University of Massachusetts Amherst

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If the Shoe Fits, Design It

Sam del Pilar has taken the urban tradition and Hispanic heritage he grew up with in the Borough of Queens, New York, and used all that to put his own personal stamp on his mechanical engineering education at UMass Amherst. His hometown culture is the common denominator in all his activities. He was a member of the UMass Boxing Club. He does the social media promotion for TRGGR Radio, a weekly WMUA radio program about hip hop and politics. He has served as the events coordinator, vice president, and treasurer for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. He did an internship last summer with the Reebok company in Canton, Massachusetts, mainly because of the “urban sneaker culture” that he quite literally sprang from.

He also founded a nonprofit educational organization called “Sneakers for Success” that inspires urban youth toward pursuing a college degree through sneaker culture and footwear design. A major component of the organization is the use of footwear design and innovation to attract the youth toward the STEM fields.

You might notice that athletic shoes are at center court in all these activities. That’s because they touch him to his very inner sole. Just to lace up Sam’s sneakers, prep them for success, and tie them with a double knot, he has designs on becoming a professional footwear engineer. 

“I got interested in sneakers because they are so much a part of the social status for people between the ages of 12 and 18 in urban cultures such as the New York City area,” he says. “It actually satisfies a passion for sneaker culture from when I grew up in Flushing, where sneakers were symbols of sports, music, entertainment, everything. They were a key to my lifestyle.”

Sam first found an outlet for his high-energy sneaker culture during his sophomore year. “I was fortunate to meet (then doctoral candidate) Lieselle Trinidad,” he recalls. “She worked in the biomechanics lab of the Kinesiology Department and introduced me to how research was done on footwear. That’s when I found out you need to understand basic engineering principles to do that research. I’ve been involved with it ever since.”

His Reebok internship was one byproduct of his biomechanics research. Sam’s internship at Reebok was actually in marketing, doing trend reports and competitive analysis, which was all new to him. But his mechanical engineering education gave him a leg up, or at least a foot up, on the sneaker business.

“One of the things you pick up here is this engineering mindset where you can tackle any problem in a very systematic way, get organized, and come up with the solution,” Sam explains. “The college has taught me a system that I can apply to any problem in the future.”

Besides, while interning at Reebok he also found his first love, which is sneaker design. He got to hang around some of the footwear engineers, especially one who had launched his career at Reebok by working as a NASA engineer. And now Sam knows exactly what he wants to do after his graduation this May. He plans to pour his talent into designing lighter, more supportive, more high-performance, more fashionable footwear, hopefully with Reebok.

With that goal in mind, Sam also wants to give urban high school students the same inspiration that allowed him to turn his passion into his profession. He wants to tip off Sneakers for Success in the Boston area, near the Reebok headquarters, and then take it to a national audience while getting urban students interested in math, science, and engineering by tapping into their fascination with sneakers.

As Sam says, “I just want to get the message across to urban high school students that, with an engineering background, there are plenty of opportunities to do research on sneakers and design your own footwear.” (September 2011)