“It’s called VIAJIYU,” my professor told us as he led us down the cobblestone streets of Florence.
“Is that Italian for something or what?” I whispered to one of my friends. She shrugged.
My professor liked taking us on little field trips now and then. He wanted us to appreciate everything Italian culture had to offer, so he’d show us cool leather shops and interesting bars and some of the historic sites we’d learn about in class. But this time, as we walked, he turned to me specifically and said, “You’ll like this a lot, Callie. It’s about shoes and women.”
I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but I nodded anyway. Soon enough we were filing into a little boutique on the twisting street of Borgo Santi Apostoli. My first impression was that the place was truly beautiful — I loved the clean, simple décor, not to mention the colorful array of ballet flats and wedges. Like many women my age, I was a sucker for shoes.
The woman who greeted us introduced herself as Nicole Still, the CEO and founder of VIAJIYU. She told us her story — from her beginnings at the Chicago Tribune, TIME Magazine and Johnson & Johnson to her entrepreneurial endeavors in Australia and Italy — and talked to us about why she started the boutique a few years prior. It hadn’t been her lifelong dream to work in the fashion industry, but that wasn’t really her objective when she started the company. Instead, she was interested in starting conversations.
And that’s what hooked me from the beginning. It wasn’t the shoes – they were gorgeous, but I was a college student who didn’t have the funds for any luxury purchases. No, it was the stories. It was how much I felt like I could relate to VIAJIYU’s accomplished founder, who had grown up in Ohio and studied journalism in school. And it was hearing about VIAJIYU’s values, namely Italian craftsmanship and the one word no one seems to want to talk about: feminism.
Nicole explained to us later that she didn’t start VIAJIYU to be a shoe company. Yes, she always planned to sell bespoke leather women’s shoes, but the concept was bigger than that. She wanted to use the boutique as a platform to talk about women and the media, which, if you know me at all, you know are two of my biggest interests. Sufficiently intrigued, I stayed behind to talk to Nicole after my professor and most of my other classmates had left.
One thing I appreciated about Nicole from the first time I met her was how level-headed and humble she was. She seemed to have a life worth boasting about, but she never bragged. What also struck me is how she believed in people. When she heard about my interest in the shop, she immediately offered to let me intern with the company. There I was, a girl from Kansas who had never had an internship before, who didn’t even have a copy of a resume to show, and yet for some reason this woman was crazy enough to say, “Okay, come in on Sunday and we can figure out the details.”
And that was that. I walked into the shop without any clue of what it even was and walked out with my very first internship. And here I am now, one year later, back in Florence and working with the same company. It’s been a wild ride, but I’ve learned an incredible amount from being here. Working with a self-made entrepreneur teaches you a lot of life lessons, especially when she’s so willing to share her own. She taught me to take the strengths I already had and use them in new ways, making my skills more diverse and marketable. And I learned what it’s like to be on a team full of people who work hard and believe in what they’re doing.
But perhaps the greatest lesson I learned — and the one I never expected to — was about empowerment. That’s the key to VIAJIYU — it’s about supporting trailblazers, women who aren’t afraid to walk away from the worn path and create their own. Because in a world where people are constantly saying “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t,” sometimes all you need is that one little “you can” for you to finally take that step and become the best version of yourself. In a world where women constantly have their credibility questioned, it’s important to have people out there telling you that you are capable of anything. And in a world where women are constantly put in competition with one another, it’s refreshing to have a space full of people who want the best for each other and champion for women everywhere.
I guess that’s what I love so much about VIAJIYU. Being here makes me want to work hard and become the best version of myself. I might just be “a girl from Kansas,” but that doesn’t define me. Life is full of so many paths and so many directions, and it’s easy to feel pressured to take one or another. But I can take any path that I want, and I can even blaze my own, and it’s scary, and it’s exciting. Maybe I don’t know exactly where I’m going in life, but I know I have options.
I still remember what Nicole told me the first day I met her. “I think everything happens for a reason,” she had said when she told me to come back. Back then, I didn’t know if I agreed. Sometimes even today I don’t know if I do. The world is a tangled place I don’t always know how to make sense of. But I do know that I stumbled across something great the moment I walked through those doors, and I know that it’s changed my life, so maybe it’s not a stretch to say that she was right.