Birdies Shoes: Flying to the Top


IN ANNE LAMOTT’S NOVEL BIRD BY BIRD, THERE IS A SCENE where the protagonist starts researching for a school paper about birds the night before it’s due. Overwhelmed by the pile of books about birds in front of her, she is stuck until her father advises her to take it “bird by bird.” This echoes Bianca Gates’s philosophy. “Just start,” Gates replied when asked for her advice to women. “Whatever’s on your mind, start. Whether it’s taking a risk and finding a new job, making a new friend, or moving to a new city, start.”

Gates co-founded Birdies, the San Francisco-based shoe company, with her friend Marisa Sharkey. The company’s original concept was comfortable, stylish shoes one can wear while hosting a fashionable dinner party: flats as comfy as slippers. They built the company as young women, holding full-time jobs and without experience in the field.


The name Birdies came about organically. Gates and Sharkey started with the concept of their ideal customer and began to build the company around her. “She loves to entertain friends and family. She’s got a lot on her plate. She’s so cool. She’s so smart. She’s so hardworking. She’s playful. She’s just joyful, and you either want to be her or be friends with her. She’s very warm and inclusive, and if you go to her house for a party and bring 15 other friends with you, there’s always room at her table in her home, and she always has plenty of food. And you never want to leave her house.”

Birdie’s Co-Owner and CEO Bianca Gates


Gates and Sharkey used their perfect customer as a reference in every decision made, but they needed a name for her. As they described their concept, people were drawn to the name of their fictitious customer. “People kept asking us, ‘How’s Birdie?’ And we said, you know what, maybe that’s the name of our company.”

Since launching in 2015, Birdie has evolved and grown. The first slipper concept quickly uncovered a market desire—to wear stylish shoes as comfortable as slippers outside.

“We launched a sneaker a couple of years ago, which was the next level of evolution. We’re making Birdie’s life easier, more fun, and more fashionable, designing for her 365 days of the year, not just for the moments she’s at home or in need of flats. She’s our guidepost.”


Gates worked in Global Marketing Solutions at Facebook when she dove into Birdies, so she surreptitiously had access to Facebook’s former COO and author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg. “When I started at Facebook in 2011, I mustered up the courage to introduce myself to Sheryl, and I said, ‘You are why I am commuting three hours a day to Facebook because I wanted to learn and work at a company you are leading.’ And we just hit it off.”

Gates stayed at Facebook for two years while building Birdies until outside investors were clamoring to invest. Gates felt she couldn’t accept external capital if she were not invested full-time, and she decided it might be time to resign.

Birdies Crane shoes comes in a variety of colors. Photo Credit: Birdies


“In 2017, when I finally decided that I might be leaving, I asked Sheryl if I could spend some time with her to think through this. And she just said, ‘This will be a huge success. And not that you need this, but if, for whatever reason, you decide you don’t want to do that anymore, you always have a home back here at Facebook.’ And with that, I set sail in the middle of 2017, and Sheryl has been a huge inspiration and supporter of mine ever since leaving.”

As the daughter of two Latin American immigrants, leaving her comfortable Facebook job wasn’t easy. “It was heartbreaking when I told them I would be leaving Facebook to sell slippers on the internet. They just thought I was crazy.”


But leave she did, with Birdie’s inspiration and Sheryl’s mentorship. Gates and Sharkey each put in $50,000 to start the business, which did not allow them the capital to implement everything they wanted immediately. They could only afford to produce whole sizes and two styles. They believed that if people returned the product for any reason, they would at least have proven there was a market.

“At Facebook, we were taught that done is better than perfect. So, the idea was we only have $100,000 and not an overly perfected product. Let’s get it 80 percent correct, get it into the market, get it into women’s hands, and see what they say. And if they say, I love the idea, but this is a crappy product, then hey, we have a business; we need to go back and perfect the product. And that’s what we did.”

There have been stops and starts—some initial misuse of the product opened the door to new products, and outdoor shoes were added. Later this year, they will expand product offerings and move beyond flats.

Gates has more advice for women who want to start a business. “I think we, as women, often overthink it, and we want to get to that place of perfection before we do it. And I’ve learned in this journey that some of the most successful people don’t have the answers before diving in. And that is the way to get to your success: to dive in without knowing 100 percent what you’re diving into and just put one foot in front of the other. Just start.” Bird by bird.