When Sneakerhead University first opened its doors on State Street in fall 2022, co-founders Shay Belvin and Mykol Branch had one room with three tables, a bucket of 12 paints and a desire to preserve sneaker history and tell stories using sneakers.
While students at North Carolina Central, a historically Black university in Durham, N.C., Belvin and Branch came up with the idea to sell Black empowerment T-shirts through their now-defunct label “HBCU Made.” It was during that time they also had the idea to create a sneaker museum.
“We wanted a creative way to tell the Black story of different topics and the movement of America,” Belvin told the Tribune. “Selfie museums were really huge (at the time).”
The two studied marketing in college, and after graduation Belvin, a Detroit native, came to Chicago to start a museum while Branch initially returned home to Baltimore to open one. They chose Chicago, they said, because they could list brands and people who got their start in the city and they hoped to become a part of it.
Branch eventually joined Belvin in Chicago, and they focused on getting a single museum off the ground.
“(We wanted to) dive into Instagram culture, fashion and things like that,” Belvin said. “The Black story is really tied into that, and a lot of people don’t realize how much influence we have.”
In addition to storytelling, they added customization classes in which visitors could document their own bit of sneaker history.
“Our exhibit started out as just a museum, and it kind of told the backstory of the greatest sneakers that were dropped in history,” Belvin said. “And then from there, as we started deep diving into the actual creators and the people behind the brands, that’s when we realized people should be able to tell their story too.”
A little more than a year after its modest opening, The SHU Experience led more than 100 members of the Chicago Bears organization in customizing Nike Air Force Ones as part of the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats initiative.
It’s the eighth year NFL players have an opportunity to participate in the campaign, which allows them to design and wear custom cleats that support a charitable organization of their choice. But for the first time, everyone associated with the Bears was invited to participate.
For Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field, Bears players will wear cleats customized to represent causes near and dear to their heart. And Bears employees will wear their custom sneakers.
Bears Chairman George McCaskey and President and CEO Kevin Warren are participating, with their shoes painted by members of the organization who paint sneakers as a hobby. Warren’s sneakers were customized in support of the Warren Family Foundation.
“It’s important because a lot of us as an organization — and then the individuals that we have, from players and coaches to staff to ownership — are able to amplify causes that are near and dear to each one of us,” Warren told the Tribune, “and to do it in a manner that brings awareness to just how blessed we are and the positive impact of the Chicago Bears of what we can have in the community.”
The idea for the organization-wide event came from the Bears Young Professionals Employee Resource Group, led by partnership activation specialist Dominic Hillesheim and events coordinator Lorena Soria.
“We thought My Cause, My Cleats symbolizes everything that we’re trying to create because shoes don’t discriminate at all,” Hillesheim said. “Every single person, whether it’s a flip-flop or a boot, everybody has to wear a pair of shoes. Everybody also had a cause that was close to their heart, whether they knew about it right away or they had to research it a little bit.”
Soria, who describes herself as “a huge sneaker person,” learned about Sneakerhead University on TikTok. Mallorie Sanders, the Bears manager of diversity, equity and inclusion, said the museum’s mission aligned with the team’s community-based values.
Sneakerhead University’s museum now includes multiple rooms of immersive sneaker history — including a “real versus fake” exhibit — and hosts both private and ticketed (open to the public) customization classes and parties.
According to Branch, when the Bears reached out to them, they thought they would just be putting the team logo on the shoes. They had no idea they would be doing something so meaningful for so many.
“We didn’t realize how many people wanted a piece of them on their shoes,” Branch said. “We’ve seen a lot of stories. It’s been cool seeing them develop.”
In November, SHU held workshops at both the Bears offices in the Loop and at Halas Hall in Lake Forest. Team employees supported charitable organizations such as Easter Seals, Special Olympics and their kids’ schools. They spent hours coming up with designs and painting their shoes.
At an unboxing event Wednesday at Halas Hall, staffers excitedly saw their finished sneakers and shared their causes.
“When we start working on the shoes, it starts off as the blue-and-green shoe or the red-and-yellow shoe,” Belvin said. “And then after it’s, ‘Where’s Larry’s shoe?’ because you almost feel like you know the person.”
Bears running back Khalil Herbert is participating in My Cause, My Cleats, though he didn’t paint his own shoes. His cleats were customized in support of Heartland Animal Shelter.
“I chose Heartland because of my love for animals, specifically dogs,” Herbert said. “I have two dogs and just wanted to bring awareness to the shelter. They do a great job of bringing in a lot of these dogs from kill shelters and giving them another opportunity in a second home.”
He learned about Heartland, located in Wheeling, through his dog sitter when he needed a place to donate extra toys and treats, and he has since visited twice. Herbert’s blue cleats feature painted paw prints and pictures of his dogs, Khazi and Khace.
He wasn’t the only animal lover whose shoes stood out.
“There’s someone whose shoes are about his cat,” Branch said. “And you can tell he really loves cats. He put all the cats he’s ever had on a sneaker. That really stuck out to me.”
For others, customizing their shoes was an opportunity to pay homage to a lost friend or relative. As they showed colleagues their shoes, you could see the emotion in their faces. Belvin and Branch talked with people about their shoes and helped lace them properly, making sure every detail was just right for their big moment Sunday.
The event with the Bears was SHU’s largest to date, an opportunity for which Belvin and Branch said they are grateful. By helping members of the organization tell their stories, they got to add to their own.
“You can tell these shoes really mean a lot to people,” Belvin said. “Being able to walk around and somebody ask, ‘Where’d you get those shoes?’ they have a reason to tell their story.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that they’ll get from it and the biggest thing we get from it — getting to know a little piece of everybody and having a different appreciation for the art and the shoes.”