It was Monday morning, mere hours before my debut as a panel moderator at AUTM 2017, the annual meeting of thousands of tech transfer professionals from all over the world. And what held my concern? Attire.
(Possibly because the evening before, prior to attending the first-timers orientation and reception, I had asked my female colleagues — ahem, Sharon and Rachel — what they were wearing, and I was told “casual.” I appeared in a golf skort and Sketchers; Sharon wore a dress and Rachel wore a skirt. And since Sharon had strongly suggested a suit for my panel debut, I was afraid I might really need a tuxedo for Monday’s presentation.)
My fellow panelists and I were meeting for breakfast to go over last-minute details. We had met via conference calls and Google Drive, submitted our slideshow to AUTM a month before, and I was confident our presentation would be strong and valuable for those who attended.
I had previously worked with Quentin, but I’d never met Paul, and I was wondering how he would even find me in the crowded exhibit hall where the continental breakfast was being served when he suddenly appeared at my table. We shook hands, glad to meet face to face after so many phone calls.
“I don’t really have any questions,” I admitted then. “I just wanted to see what you were wearing.”
Quentin and I had arrived in the requisite suits for the occasion, but I had a hotel closet filled with alternatives to this, my least favorite form of attire. Paul, too, was suited — but with flair. Under his conservative, subdued, plaid, tweed jacket, he wore a contrasting, dynamically purple plaid shirt — nicely matching his purple Converse high top sneakers. Which I only knew because he lifted his sneaker above table height so I could see.
“They’ve become my trademark, of sorts,” Paul said.
And with that, I saw a way out of the discomfort of wearing a suit. Sort of.
“Sneakers for solidarity!” I proclaimed. “I’ll wear sneakers too.”
“So will I,” declared Quentin.
“Business on the top, workout on the bottom!” I enthused. “Let’s do it!”
And so I did. (Quentin forgot.) When I introduced the panel in the first speaking session following lunch and dessert, I wore my boring black skirt suit with my hot pink and pistachio running shoes. I proclaimed our “sneakers for solidarity” and “business on the top, workout on the bottom” to a crowd saturated with caffeine and sugar. But the panel was a self-proclaimed success anyway.
That afternoon, in celebration, I took a walk, accepting a mini-map from the hotel desk suggesting a three- and five-mile route overlooking the ocean. I sped along, looking for the suggested landmark that indicated 1.5 miles so I could turn around and race back to the hotel. I missed it.
Then, slightly more than 2 miles out from the hotel, the soles of my feet started burning. I was wearing my running shoes, but I was walking too fast for the new insoles my chiropractor had suggested. I turned back to return to the hotel and sped along the sidewalk, soles burning, worrying that I was wearing blisters into feet that would have to stand in heels the rest of the conference. I was torn between walking fast to hurry my return and end this torture or walking slowly to reduce the friction and discomfort.
Almost a mile into my painful return, I saw the landmark I had missed. I now knew I still had another mile and a half to go. Despair hit me and I wished for a savior with a car. Oh, my burning feet!
To ease the burning, I resorted to slowing my pace — and praying, always praying, that I would not get blisters. That the blisters would not burst. That I would not spend the next days nursing wounds on the bottom of my feet…
I reached the hotel after a speedy hour+ walk, removed my shoes and inspected my feet. As I suspected, I had blisters on the balls of my feet — but not broken blisters. I removed the insulting insoles and replaced them with my older, more comfortable ones.
That evening my office had a dinner invitation at a restaurant a half mile or so away. We walked; I wore my Sketchers with yoga mat insoles and walked gingerly, carrying my heels to be appropriate at the restaurant, but I never did change.
The next morning, my first steps in my hotel room alerted me that the blisters had expanded. Sneakers for solidarity? Not so much. But sneakers for unbroken blisters? Yes.
I found it ironic. When I didn’t need to wear sneakers but wanted to wear them for fun (and solidarity), I enjoyed it. Contrasting my “business on the top” with “workout on the bottom” made me smile. When I needed to wear sneakers, “business on the top” and “blisters on the bottom,” forced to mix my dress with workout shoes the next day, it didn’t feel so funny. I was cognizant that I stood out because of what I stood in. My sneakers.
By the last day of the conference, my blisters had diminished enough that I could manage my high heels again. Then as I walked along all business on the top and bottom, I noticed something odd: women wearing business attire and sneakers. All business-like on the top but all workout on the bottom.
And suddenly sneakers were fun again. I’ve been wearing them at work ever since.
(Thank you, Paul, for your inspiration.)