Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she can conquer the world.
Mechanical engineer Anastasia Kraft’s life may be world’s apart from Hollywood actresses who’ve uttered versions of this maxim, but she too believes in it.
Style isn’t a matter of frivolity for Kraft. After years of working as a project manager and engineer in Wisconsin, the Kazakhstan-raised, German-educated Kraft took an unexpected career detour in 2018 when she launched Xena Workwear, a brand of stylish, steel-toed boots that are compliant with US government safety standards.
Kraft’s foray in fashionable safety footwear was largely shaped by her frustration over having to lumber through factories in ill-fitting boots originally designed for men.
“I always felt like a clown,” she laments.”What you wear has such a big impact on how you perform at work and those shoes didn’t make me feel comfortable or confident.”
Indeed, a quick scan of available safety boots marketed to women reveals an ugly picture. Options approved by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) include hulking lace-ups and chunky cowboy boots that would earn more respect in a square dance than a factory floor.
Kraft’s counterpoint goes beyond the “shrink it and pink it” mentality, in which products are changed in scant, superficial ways meant to pander to women’s tastes. Her safety boots are simple, lightweight, and have a slimmer profile that better conforms to the proportions of a woman’s foot.
In designing her two boot styles that retail for just under $200 a pair, she says she was thinking of fellow female engineers who try to avoid looking overly feminine at work, for fear of losing credibility among their peers.
Though great strides have been made to promote STEM to women and girls in recent years, men still dominate the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
The manly shoes don’t help, says Kraft.
“This is the reality and I’d like to change it. In the ideal world, women can wear whatever they want.” Kraft says she wants to tackle the entire safety-apparel category geared for women. Her next project: A boardroom-worthy blazer with pockets to store the personal protective equipment like safety googles and ear plugs, plus a hook for earrings. “You’re not allowed to wear dangling jewelry in the manufacturing floor and you never know where to put them,” she explains. “I’m working on a blazer that I’ve always wanted to have.”
In Milwaukee, where she is nurturing her apparel startup, a network of female engineers working in big industrial plants for companies like Rockwell Automation, Harley Davidson, and Johnson Controls serves as her inspiration, target audience, and first customers.
So far, the customer feedback has been largely positive. “I have been waiting forever,” gushes one reviewer from Cincinnati. “My jaw dropped,” says another. Xena also has gained an endorsement from the US Society of Women Engineers.
“Our ultimate goal is to lift up women working in this space today,” Kraft says. “We also want to give young girls role models so when they’re considering a career in science or engineering, they’ll know that they’re not alone. It’s a career where you can have a lot of fun and get paid well.”