25th Anniversary

Lacing Together Entrepreneurship and Education Through Sneakers

By: eBay News Team

Seller Tamara Baker shares how her dual path of higher education and small business ownership has fueled her sneaker-centric success and commitment to community.

Editor’s note: In celebration of eBay’s 25th anniversary, we’re spotlighting a seller every week from our global community in our Mini Stories column through 2020.

Seller Tamara Baker’s journey toward entrepreneurship is rooted in the seeds of her childhood with an early introduction to the allure of footwear. Now, a successful seller based out of Greenville, South Carolina, “I’ve been into sneakers since I was three years old and my dad took me to the store to choose my first pair,” Tamara said. “It was about the smell of them, the feel of them, the culture and just everything above and beyond when it came down to sneakers.” Currently earning multiple academic degrees while opening a new storefront, Tamara dreams of combining her passion for shoes with her commitment to education as her pathway to success and community building. 

Tamara’s first pair of sneakers at age three has since expanded into a sizable collection — and was the springboard that launched Tamara on her lifelong journey of excellence. Her mom promised Tamara a new pair of sneakers as an incentive for good grades, and Tamara, an excellent and eager student, quickly took up the challenge. “By the time I was in the fourth grade, I had more sneakers than anyone in my family, I had sneakers in every room of the house,” she said with a laugh. Though she initially attended college with a major in recreational therapy, she soon realized that wasn’t her calling and returned home to reassess her goals.

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Tamara as a small child with her mother outside their home in Jacksonville, Florida.

With her imagination and initiative, as well as endless optimism and persistence, Tamara soon found a new way forward. “I was a broke college student,” she said. “But I had a closet full of sneakers.” Carefully selecting 10 pairs, Tamara snapped photos with her Polaroid camera, uploaded them to her laptop onto her brand-new eBay store, Sneaker Solecial, and she went to sleep. 

By the next morning, all her shoes had sold. Her very first sale? “A pair of Air Jordan 7 Citrus, all black with a little orange and red on them,” she said. That was in 2013, and she’s been hooked on entrepreneurship from that day on. 

Tamara sold more of her own sneaker collection, and when her closet emptied out, she started consigning from shops and individuals in her community. Since 80 percent of her product was pre-owned (and still is), she would meticulously spruce up each pair, scraping pebbles out of soles, cleaning laces, using what she calls her “sole sauce” to brighten up colors and surfaces. “I deep clean them and restore them to their original form, making sure each shoe is in the best condition and looking as new as possible,” she said, aiming to please customers while making a profit. “That has always been my mission.”  

Tamara quickly realized that she could benefit from a return to school to learn more about the intricacies of running her eBay store and get a better grounding in business through academics. “People think it’s just about sneakers, but it’s finances, it’s accounting, it’s doing taxes, it’s ethics, those things all have to play a major role,” she said. “Education is like peanut butter to the jelly of my entrepreneurship.”

Returning to college, Tamara earned degrees while maintaining her active eBay store. “The two go hand in hand,” she said. “Everything I was learning in the classroom, I just kept applying it to my role as an eBay seller.”

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Tamara graduating with her MBA.

Tamara has since earned an associate degree and bachelor’s degree in business, an MBA, and she’s currently working on a Ph.D. in higher education with a concentration in leadership.    

Much of Tamara’s internal drive has been honed out of her desire to build community. Her first year in business, she sold a pair of shoes at relatively low cost to another college student. “And he told me, ‘Keep that focus on making sure that everyday people can afford these shoes. Keep that small field, and you’ll take care of your community and take care of people.’ I’ve stuck with that strategy, and it’s paid off,” both in terms of her success and in terms of attracting loyal customers. 

Tamara keeps those moments close, finding joy in connections. Another buyer found the perfect shoes for her boyfriend, and Tamara remembers the woman coming back to relay his reaction when he opened his gift. “She said he started crying,” Tamara said. “And I was like, wow, my job is so beautiful. Stories like that, I never forget them.”

