(Photo by Terence Duffy)

Women in Leadership: Marisa Sharkey

Our annual salute to extraordinary women breaking barriers and rising to the top

Back Article Mar 17, 2023 By Vanessa Labi

This story is part of our March 2023 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

Marisa Sharkey

Co-founder and President, Birdies

Before starting her shoe company Birdies, Marisa Sharkey described herself as risk averse. She enjoyed the familiarity of her work as a growth strategist for large consumer brands at the global consultancy Bain & Company and leading corporate strategy for Ross Stores, although the roles were exceptionally competitive. But when she moved from New York City to Sacramento for her husband’s career in 2015, she was faced with “very different career opportunities.” It was then her inner risk taker was born.

“It was obvious that I was going to have to get pretty creative in terms of what I was going to do next,” says Sharkey. Retail had always been her calling — she received an MBA in strategic management and finance from Wharton School of Business after getting her bachelor’s in business management from Cornell. Before that, she spent her New York childhood learning merchandising concepts from her retail veteran father. 

Her next step became clear when her good friend Bianca Gates, then a global retail marketing executive for Facebook, approached her with an entrepreneurial proposition that resonated — to start a brand of stylish indoor-outdoor loafers. The concept would offer women a chic alternative to the hosting conundrum between “stilettos or a frumpy slipper.” 

They went all in on what would become Birdies — Gates in Manhattan and Sharkey in Sacramento. A successful prototype and several fundraising rounds later, Birdies was an early hit. The brand embraced influencer marketing, and selected Meghan Markle as its ideal brand ambassador in 2018. When the then-duchess was photographed wearing a pair of Birdies flats, the shoe generated a 30,000-person waiting list and immeasurable buzz.

“If I know something is important to my kids, I try to be really focused on them. But on a weekend, I might have to jump into work here and there. For me, it has to be a fluid back and forth.” 

Marisa Sharkey, Co-founder and President, Birdies

Eight years in, the brand has come a long way. Sharkey and Gates have expanded the product beyond the home with sneakers, sandals and more. As Birdies’ president, Sharkey’s role has evolved too. Gone are the low-budget days of “playing every role from design to marketing to operations.” Today she is the leader of a team of experts. Birdies has an office in San Francisco as well as several remote workers in Sacramento. 

With her team, Sharkey leans into a humble, roll-up-her-sleeves approach. “Everyone has a natural style and I think you need to build your leadership style from that, so it’s authentic and meaningful to you and builds trust with other people,” she says. “I would say I’m a hands-on operator and I’m detail-oriented and I do have high expectations.”

Sharkey is especially proud the company was certified last year as a B Corp, a measure of accountability across social and environmental performance. “Their high standards push us to do more on all of those dimensions,” she says, going on to describe Birdies’ impact programs that support women and girls through mentoring and entrepreneurship.

As for her own work-life balance, she finds being a “hyper planner” grants her some control over her schedule. “If I know something is important to my kids, I try to be really focused on them. But on a weekend, I might have to jump into work here and there. For me, it has to be a fluid back and forth.” Her two daughters, age 10 and 12, share her love of sports and running the American River Trail.

Reflecting on her bold moves, both physical and professional, Sharkey feels good about getting out of her comfort zone. “For the last eight years, I’ve forced myself to take risks and live with the uncomfortableness. … And personally, it may be a small impact with just my two daughters, but just showing them that you can push through the obstacles, and it’s up to you to figure out how to get things done. I hope they’re really learning to believe in themselves as a result of that.”

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