How a mission trip inspired a fashion industry veteran to launch a 'purpose-driven' shoe brand
Nelli Kim walked wordlessly through the filthy streets of Mumbai’s infamous red-light district. Barefoot children chased each other past piles of trash while women stared impassively past the bars in open windows. Grim-faced men in doorways warily eyed the small group of Americans.
It was like witnessing hell on earth. Nelli blinked away tears as she realized the price of one pair of shoes from Bergdorf Goodman, the Fifth Avenue department store where she was the merchandise manager of women’s footwear, could sustain the people on this block for days.
“God, there’s nothing separating these people from me except our circumstances and the luck of my birth,” she thought.
Nelli had not known what to expect when she signed up for the short-term mission trip through Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City in 2014. But on the flight home, she resolved to use her gifts in service to others, although she was unclear how that might look.
“I’m in fashion!” she thought. “I’m not a doctor or a social worker; I’m a buyer for a luxury department store. I have no idea what I could do with the purpose of giving back.”
Could God use even her skills for His glory? She prayed, thought, schemed and dreamed. And she didn’t give up on her idea even when she faced a life-threatening battle with ovarian cancer.
And today, Nelli is selling shoes from her own company, RĒDEN, which stands for “restoration to Eden." RĒDEN shoes are radically different — created to be stylish and comfortable, even for people suffering from foot pain, such as Nelli experienced due to chemo treatments. And Nelli has pledged to give half of the company profits to charity.
“I wanted my shoes to solve a problem. To offer shoes that will allow people to be pain-free and promote optimal health,” Nelli explained. So she worked with an orthopedic surgeon to design the shoes, which began shipping to customers in late 2021. “I wanted a purpose-driven brand, to be comfy and look cool.”
RĒDEN grew from the commitment Nelli made after her first trip to India — to find a way to use her unique talents to do good for other people. But the road has not been easy, and there were many times she doubted she would ever make it this far. Looking back, however, she can see God’s hand throughout her journey.
Nelli and her three siblings grew up in Hawaii, the children of Korean immigrants. She headed east for college, and after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, moved to New York City. She began to climb the ranks of fashion and retail, eventually becoming the vice president/divisional merchandise manager of women’s footwear at Bergdorf Goodman. Along the way, she married a successful young lawyer. An ambitious couple, they seemed poised for the type of lucrative future that only the best and brightest achieve.
Visions of that future dimmed, however, when her marriage fell apart suddenly in 2014. Searching for comfort and answers, Nelli began revisiting the Christian faith she had grown up with but ignored in her young adult years. She began attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church, hoping to reconnect with God. At church one Sunday, she heard about the mission trip to India and signed up immediately. A few months later, she was on a plane with six other New Yorkers, eager to offer the love of Christ to impoverished communities and victims of human trafficking.
Along with assisting healthcare workers in the red-light district, Nelli and the other volunteers visited a slum community, where they met a family who served tea and cookies to the Americans and offered to pray for them. The following year, Nelli returned to Mumbai as a mission trip co-leader with a Redeemer team that spent several days at a safe house with girls rescued from sex trafficking. The team brought an array of lotions, facial masks, makeup and nail polish, which filled the girls with joy.
That trip cemented Nelli’s determination to make a difference. “This was no fluke,” she thought. “I have a true calling to help these people. I need to seek out opportunities that will get me there!”
Determined to become an entrepreneur for social change, Nelli left Bergdorf for opportunities with other companies, where she learned various aspects of running a business, manufacturing processes, and American shoe-buying habits. She realized that shoes were either attractive, expensive and uncomfortable or unattractive, affordable and comfortable. There must be a better way to make shoes, she thought, as she began to draw up plans for her own company.
But those plans were shelved when she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2016. Doctors scheduled surgery and chemotherapy treatments while warning that — even with treatment — her chance of survival after five years was only about 30%.
Nelli was shocked and confused. “I’m young; I’m only 39! Wow, God, I thought I had all the answers and that you were honoring the journey I was on. But now this!”
The months that followed were filled with punishing surgeries and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, but her family and friends and church community rallied to support her. Nelli’s parents and siblings were instrumental to her recovery, and her sister often worked from Nelli’s apartment so she could offer companionship and support.
“I felt the community rise up to meet me during my time of need,” she said.
Nelli listened repeatedly to Hillsong United’s song, “Another in the Fire,” which reminded her that Jesus is always with her.
Nelli endured multiple rounds of chemo and also battled multiple infections that led to several ER visits and hospitalizations. Ten months after her last chemo session, Nelli was thrilled to travel to Seattle for work. But she wound up in the hospital far from home for several days, suffering from an infection that was complicated by her depleted immune system. Even worse, she developed neuropathy, and her feet were so sensitive that she couldn’t wear any of the shoes in her closet. The irony was not lost on her — after a career of selling designer shoes, she had to set aside her favorites.
During her illness, Nelli felt the need to set aside her dreams of starting her own business. Her frequent infections made her doubt her own body and her future. “I need a stable job, health insurance. I need to support myself! This is NOT the time to get risky!”
However, in 2018, Nelli’s health had stabilized, and she began dreaming again.
“It’s time,” she thought. “I’m finally going to start my own company!”
She returned to the business plan she had shelved a couple of years earlier, raising money for the company through Kickstarter. Nelli knew that she wanted her shoes to be different, so she brought in an orthopedic surgeon to help design the shoes.
“It took us a year to design one shoe, and it was a huge amount of effort,” Nelli said. “But our goal is to optimize foot health, so we took every step seriously.”
Despite all the challenges, Nelli created what she always wanted — a shoe company that isn’t just about shoes. It’s a product with a purpose.
RĒDEN shoes have arch supports and cushioned insoles and a classic design that looks far more stylish than most shoes designed to optimize foot health. And each shoe incorporates a butterfly joint detail found in woodworking as a reminder that each of us is more beautiful because of our imperfections.
Initially, Nelli plans to support several charities on rotation through RĒDEN, including one Nelli co-founded in 2018. This nonprofit, Embers International, raises funds for counseling, childcare and schooling for sex-trafficking survivors and their children in India.
“I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t set out to change the world,” Nelli said. “But God put me down this path, and if there’s one thing he’s shown me, he’ll be with me every step of the way. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose our response to it.”