Though Tamara first started by selling around 40 pairs a week with biweekly drops, she’s ramped up to often selling 80 to 100 pairs a week. Her regular restocking is made possible in large part through business relationships she built with local consignment shops, where she has been known to stop multiple times a week, sometimes before class, to check in on newly arrived stock. Now, she also buys more from individuals, offering direct cash in exchange for sneaker collections through messaging apps. “You’d be surprised how many people love stores like mine because they just want to get rid of their sneakers, and they can get cash immediately for them from me,” she said.

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Selling on eBay has also helped Tamara level the playing field professionally and opens up the world to her as an entrepreneur. “I’m a Black woman in a male-dominated industry,” she said. “Ecommerce goes straight to the product and services I’m providing. And I can sell whenever I want, and I can sell to anybody in the world. If you have an item or good to provide, someone, somewhere wants that item, and they want it now. And that’s the most important aspect about being an eBay seller.”  

Though Tamara appreciates that ability to enter the market on level footing, she also understands that she can play an important part in gaining access for others. “People look at me as a role model,” she said. With that responsibility in mind, she’s currently setting up a nonprofit foundation to help give back. “I’d like more Blacks to have more access to education, to small businesses,” she said. “So I’ll grab kids’ attention with sneakers, and then tell them about other things, like self-esteem, depression, confidence and staying away from drugs.”

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Indeed, Tamara’s investment in the Black community plays a part in her latest venture: a physical storefront. Her storefront will complement her eBay store, and they will operate in tandem. Located in Orangeburg, South Carolina, the site of two historically Black colleges, Tamara chose the location with the intention of becoming an anchor for the community. “People will see I’m a woman of color, and that I’m educated. It’s going to be phenomenal, I can’t even describe the feeling,” she said. Tamara plans to open the store in fall of this year.        

Though she’s been asked if her physical store will lessen her eBay offerings, Tamara shrugs off that suggestion. “If anything, we’re going to get bigger, and we’re going to get better,” she said. “I started on eBay because it was a marketplace that had millions of buyers that were interested in what I was selling. It’s always been that way for me.” 

She’s planning on splitting inventory 50/50 between her online and physical storefronts, and she credits eBay with giving her the hands-on business acumen to get her brick-and-mortar store up and running. “It’s given me an opportunity, a platform to show my passion and show my strengths,” she said. “I see people open up stores all the time, but they close really fast. And I say, ‘well, you should have sold on eBay first,’” to get that entrepreneurial experience online.

Even during the pandemic, Tamara has found success with her store, and she realizes how lucky she is right now. “The pandemic has shown me I chose a great marketplace. I’m seeing a lot of other entrepreneurs who are struggling, but I haven’t experienced a shortage.” With her characteristic generosity, she is helping others who aren’t so fortunate, donating money and shoes to customers and other sneaker store owners to get them through tight times. “I give back and show positivity to people in need because I am so blessed,” she said. 

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A sampling of Tamara’s eBay store offerings.

With all that success and achievements, what advice does Tamara share with other aspiring entrepreneurs? “Whatever you want to do in life, always have a vision, follow your vision and never give up,” she said. In equal measure, Tamara also attributes her success to her consistency with sneakers, which have remained both her personal and professional passion. Indeed, over her lifetime, she estimates that she’s owned about 5,000 pairs of sneakers in all — though most of those have been outgrown, sold or traded by now.  

As for her path ahead, Tamara aims to one day follow in some mighty big footsteps. “I would like to be a professor and teach my students all about ecommerce. And I hope to be the biggest store on eBay, with sneaker stores in different communities,” she said. “Before I retire, I would like to move from sneaker store owner to becoming like the Martin Luther King Jr. of sneakers and help lift the communities around me.”

Empowering entrepreneurship and creating economic opportunity for all has been our philosophy at eBay since we were founded 25 years ago. Our marketplace has been enriched by its hundreds of thousands of independent small businesses and entrepreneurs worldwide. We win when they do. Learn more about how we partner with our sellers.