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From Sole to Soul: Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month with a Bay Area Entrepreneur, Keith O

A visionary leader whose journey from humble beginnings of working at a mom-and-pop shoe store in the 90s to becoming a prominent figure in the Bay Area’s entrepreneurial landscape, this is Keith O. As an Asian American entrepreneur, Keith O has navigated through challenges, leveraging his experiences to foster positive change and empower others.

In the era before boutique stores proliferated, Keith O cultivated his entrepreneurial acumen while working diligently in the shoe retail industry. This formative experience not only shaped his business philosophy, but also instilled a deep-rooted appreciation for the diverse communities of Daly City and San Francisco.

Driven by a desire to uplift the AAPI community and beyond, Keith O has not only built successful ventures, but has also remained steadfast in his commitment to giving back. Through initiatives tailored to support AAPI businesses, community events to give back to local organizations and youth, and endeavors aimed at addressing community needs, Keith O continues to make a tangible difference.

In a region celebrated for its innovation and diversity, Keith O exemplifies the fusion of entrepreneurship and social responsibility. His unwavering dedication to fostering inclusivity and opportunity serves as an inspiration, reminding us all of the transformative power of business when driven by a sense of purpose and compassion.

As we delve deeper into this narrative, let’s shift our focus to the remarkable journey of our Bay Area native entrepreneur. It all began with a part-time job at a shoe store—a seemingly ordinary start that would prove to be transformative, setting the stage for the inspiring trajectory that lay ahead.

Keith O is a Bay Area native who was born and raised in Daly City, CA. Amidst exploring life’s possibilities in 1991, fate intervened in the form of a simple question from a friend: “Do you know anything about shoes?” Little did he know, this inquiry would open the door to a transformative opportunity. With curiosity as his guide, he started a part-time role at First Step in San Francisco, igniting a passion for footwear that would shape his future endeavors.

In the heart of downtown San Francisco, First Step boasted two iconic addresses—216 Powell St and second location at 57 Powell St, nestled next to Blondie’s Pizza. It was here that Keith O embarked on his journey, starting as a Sales Associate in the captivating world of footwear.

What set First Step apart wasn’t its prime locations, but its groundbreaking approach to sneaker culture in the Bay Area. Unlike conventional shoe stores, First Step was a trailblazer, resembling what we now recognize as boutique sneaker establishments. Keith recognized this distinction early on, leveraging it to enhance the customer experience. For him, it was about more than just sales; it was about building genuine connections and creating an environment where customers felt like friends.

As the 90s unfolded, ushering in a frenzy of sneaker obsession, Keith found himself at the forefront of a cultural shift. Witnessing the rise of the Jordan brand firsthand was nothing short of exhilarating, especially as First Step became a hub for enthusiasts eager to snag a pair of the latest sneaker releases. From the sales floor to the classic Jordan poster with his arms spread out being sold for $6 at the time, every moment encapsulated the evolving landscape of sneaker culture.

The store secured exclusive displays that set them apart from other stores of the era. It was a time of iconic releases, with the debut of Grant Hills, Jordans such as the IX, and the Nike Air Max BW. Their Jordan shoes and apparel section were standout features, drawing in sneaker enthusiasts far and wide.

The store featured a Nike program sheet offering select items at steep discounts, a perk for employees who could snag coveted shoes at a fraction of the price once or twice a year. While their primary clientele consisted of tourists, locals also frequented the store as well as occasional celebrities, drawn in by their diverse selection of brands including Nike, Jordan, Reebok, Timberland, New Balance, and more.

Keith’s tenure at First Step began at the flagship location on 216 Powell St, where he made his mark from 1991 to 1993. Later, he made the transition as the Assistant Manager at the second location at 57 Powell St, a shift that brought a whole new dynamic. Despite its smaller size compared to the flagship, this store exuded greatness, attracting not only tourists but also noteworthy clientele of local Fillmore and Bay Area rappers, as well as celebrity artists.

From rap icons like MC Hammer, Shock G from Digital Underground, San Quinn, to future NBA star Shareef Abdur-Rahim during his college days at CAL, the store became a hub for the who’s who of the entertainment world. Keith O witnessed firsthand the cultural phenomenon of buying two pairs of shoes—one to rock and one to stock—a trend that defined the era.

Amidst the bustling scene, Keith learned invaluable lessons about authenticity and the power of shared interests such as music. Guided by two distinct managers, Nelson at 216 Powell and Willis at 57 Powell, Keith gleaned insights from contrasting leadership styles, merging them into his own managerial approach. Grateful for their mentorship, Keith credits both managers for shaping his professional journey.

