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Missy Park started an outdoor brand exclusively for women– in 1989, long before it was trendy to be a female-founder. She named it Title Nine, after the historic legislation that gave women equal rights in all matters of education, including sports, in 1972. This year, the company will be in operation for 30 years. But it’s not been smooth sailing since the beginning for this women-led team.
There were no Lululemon’s then, or Athleta’s, or really any brands that were focused on selling athletic wear for women when Park began, she says. Her story started in her Berkeley garage, sending out poorly-designed catalogs, she jokes, to customers. A flood wiped out her inventory, and the business struggled in the early days. But in 1993, about 4 years later, she broke a profit and she’s been building the company since then to not just sell women’s clothing, but also fund a variety of programs that tell the stories of women athletes, or as she calls them, the “unsung heroines,” and support a new generation of women entrepreneurs.
“I had worked in the outdoor industry and seen that few companies were really making products for women who wanted to go mountain biking or snowboarding. I had the naive confidence of a 26-year-old to launch a brand,” she recalls.
Being resourceful, Park relied on brands and suppliers to fund her business through forgiving contracts, she says. For instance, certain vendors would allow her to pay in three month’s time, or net 90. So Parks would order merchandise, sell aggressively, and then pay off the vendor. It was a model that she says had its flaws, but it prevented her from seeking out institutional funding or even loans.
As the business grew, Park realized that she amassed a network of women working as contractors, vendors, and in the company. “It’s easier to hire people who are all about the mission. You can teach the business to people, but getting them to be as passionate about a cause is harder.”
In the process of building her own company, Park saw a challenge for many other women like herself: they had a product for the outdoor industry, but didn’t know who to take it to, how to get it produced, or how to turn it into a profitable enterprise. Rather than starting an incubator or accelerator, Title Nine began a pitch platform: women can share their idea in front of a community of like-minded entrepreneurs and the Title Nine team. Park and her colleagues then help these women navigate the outdoor business world. “We’re the first step on the ladder, you could say. We coach them on working with us, and then they can learn how to do business with an REI,” she says.
Whether it’s helping women entrepreneurs or women athletes, Park decided early on that Title Nine would fill a gap in the outdoor market: “I couldn’t find the gear I wanted to go do outdoor sports and adventure travel. I can imagine it would only be harder for some girls who come from less privileged backgrounds.”
That’s why in the late ‘90s, she put aside some of their profits to support a girls’ basketball league at the Oakland public schools. It started with one project, and one set of teams and then flourished into a mutli-pronged program for the company called Starting Block.
Part of the impetus was also that Park had seen research which validated her hunch: girls who played in sports would have higher levels of confidence, stay away from drugs, and be more focused on school.
“It was something that felt natural to me. As a woman, I wanted to support the next generation, which often came from difficult upbringings to get a shot at sports like I did.”
She was able to do all this, she says, because of a sports bra that connected with customers early on, when many of the other designs were a dud. That launched the company, ultimately, she says, leading them to 23 stores across 11 states today.
“It has not been a smooth ride. But one worth pursuing, and staying independent along the way so we can say what we want, and do what we need to,” Park says.
April 30, 2019 at 06:21PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs