Class of 1991
Sonja I. Bata was born in Switzerland, where she studied architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Marrying shoe-factory owner Thomas J. Bata in 1946, Sonja soon became actively involved in her husband’s company. Side by side, the couple succeeded in rebuilding Thomas’ late father’s organization and turning it into a globally recognized footwear business. It’s approximated that 250 million pairs of Bata shoes are sold in 60 countries annually. Sonja is also well-known as the founding chairman of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum.
Sonja learned the business from the bottom up. She took courses in design, pattern cutting and orthopedics, immersing herself in the development of shoe lines and marketing strategies. For a while she even ran a store in London doing everything from fitting and selling to stocktaking and accounting.
Sonja frequently accompanied her husband on business trips; this has become something of a trademark for the couple. They worked together on product development and marketing strategy. When they found a suitable location for a factory, Sonja would hire the architects and oversee the construction.
The Bata Shoe Museum was founded in 1979, and housed the large collection of traditional footwear Sonja had accumulated on her business travels. Among the 10,000 pairs belonging to the collection today are everything from ancient Egyptian sandals and Inuit boots, to shoes belonging to 20th century celebrities such as Pablo Picasso and Elton John. Sonja has been personally involved in the purchase of each and every shoe in the collection.
Working on numerous special projects outside of the Bata Corporation, the World Wildlife Fund, Royal Military College, and Art Gallery of Ontario are just a few that have benefited from her spirit and determination. She has raised millions of dollars for numerous causes, and has assisted in improving economic, political, employment and social conditions for women.
She has received countless honours, including being named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1983, an Honorary Captain of the Canadian Navy in 1989, and North York Chamber of Commerce’s Woman of the Year in 1992. She was the recipient of the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Silver Medal in 1982.
Now over 80 years old, Sonja hasn’t slowed down a bit. She calls her current project, the revitalization of Batawa, Ontario, “a labour of love.” The former shoe factory town was founded by her husband in the 1930s.
Sonja and her husband have four grown children, and as of 2008 she resides in Toronto, Ontario.