Empowered by his journey, Keith was entrusted the opportunity to conceptualize the third location—a testament to his leadership and vision. With gratitude to his mentors and a wealth of experiences behind him, Keith embarked on the next chapter of his journey.

Moreover, an exciting opportunity arose when Keith was approached about managing the third location of First Step. The store owner expressed a desire to open a new establishment and entrusted Keith with the task of conceptualizing it. This was in 1996, a pivotal year where Keith would undergo six months of intensive training, including a visit to a shoe trade show in Las Vegas alongside his boss to gain inspiration for their upcoming venture.

Yet, a surprising turn unfolded. While Keith’s boss envisioned a dress shoe store in San Jose for the third location, Keith found himself uncertain about venturing into a different market, especially considering the distance. Courageously, Keith voiced his concerns and proposed an alternative: opening a sneaker store in Daly City, a concept closer to his heart and aligned with his expertise.

After thoughtful deliberation, Keith’s boss placed his trust in Keith’s vision, ultimately agreeing to open the third iteration of First Step in Colma—an affirmation of Keith’s entrepreneurial spirit and his commitment to serving his community.

Keith and his boss initially considered opening the third store at Serramonte Mall, but the high rent made them reconsider. Fortunately, they secured an open store location at a plaza in Metro Center in Colma—a decision that significantly slashed their rental costs to a third of what they would have been at Serramonte. It took three months to get the store up and running after signing the lease.

Drawing inspiration from the East Coast hip-hop scene, they infused the store with elements reminiscent of that vibrant culture. This included unique features like a basketball court, a fence serving both as security and display, and a neon basketball rim. The seats for trying on shoes were crafted from wooden slats held up by basketballs, while a graffiti logo adorned the wall above the register. The front desk, spanning 10 to 12 feet, showcased a large glass display case with graffiti underneath, cleverly doubling as a DJ booth.

To foster community and set their store apart, they introduced the “Baller’s Wall,” honoring the top 10 shoe buyers each month and the “Wall of Fame” where photos of clientele from locals to celebrities were posted. Rare shoes like the Allen Iverson’s Reebok Question Mid Red Toe were put on display, impressing customers with exclusive releases. The store also featured local art, mixed CDs, and cassette tapes from DJ Apollo, as well as VHS recording of DJ battles like Alex Aquino’s International Turntable Federation (ITF).

Inspired by nightclub flyers, Keith adopted a similar promotional strategy, distributing flyers on cars to draw customers to the store. He approached promotion with the passion of an event organizer, creating a dynamic atmosphere akin to a live radio show feel inside the store. Opening Day was a success with notable DJs like Shortkut and Qbert, as well as Franzen from KMEL radio who brought the KMEL Street Team and organized engaging activities for customers, including basketball giveaways and prize contests.

After the grand opening, aside from local shoppers, Keith’s friends such as Alex Aquino, Burt, and friends from the radio stations would bring people such as artists to the store to hang out and buy the latest shoe releases. Other notable guests that came to the store were Rock City Crew, Whoridas, Digital Underground, and The X-Ecutioners.
Keith took immense pride in the store he had built from the ground up, seeing it as a unique addition to the Bay Area landscape.

Reflecting on his time at First Step, Keith sees a direct link to his current entrepreneurial endeavors. It was there that he was first granted the freedom to exercise his creative vision, to collaborate with friends, and to give back to his local community—a transformative experience that laid the groundwork for his future ventures. Drawing from skills honed at both First Step and Classic Bowl, where he hosts events and mentors youth in the community, Keith found himself in a unique position as one of the few Asian role models. The trust placed in him by the owners of First Step to shape the store according to his vision mirrored the autonomy he later enjoyed at Classic Bowl, where he continued to make a positive impact through events and community outreach.

Grateful for his network and community support, Keith recognizes the privilege he has in being able to give back to schools and communities. Collaborations with Shoe Palace further solidify his commitment to community enrichment. First Step instilled in him the confidence to push boundaries and think outside the box, a trait he continues to embody as he hosts his own events today. For Keith, giving back is not just a passing phase—it’s a lifelong commitment, a philosophy encapsulated in his belief that there is a “First Step to Everything,” a mantra derived from his life-changing experience.

As a proud Japanese-American, Keith highlights the importance of representation, particularly during AAPI Month. Growing up, he lacked Asian role models in mainstream media, a void he sought to fill by prominently featuring his own image in logos and event promotions. By doing so, he aims to inspire youth who, like him, may have felt underrepresented growing up, showing them that they too can achieve their dreams and shape their own narratives.


-Alyssa Caampued