Semester in San Francisco led Gabrielle Whittle to an Innovator Award

Gabrielle Whittle works on her convertible heel design.
Gabrielle Whittle, who recently graduated in mechanical engineering, received an inaugural $10,000 Innovator Award for her development of an adjustable sole and removable heel that will enable her product to be worn as a flat or a high-heeled shoe. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gabrielle Whittle was searching for the means to express herself creatively. She found her way forward last year at Northeastern’s Bay Area location while attending the Semester in San Francisco program. 

Her immersion in an entrepreneurial environment inspired Whittle to develop a transformable high heel for womens’ shoes.

Whittle, who recently graduated in mechanical engineering, received an inaugural $10,000 Innovator Award from Northeastern’s Women Who Empower inclusion and entrepreneurship initiative. The awards recognize 19 women who are graduates or current students at Northeastern. They are receiving a total of $100,000 in grants to help fuel 17 ventures.

Whittle was inspired to pursue her entrepreneurial instinct during a Semester in San Francisco last year. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Whittle has been working with a Northeastern consultant to develop an adjustable sole and removable heel that will enable her product to be worn as a flat or a high-heel shoe.

“Anyone who has worn heels understands the inconvenience and the pain associated with them,” says Whittle, who has formed Phoenix Footwear to develop her shoe. “The goal is to make it easier, more convenient, and just more fun to wear high heels.”

Whittle had been on co-op in the Bay Area for the preceding six months when she began her Semester in San Francisco in January 2020. She switched out of a group project in order to take an age-old problem in women’s fashion.

“I thought of all the times when I would go out and have to compromise my high heels for a more practical option that didn’t go with my outfit,” Whittle told the Innovator Award judges in a speech last month. “I learned that although others had made similar products, no one had made a super great shoe of this kind. Creating a product like this is a really challenging optimization problem that would require an engineer who could design for structure and functionality, while keeping visual aesthetics at the forefront.”

“Creating a product like this is a really challenging optimization problem,” says Whittle, who is putting her engineering degree to good use. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Whittle says she was inspired by the creative environment in San Francisco.

“The professors are just amazing—they’re all career entrepreneurs so they know what they’re talking about,” Whittle says. “San Francisco is a very entrepreneurial-spirited place, and the students I was in class with also had that spirit.”

Whittle is representative of the women who are being discovered and empowered by the Innovator Awards, says Diane MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement, who created Women Who Empower with trustee and chair emeritus Henry Nasella to invest in women with entrepreneurial aspirations.

“Gabbie is an engineer who was feeling a lack of direction when she did the semester of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley,” MacGillivray says. “And that’s where she discovered herself as an entrepreneur. It’s the classic entrepreneurial thing: You identify a problem and say, ‘I have a solution to this.’”

Whittle says her involvement in the Innovator Awards has deepened her commitment to entrepreneurship by exposing her to a group of like-minded women.

“I’ve always thought about running a business—I thought it would be cool—but I genuinely never thought it was something that I could do,” Whittle says. “I just felt like I didn’t have the knowledge, I didn’t have the money to do it, and I didn’t know anyone like me who was an entrepreneur. So I do definitely think there’s a need for” the Innovator Awards. 

“It was so nice seeing other women in the entrepreneur space sharing their journeys,” Whittle says. “It’s really inspiring, and I think all of these people inspire more women to get into entrepreneurship as well.”

The $10,000 award provides a vital boost in funding for her project, says Whittle.

“We’ve moved past 3D printing and prototypes,” Whittle says. “Longer term, [the goal] is to raise a little bit more money so we can hire a contract manufacturer to get actual samples of the ready-to-sell products. I’m hoping by next year that I’ll be able to market an actual product and start a presale launch.”

Whittle says her experiences with depression influenced the change in her career path.

“Throughout college, I experienced really heavy levels of depression for a lot of reasons,” Whittle says. “I was working in great companies. I was doing great work. But I didn’t feel satisfied in the work I was doing, and then I experienced a lot of loss that led me to a very depressive state.

“My depression really got me thinking, how do I create a life for myself that involves happiness and doesn’t allow me to be in this space anymore? I just felt like I had to build something for myself. And so that’s what brought me to entrepreneurship. It was a blank slate. It was what I created it to be. And I felt like I needed that in order to really be satisfied with myself.”

Whittle values the inspirational nature of the award.

“Winning this award has validated that, as long as I empower myself and I educate myself on what I need to do, I can do this thing,” Whittle says. “It will not fail as long as I put into it the passion that I already know I have for it. And knowing that other people see that in me and in my product, it’s just really validating.”

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