The S.B. Questionnaire: Heather Christensen Smith

Talking African Footwear and Nurses with the Art Curator and Co-Founder of Wazi Shoes

Credit: Paul Wellman File

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“When somebody picks up the shoes, they see that it’s beautiful leather shoe,” says Heather Christensen Smith, co-founder of Santa Barbara-based Wazi Shoes. “Some people want to live a simple life and only own a couple of shoes.”

She believes Wazi Shoes can be one such pair. These durable, stylish beaded sandals are handmade in Tanzania by fair-wage workers. Every pair sold supports their economy while raising money to fund nurse scholars in Africa through the Gretta Foundation.   

Heather started Wazi Shoes with her sister, Alice Christensen Majid, in 2017. “Wazi” is Swahili for “open,” which alludes both to the open-toed design and the mantra of “open minds, open hearts, and open road.”

“There’s so much back story,” confesses Heather with a smile when I ask how the project came about. Her dad was a ship captain, and the family lived in Kenya. Heather was born in Mombasa, prematurely. 

“I was the youngest baby to survive at that hospital,” she explains. “There was only one incubator. To this day, I’m grateful to the nurses.”  

When Heather was four years old, the family faced an emotional moment when her dad did not want to send his children to boarding school, as was customary. “I want to cook breakfast for them everyday,” she remembers him saying.  

So he moved the family and his job to Santa Barbara. Heather has fond memories of attending Peabody Elementary and Santa Barbara Junior High, eventually graduating from Santa Barbara High in 1998.  

Both sisters went through the UC system. Alice got a Master’s in nursing with an emphasis in HIV prevention from UC-San Francisco. A mentor recommended she go to Tanzania; she’s been working there for the past 10 years, and also met her husband, Abdul, in the East African country. 

Heather attended UC-Santa Cruz, earning a literature degree in 2002. After graduation, she headed to New York City, working with photographers for many years and then for the Guggenheim Foundation from 2006 to 2009. She earned a Master’s degree in the history of design and decorative arts from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum/ Parsons New School for Design. That allowed Heather to become an independent curator and art advisor, and she organized multiple exhibitions throughout New York.

In 2008, Heather traveled to Kenya and bought a pair of sandals. “I wore this pair of Kenyan shoes for three summers,” she explains. Around the same time, Alice attended an AIDS conference and met the family who started the Gretta Foundation, which raises money for nursing education in Eastern Africa. Alice suggests they start a business that combines shoe sales with fundraising for nurses. “That’s when we started floating the idea around,” Heather explains.    

They did many years of testing various prototypes, for they wanted a well-made shoe. “When we launched the company in 2017, we sold them at a pop-up shop,” says Heather. “We sold a pair of shoes every fifteen minutes.” So far, they have fully funded one nurse scholar and are on their way to a second.

After her first daughter was born, Heather and her family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, but last year they moved back to Santa Barbara. “It was hard to leave Princeton, but I was motivated to be in natural beauty,” she confesses. “I knew I needed to be back in Santa Barbara.”  

While sitting over lunch with Heather, she explains that she has a keen awareness of the remarkable concurrence of events and interrelations. Lo and behold, we start finding commonality and coincidences in our lives, both of us having studied and lived in New York and in Mercer County, New Jersey.   

On December 13 and 14, she will be hosting a Wazi Shoes pop-up at Power of Your Om Yoga Studio (1221 State St., #201). She is thrilled that Wazi Shoes was selected as the studio’s January 2020 Community Partner; together, they hope to raise $2,000 to fund the next nurse scholar. And Heather also still works as an art curator, and you can see her website at christensensmith.com

Heather Christensen Smith answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 

“The most amazing thing happened,” as I love overlap, coincidences, small-world connections. 

What is your most treasured possession? 

A half dollar with Kennedy on it that my father gave to me. I love having it in my wallet to remind me of how my dad interacted with people every day and that unconditional love is possible. 

What is your motto? 

Yes! Yes to camping, yes to starting a business with my sister, yes to having friends over for dinner, yes to a half marathon in Yellowstone, yes to composting! 

What do you like most about your job? 

Like many people, I have a lot on my plate. I don’t have a standard job. I move from dropping off my kids at school, to setting up in a great Santa Barbara coffee shop and start work on a range of projects, like selecting art for an exhibition I am curating or working on promoting Wazi Shoes, a socially conscious company I co-founded with my sister, Alice. We have a fun event in Santa Barbara this December and January at Power of Your Om Yoga to raise money for a nurse scholarship in East Africa. What I like is feeling that my work is creating a positive impact in this big world!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  

Living in Santa Barbara! Having dinner in the sand at Hendry’s Beach with a bunch of friends and my children playing in the water and watching dolphins go by, then a hang glider and a surfer.

What is your greatest fear? 

Losing a child to disease or accident and never being able to overcome that ache of loss.

Who do you most admire?  

I truly admire my husband for his ability to try new things and continue the pursuit until he has accomplished it. He does not fear being a beginner and he has the patience to work hard and practice. 

What is your greatest extravagance?

Skiing with my sister every year and eating amazing food with her! 

What is your current state of mind? 

Excitement, I have a number of projects professionally and personally that I look forward to working on plus a trail run race and a yoga retreat. 

What is the quality you most like in people? 

Modesty. I admire an accomplished person who treats others with great respect. 

What is the quality you most dislike in people? 

Giving up. I believe in a good work ethic, probably from both sets of amazing grandparents, and want to complete what I start. I just read “Anything worth doing is worth doing right” in a children’s book and it resonated with me. 

What do you most value in friends? 

Laughter, honesty, curiosity, commitment, kindness. 

What is your most marked characteristic? 

Calm and subtle. 

Which talent would you most like to have? 

I would love to be a funny person and to incite laughter in others. I love hearing others laugh and strive to laugh more in my day. 

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 

I wish I was less judgemental and truly open hearted. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

Becoming a mother is the best thing that ever happened to me, so I have to say my three daughters are my achievement. And they eat kale. 

Where would you most like to live? 

Santa Barbara. I grew up here and lived on the East Coast for 15 years and am thrilled to be home. We just celebrated a year back in Santa Barbara and I take time to reflect on the beauty of Santa Barbara every day and watch the clouds move over the mountains in the mornings, the changing view of the islands, the ocean. 

Who makes you laugh the most? 

Currently, one of my daughters who has some pretty awesome dance moves. 

Which historical figure do you most identify with? 

That’s hard. Vermeer, as he noticed details and light so beautifully. 

On what occasion do you lie? 

If you are late, and say there was traffic, is that a lie?

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