As evidenced by our long-running FACES series (and the always fabulous Beyoncé), it’s pretty obvious that girls run the world. And now we’re taking over the manufacturing world! Meet Sara Irvani and Kim Falkenhayn, CEO and President, respectively, of beloved Oka-B shoe brand. Sara and Kim have been earning praise, including recent recognition from the White House, for keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States by successfully running their environmentally friendly, American-made company right here in Buford, Georgia. If you’re going to get into manufacturing, who wouldn’t want to make beautiful, comfortable, sustainable SHOES?! Step into the lives (get it?!) of industry powerhouses Sara Irvani and Kim Falkenhayn as we welcome them as our newest FACES of Atlanta.
Your footwear brand, Oka-B, is manufactured right here in Buford, Georgia. Why do you continue to manufacture in the United States, when so many brands go overseas?
Sara: There are so many reasons why we choose to make our shoes in the USA, but primarily, it means that we can be responsive and make our shoes to order. Not to mention that we can maintain the highest quality standards, keep our shoes more environmentally friendly and create jobs in our community.
Kim: Manufacturing our shoes here in Georgia is part of our company’s DNA. It’s a core part of our identity, just as much as our commitment to comfort and quality are. There are so many benefits to manufacturing here: quality, response time and safety are just a few.
Who is your role model, either professionally or personally, and why?
S: I am a big fan of Melinda Gates — her thoughtfulness, impact and humility.
K: I’ve always looked up to my grandfather. He grew up during The Depression and had to drop out of school after the eighth grade to work the family farm. It was a tough, bare-bones existence, but it taught him to be incredibly self-sufficient and resilient. He built the house that he and my grandmother lived in their whole lives entirely by hand, even down to felling the trees. Even without any formal training, he intuitively grasped how anything electrical or mechanical worked, and he had an almost magical ability to fix the unfixable.
Sara, you live in Atlanta on the weekdays and New York City on the weekends. What’s the toughest part about commuting? What is your favorite part about each city?
I love exploring New York with my husband as we never know where we will end up — from spoken word open mic nights to dusty bookshops, there is always something new to learn. I love the warmth of Atlanta and watching it evolve; I am definitely more of a Southerner! The toughest thing about commuting is leaving my husband at 5 a.m. on Monday!
Kim, even though you are an Arizona State University grad (and I am a tried and true Wildcat), I will continue with the interview. What do you miss most about your college years?
Yes, it’s true, I’m a Sun Devil now and forever! I loved living in Arizona — there’s something about the red rocks, cacti and never-ending sun that’s just so uniquely beautiful. What I probably miss most though is being a part of my old business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi. I have so many wonderful memories of making new friends, taking classes together and organizing events. If you’re going to school for business, I highly recommend becoming involved in your local business organizations.
You ladies sit at the highest positions of Oka-B. Describe the secret, or not-so-secret, to your upward momentum in business.
S: Positivity, focus, creativity and getting things done!
K: If you want to be a leader, earn the respect of your coworkers through hard work, integrity and a commitment to learning. Step outside your own role to help others when you have the opportunity, and really learn how all the puzzle pieces go together to form the business. Be willing to get your hands dirty — people respect a boss who knows how to do their job. Stick up for others and always give people credit for their work. Always strive to make improvements in everything you touch, even if it’s in tiny increments.
Sara, your brother, Hadi Irvani, started local meal delivery company Peach Dish. Does entrepreneurship run in your blood? What’s your fave PeachDish meal?
I LOVE the salmon croquettes! Yes, we definitely love exploring new ideas in our family, and I am grateful for the creativity that my parents have encouraged.
And speaking of the tasty Peach State, Sara, which Atlanta restaurants do you make sure to visit during your work week?
I enjoy Southern food and think that King + Duke has a delicious menu.
Since these Oka-B were meant for walking, where’s your favorite place in Atlanta to take a stroll?
S: The beltline!
K: Lake Lanier or the Chattahoochee River — it’s a good thing our Okabashi’s are water-resistant too!
Kim, you grew up in the Rust Belt and ended up Atlanta. What was the biggest misconception you had about moving to the South?
The city of Atlanta is so metropolitan, and we have people from all over the world living and working here. Southern accents are not nearly as common as you would think! I also grew up thinking that the Northeast was the industrial powerhouse of the country, but living here in Atlanta now, I have to say that is changing quickly. We have access to an amazing pool of talented people, a very efficient transportation hub and a vast network of both goods and services suppliers. Atlanta really is an ideal place to launch a new manufacturing company!
Why is recyclable footwear so important to your mission? Do you have any advice on how other local companies can institute a similar eco-consciousness?
S: I believe that everyone, not just companies, should have a strong environmental conscience as we are stewards for the next generation.
Kim, where is your favorite place to unwind and relax in Braselton?
Home! I have seven acres in a quiet little area of Hoschton. I enjoy gardening and cooking, and I love how quiet and peaceful it is out in our area. Of course the peace is often broken by my noisy rooster and his brood of hens, but I’ll take the crowing over the sound of traffic any day.
Sara, you’re a CEO who’s under the age of 30. Are you ever shocked about the level of success you’ve reached at such a young age?
We really are a close-knit team, and I just try to do justice for all of our effort.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
K: Always respect honest hard work and never overlook an individual because of their education level or current station in life.
S: Smile at the world, and the world will smile back at you.
Quick – favorite shoe?!
K: Oka-B’s “Carson Nova” style (with its whimsical enamel attachments).
S: Oka-B’s “Taylor!”
What are three things you cannot live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
S: Chocolate, adventure and a good challenge!
K: Coffee, novels and fabulous shoes!
A big thank you to Sara Irvani and Kim Falkenhayn for sharing their stories, both in and out of the factory. Plus, we always love supporting local brands (especially when it overlaps with our shoe obsession).
And as always, a huge thanks to photographer extraordinaire, CatMax Photography!
Read about even more inspiring Atlanta women in our FACES archives. Click here.