In a recent episode of Teaching Channel Talks, Dr. Wendy Amato was joined by Heidi Austin-Cook, owner of the independent store Sole Focus Running. Heidi and Wendy discussed the positive impact community partners can have on regional students and their families while offering tips on how small businesses can get involved in education. From how she first got the idea of opening a running store to the almost catastrophic event that nearly ended it all, if you missed Heidi’s inspiring journey behind how her business has become a pillar of the community, catch up on the conversation below!
Wendy: I want to jump in and talk a little bit about how you decided to launch your business.
Heidi: Well, in 2006 I came back to running as an adult. I was in my early 30s, just had a baby, and had this great experience in a running store that was about 35 miles away and just thought, “Oh wow, why don’t we have this in our community?”
Then I sat on the idea for about 10 years. It just wasn’t the right time in my career and having a young child. It just didn’t feel right until about 2016, that’s when I finally made the jump and just said, “Let’s do this.”
Wendy: Tell me a little bit about who is coming into your shop, you’ve been supporting some of our local runners and teams?
Heidi: Yes, there’s a couple of schools that sometimes bring in their whole team and we’ll have a team night, which is a lot of fun. We’ll get to go through and do a whole fitting experience with them. But mostly, coaches will send students our way, and we’ll go through the whole fit process.
I have reached out to coaches in the past, usually at the beginning of the season. I like to touch base and just say, “Hey, this is what we offer. Feel free to send your runners our way.” I had a coach tell me right before this season started that he is just so happy that we’re here because he’s seen a decrease in shin splints since we opened. I guess having someone close by that they can send their students to ensures that parents are actually going to take them to a running store and not trying to buy their shoes online and try to second guess what their student needs. There are a lot of referrals and word of mouth through other runners or other athletes. Or it just could be through a coach at opening night just saying, “This is what you need, this is the gear you need, and this is where you can go get it.”
Wendy: Can you teach us about what happens during the fitting process?
Heidi: Of course! So, when folks walk through our door, we’re going to ask them a whole slew of questions about their goals, and their injury history, and just learn as much about them in 5 minutes as we can to identify what their needs will be. And then we sit them down, measure their feet, watch them walk, and then bring out a couple of options for them to test. We watch them walk and run and make sure we don’t see any red flags as far as their body structure, the pronation of their ankles, knees, and all that good stuff.
Wendy: I love that you opened your shop as an extension of your own healthy lifestyle and your own preferences for how to be out in the world and stay fit. But the collateral beauty is that you’ve upped the wellness of the entire community!
And in measurable ways, I mean, we can measure the number of student-athletes with shin splints!
Heidi: Yeah, and I like to say that running was my gateway drug to fitness. You may or may not stick with running, but I hope that having experienced something that you can do for yourself that makes you feel better encourages you to continue with that no matter what age you are. Whether you come in as a student, or as a parent of a student. Sometimes the parents are suddenly inspired by their athletes to start running. So that’s another service I feel like we provide within the school community: healthier parents.
Wendy: Schools have been emphasizing how important it is to have connections within the community. Community connections embody partnership and collaboration, but yours really happened in a beautiful way. How can we push other local businesses who want to support school programs? How can they get started?
Heidi: Well, as a business owner I know I had to make that first step. You can’t just assume that the schools know you’re there and that the schools know what you offer. You need to make that first step to find the key people within the school system that may be interested in the product or service you offer. Send them an e-mail, make a phone call, or show up at an event, just introduce yourself.
The worst thing you can do as a business owner is assume people know about you. You might think, “Oh well I’m getting some kids from that team, so I guess the coach knows about me. You have to put the effort out there to make those connections and let the schools know you’re there, let them know what services you offer, and that you’re open to ideas as to how to better support them.
Wendy: I love that! I think there are probably some business owners who would feel concerned about appearing pushy, but really if they could just understand that the schools are looking for these connections. Educators don’t know how to get started and they’d probably say they don’t have time to take the initiative on their side, so it’s really welcomed.
Heidi: Right! And on the flip side, small business owners are also super busy, so allow time for yourself too.
When I opened the store, I was closed on Mondays strictly because I needed a day to make those community connections. I would drive around to different physical therapy offices and go to different places to introduce myself and say, “Hey, this is what I do. This is what I offer for my community.” It’s important for small business owners to set time aside every week, even for a few hours, to close their shop and reach out to the community.
Wendy: Heidi, I want to talk to you about some of the care that you provide when community members come into the shop. I know that I was asking about being courageous and going on to the schools, but what about when people come in to see you? Should they be courageous or shy when they come through with me?
Heidi: An independent running store might feel boutique-y or expensive to some people who aren’t used to going into those kinds of places. It’s happened before when a mother brings her child in and she’ll say, “This is my budget, and this is what my child needs.” I’m not going to compromise that child’s needs just because the mother can’t afford it. We’re going to work with people, and we’re going to provide them with the same service regardless of where they’re coming from.
Wendy: Community connections are about what we extend, but they’re also about what we receive. We should keep that in mind in education and think about always having a two way street.
Heidi, our town has had some flooding over the past couple of years, can you tell me about that and the impact it had on your business?
Heidi: So, in 2020 we had a flood come through. There’s a Creek that runs underneath my shop and the waters rose and filled our building with 36 inches of water. When I first saw it the next day, everything was caked in mud, and I could see the water line where it had gone up all over the merchandise. I walked into the back room where all my shoes are stored, and I went to pick up a box of shoes, but the cardboard was mush. When I picked it up, it just fell apart. At that point I was thinking, “This is it. I can’t afford this loss.”
There were a lot of wet damaged shoes inside that we had to get rid of and just about all the inventory was ruined, so that first day just felt terrible. But I tell you, the community came out that day. Even though it was during COVID, this was 2020 so we were trying to wear masks, we filled the place up. As the days progressed, we kept finding more things that needed to be done. People would walk in to help and the ones who couldn’t help in the shop would just hand me money and say, “Here, this is to help.”
It really hit home just how important we are to the community. I felt the community’s support and our local running group quickly put together this little 5K to help. I think we raised close to $6K just from that. Just that one little, “Hey, let’s do this thing. We’re going to support our local running store,” and the runners just got together and ran to rebuild the shop. Amazingly, we reopened again in less than three weeks.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but you can still listen to the full episode of Teaching Channel Talks here. For links to resources from the podcast, check out the show notes below.
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Heidi Austin-Cook is the owner of Sole Focus Running in Staunton, Virginia. As an active member of the community, Heidi has used Sole Focus Running to bring together local runners and cultivate a supportive and inclusive environment for athletes of all levels. In addition to her work with Sole Focus Running, Heidi is also an avid runner and cyclist, and certified Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) Race Director. In addition to her dedication to health and wellness, Heidi is a lifelong learner who is currently taking up the challenge of learning to play the violin.
Dr. Wendy Amato earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.