Students at Leisure is a series that features the interesting and unique outside activities of Salus students.

Umar holding sneakerYou might recognize him as the optometrist with the nice kicks. But for Umar Mahmood ‘22OD, high-end sneakers have become more than just a fashion statement. They have become a pretty lucrative side business too.

And, now the fourth-year student at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus is working on a way to incorporate his love of optometry and sneakers.

When the native of Hagerstown, Maryland found a passion for basketball in seventh grade, a lot of his friends were wearing really nice shoes and he wanted a pair for himself. But his parents balked at the price tag — in those days, it cost up to $80 for a pair of high-end basketball kicks.

Eventually Mahmood's parents relented and bought him a $50 pair of Nike Uptempos from the outlets. And, he was hooked.

Umar“I wore them until they were beaten down. It wasn’t very long before the shoes were unwearable and it was time for another pair,” said Mahmood. “My parents were like no, we just got you a pair a year ago and we don’t want this to turn into a regular thing.”

Little did they know how regular of a thing it would turn into. When he realized he was on his own for sneakers, he started doing chores and odd jobs, selling candy at school, mowing lawns, doing what he could here and there to save his own money.

It got to the point that when he did have the money, he and some friends would camp out overnight at the shoe store so they were ready when it opened the next day to snatch up the newest and hottest sneakers.

“I’d get the pair that I really wanted, but then I realized other people didn’t want to wait in line and were willing to pay over retail for them,” he said.

And, that’s how his side business of selling high-end sneakers was born. Mahmood enlisted — with pay —his friends to help him wait for the stores to open. They would buy as many of the most popular sneakers as they could carry. And, then Mahmood would put the word out amongst his circles of friends and acquaintances that the hottest sneakers on the market were available for a reasonable mark-up.

By the time he got to undergraduate school at Syracuse University in New York, he had already been supplying shoes for some high school basketball teams. This didn’t change at Syracuse, a school with historically good basketball teams.

“These high-profile basketball players would contact me, and what started happening is that people wanted multiple pairs of shoes,” said Mahmood, who has sold sneakers to successful Syracuse players such as Michael-Carter Williams, Jerami Grant and CJ Fair, all who have played for the National Basketball Association. “It might not have been the most-hyped shoe but they’d want three or four pairs for their store or their friends or their teams.”

Umar and friendEven though the rigors of graduate school have slowed the business down, Mahmood makes sure to stay up-to-date with his connections and often helps friends get shoes for reasonable prices. By maintaining those connections, he believes his continued success relies heavily on his approachability.

“I feel like I’m not a businessman, but a business, man. I carry conversations with people to become their friend and from there I hope to create lucrative partnerships where we can all benefit from the hustle. My goal is for customers to feel comfortable with me and enjoy the process of getting fly at a reasonable price,” he said. “I also pride myself in not charging high mark-up prices. I understand there is competition in every industry. I could be making more money with what I do, but I bring my prices down, maybe to a fault sometimes, for the sake of building a relationship over profit.”

It’s that relationship-building — what he calls a “personality-building venture” — that Mahmood hopes will serve him well as an optometrist as it relates to his patients, primarily in how to deal with so many types of people.

“When patients come to an optometrist and they have an issue, they come in scared sometimes,” he said. “I want to make sure that they’re comfortable with their practitioner taking care of their precious eyes.”

Although he admits he still has a long way to go before he’s the best optometrist he can be, he believes his business background has provided him with a well-honed bedside manner.

“When it comes to the personality side of things, I feel like I’m up to par with some of the best. I say that with confidence and not arrogance because I know how long I’ve been doing this,” said Mahmood.

This past year, while completing his fourth-year externship in a Washington, D.C. based practice, Mahmood — who has more than 100 pairs of sneakers in his personal collection — surpassed the six-figure revenue mark in sales since the business started in 2007. It’s allowed him to pay for  numerous milestone purchases, along with deferring some of the cost of grad school.

“If I’m able to incorporate optometry with shoes, I think I’ll have peaked at my potential because that’s combining two of the things I love,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to connect the two, but until I do, the job’s not finished.”