took a risk on joining this team and helping build this company because they believe in the mission and the purpose. They believe that one day we can create something of value in this world. That is a lot of responsibility.

How do you balance leadership and family?

I get a lot less sleep (laughs). My brother is a spine surgeon, he literally gets up at 4 A.M. and gets home at midnight and has a family. I asked him once, “How do you do it?” and he said “If it is something you are passionate about, and that is what it takes, you just do it.” I know that sounds very simple, but you just figure it out. So, I get up a lot earlier than I used to, and I get up a lot more during the night. My wife is rock star–I think what she does is a million times harder than what I do. If things are important to you treat them as if they are important to you. I think it also teaches you to prioritize and to realize what is not important to you. You have to sacrifice.

Have you had to make any compromises while building the Bucketfeet brand?

No, not really. We stand for good in the world so we have tried to operate with as much integrity as possible. I don’t think we have made any decisions that I feel morally bad about. We have made a ton of wrong decisions that I wish we could take back but I don’t think we have made big compromises.

Do you face any challenges being a young leader?

A piece of advice I got from one of our investors was to learn as much as you can and become an expert in something. Not only does this advice apply to me, but it’s how we run Bucketfeet. We talk a lot about hustle and meritocracy here: I don’t care how young you are or how experienced you are, but if can prove that you can excel at something, I’m going to give you as much opportunity as possible. I now have people working for me who are older than me, and investors who are older than me. It was a struggle to figure out that older doesn’t mean smarter or better, but it comes down to what a startup allows you to do: something no one has ever done before. It doesn’t matter your age because no one has ever done Bucketfeet before.

Do you have any words of advice to young leaders?

Empower those around you and let them take ideas and run as far as they can.  As long as you are the leader, set a North star that everyone knows they’re going towards and you have some guard rails. Realize that individuals can make game-changing impact, that it only takes one person to make a massive impact.  There’s an infinite number of ways to get from point A to point B, and as long as everyone is on board with point B, let the creativity flow in the way you get there.

 

Interview By Melody Thuston & Sara Autio

Fast Facts

Location
Chicago, IL
Title
CEO/Co-Founder
Number of employees
40
First job
First unofficial job was working for myself mowing lawns. My first official job was bagging groceries at Marsh Supermarket in my hometown.
Previous experience
Investment Banking and Private Equity
Leader you admire the most
Rishi Shah

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