She’s not just another ‘shoe-in’

As an international student, Ivonne Serna did more than put one foot in front of the other – she stepped out in style. And she believes everyone should have that chance.

Serna, a recent Ryerson grad was one of eight international students in Ontario to receive a City of Toronto International Student Excellence Award last weekend. She received hers in the category of entrepreneurship for her shoe startup inspired by Ryerson’s master of arts in fashion program.

“She had to learn how to become a real business woman in Canada, while she was pursuing academic studies as an international student,” said Diana Ning, co-ordinator of International Student Services, who nominated Serna for the award.

In 2011, Serna, 39, moved to Toronto to pursue her master’s degree more than 20 years after earning her undergraduate degree in marketing from a university in Monterrey, Mexico. One of her first courses at Ryerson was “fashion history and theory” taught by Bata Shoe Museum curator Elizabeth Semmelhack.

“It was like taking Shoes 101 with her,” said Serna. “That’s what gave me the idea that I wanted to focus on footwear.”

A passion for footwear and a course in fashion entrepreneurship were the perfect pair for Serna. In fashion entrepreneurship, she began to think of groups marginalized by the fashion industry. Serna said her goal is to make footwear that is inclusive for all body types and fashionable.

“Maybe you can find footwear that will accommodate size, but it’s not necessarily fashionable,” she said.

She’s taking advantage of her move to a colder climate with her first product – tall winter boots for women. Her business, Tycra Wear, is co-run by her husband. She works on everything from product design to marketing, while he balances the books.

It’s not the first time the couple has been in business together. While still in Mexico, they ran a travel agency for nearly 10 years and owned a photography business together. When she left Mexico two years ago because of increased violence, Serna was one of nearly 100,000 students from around the world to move to Canada to study.

“We have about 30,000 international students in the city of Toronto,” said Jagdish Yadav, senior adviser of education for the city. “They add to the economy of the city, to the culture of the city.”

According to a 2013 city press release, international students brought about $1.2 billion to Toronto’s economy last year.

International students in graduate programs, like Serna, pay about double the tuition of average Canadian graduate students while international undergrads pay more than three times their Canadian counterparts, according to Statistics Canada.

Not only is education more costly for international students, once they arrive in Canada, they must adjust to life here while studying.

“(They’re) facing a different cultural environment, academic challenges and demands and language limitations,” said Ning, adding there are about 1,700 international students enrolled at Ryerson.

In addition to the challenges of moving to a new country and starting at a new school, Serna stepped up for the challenge of starting her business.

“I think it’s like a puzzle that you’re gathering the pieces for but you don’t know exactly where to find them or what they look like,” she said.

Her next step will be footwear innovation. “Why don’t we have that ‘Back to the Future Marty McFly’ style for lacing tennis shoes?” said Serna, referring to the power-laced Nike shoes worn by the film’s characters in a futuristic 2015.

At Ryerson, Serna learned that shoes have been made the same way for more than 200 years.

“We should see some innovation and somebody needs to work on that,” she said. “So why don’t I start?”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on October 2, 2013.

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