August 21, 2021
Supporting the Soles of St. Louis
By Jaquan Vassel
I’m a certified pedorthist--someone who specializes in footwear. I help people find the right type of footwear for their feet, specializing in the needs of people with diabetes and other foot pathologies.
How did I get so focused on working with people’s feet? I had never guessed it would be this way. Growing up in the region I thought I wanted to be a pharmacist. Years ago my wife and I opened up the phone book and started cold-calling all the pharmacies in the St. Louis area to try and find me an internship. We were hoping it would get me experience to boost my chances of getting into pharmacy school. We made the calls, and I was rejected by every single place--all except for the very last one on our list. Coincidentally, it was a pharmacy right down the street from where I grew up. They invited me in to talk, actually hired me on the spot, and I worked there for eleven years.
During the time I worked there I wore so many different hats. I began by filling people’s prescriptions, and then expanded into marketing, preparing paperwork for insurance audits, administration, and I even became their accreditation officer. Some of my responsibilities at the pharmacy were client-facing, and I loved that part of my job. I would see customers regularly, sometimes for home visits, and I’d give them their medicines and we’d just get to talking. I really developed a connection with a lot of people--it came to feel like we were friends.
The pharmacy had a diabetic shoe department which I would help out with as well, taking people’s shoe sizes and pointing them to diabetic shoes they could choose from. This department’s primary motive, however, was just marketing. Our diabetic shoe service wasn’t about, “how can we help people?” but rather, “how can we attract more business into the pharmacy?”
Unfortunately, this is pretty much the current industry standard: have an untrained supplier ask for the client’s shoe size, tell them to pick out a pair of shoes, and that’s it. No more detailed questions than that, no customization, and no follow-up to see if the product is actually even helping.
When I saw my first serious issue on a client’s foot, I almost fainted. It was an ulcer, an open wound, and it was just so severe. This was on a diabetic man who had previously gotten diabetic shoes that weren’t fitted properly for him, and his healing was going incredibly slow--if even at all. At that time I had just been made the head of the diabetic shoe department and I wasn’t experienced enough; I had to turn him away. I couldn’t pretend that I could help him if I wasn’t actually capable.
Then I started to see more diabetic people with other severe foot problems: people who had different wounds, conditions and even foot amputations. I learned that people with neuropathy, a common symptom of diabetes, lose sensation in their feet, so slipping some diabetic shoes on a person and asking them “how does that feel?” may not reveal accurate information. It may even be detrimental to their health.
I began to reflect. “These people are so nice, and they really need help. And I know that the service I’m providing for them here isn’t helping. We can’t just keep giving them these random shoes without actually having the knowledge of how to help them.” It hurt me to be working like this, and I had to try to find a solution for it.
I brought this up to my employer, and with their support I began to go to school to get trained in pedorthics alongside my full-time work at the pharmacy. Wow, through that intensive training I really began to see just how much a person’s feet can be affected by having the proper shoes and insoles. I started to understand that we could really help a lot of people. I also started to see how this could be a really viable independent business.
Eventually the pharmacy phased out their diabetic shoe service, and I chose to open up my own shop in Ferguson: Vassel’s Comfort Shoes and Custom Insoles. I was eager to offer a service where people would get prompt and personalized attention, an education of what’s going on with their feet and what they need, and the footwear that would really help them in the short and long-term. I knew that, by running my own business, I’d be able to be more focused on what would be most beneficial to the patients instead of prioritizing profit.
Wearing so many hats at the pharmacy helped me to start this business, but I didn’t have any mentors and still had to learn a lot on the fly very quickly. It was very, very difficult. I was proceeding largely through trial and error, and there were times when I almost even quit due to the challenges of the process.
I learned of WEPOWER’s Elevate/Elevar entrepreneurship program last year when my business was about 1.5 years old, and was accepted into the most recent cohort this past winter. It has been intense and amazing for me. The grant funding that came with the program is great, but I would trade that in a heartbeat for all of the other resources and information that they’ve provided us. I thought that I knew what I was doing before, but by going through this program now I really believe that I can make it. I have more confidence and the tools to be able to succeed.
Running my own business and having the support of the Elevate/Elevar program allows me to be the best pedorthist I can, and this involves personalized, educational service to all my clients. Diabetic or not, we provide a full, five-step process for every patient that comes into our shop: First, we do a biomechanical assessment to identify high-pressure areas in your feet. Second, we test out designs to reduce that pressure. Third, we make sure the shoes and insoles fit properly, and we always do this in-person (versus just mailing you out a new pair of shoes and calling it quits, like most suppliers). Fourth, we test the shoes and insoles with a pressure sensor device that tells us with 100% accuracy if we’ve reduced the pressure or not. Finally, we follow-up with all clients to ensure that the products we create for them are actually helping.
With Vassel’s, you get to make educated decisions about your health. And you have a wide variety of shoe brands to choose from, too. Vassel’s currently carries the largest selection of diabetic shoes in the St. Louis region.
Our infrastructure is growing steadily as well. We’ve recently acquired equipment that improves our assessment process, and even have a lab on site now where we can make the custom insoles ourselves for clients in need of faster turnaround.
Because diabetic shoes are such a serious need, this whole process is largely covered by most insurances and 100% covered by Medicaid. There is either low or no out-of-pocket cost to our patients.
Especially in lower-income communities, people get very heavily targeted by salespeople and, in my mind, really taken advantage of. I never want that to happen here at Vassel’s. Helping people with their health is what I’m most proud of. I want to make sure we are always being of service to people, and that we’re shining a light on the quality of service necessary to support short and long-term wellbeing for everyone. I want us to get to a place where people are so educated, aware of what they need and deserve, and expectant of great service, that if they go to anyone else for shoes they can say, “is that all there is? Is that all you’re going to do?”
Vassel’s Comfort Shoes and Custom Insoles is advancing this industry to a new standard, using quality customer service to grow health equity for the community. Why only help someone for the short-term if we can help them for the rest of their lives?
Written in partnership with Whitney Bembenek.