Kim Bonnema absolutely loves shoes. She’s made a career out of this fascination with footwear at Columbia Sportswear in Portland.
“When I first started my job I wanted to buy all of the shoes, but after a while my husband told me he would kill me if I brought another pair home,” she says.
Kim laughs when people call her a foot nerd, but she can tell you your size with just a quick glance.
“I’m passionate about making sure that you like what you’re wearing,” she says. “How could I make that shoe better for you?”
Kim is a footwear test engineer for Columbia. She and her team work with groups all over the U.S. who test the fit, comfort, performance and durability of new shoes before they are released to market.
When Kim started at Columbia, testing wasn’t as intense, but after three years on the job, she has helped increase the tester database by 60 percent.
One of the first groups she partnered with was the Adventure Leadership Institute (ALI) at Oregon State. Students help test shoes by participating in focus groups, organized trips and campus events. They tell Kim what they like about the shoes, what works, what doesn’t, and what they would expect in a $100 shoe.
Kim values input from her testers. In fact, she needs them to do her job.
”My goal is to establish a partnership and get the students involved so they can provide feedback,” she says. “This is not a sponsorship; they’re helping us develop product.”
The Adventure Leadership Institute is a valuable partner for Columbia. Other companies have approached them, but they don’t have any relationships like the one they have with Kim.
Kim began her career at Nike and started the company’s testing program. She spent 11 years there, learning about the shoe industry and developing relationships with testing groups — skills that are valuable in her current role with Columbia.
Kim, who emigrated from the Czech Republic when she was 15, feels at home in Portland and Oregon because of its focus on outdoor recreation. She feels the same about working for Columbia.
“The Czech Republic is very similar to Oregon — the climate, mountains and lakes, but it’s quirky here and I like it that way. This is home,” she says.
Although Kim’s family originally landed in New Jersey, they had heard that Oregon might seem more like home.
“My father came out to Oregon to take a look,” she says. “He got here, called my mom and said, ‘Pack up the kids, we’re moving.’ So we moved to Oregon and have been here ever since.”