Thrive, or dive
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Outfitting a Rapidly Growing Female Sport Industry
“It unleashed a whole slew of emotions along the emotional spectrum that I never knew I could feel all at once. I felt like a new sense of womanhood was unleashed, like a fuller sense of self.”
Captain Marvel. The U.S. Women’s (World Cup-winning) national soccer team. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
We are living through an era in which women’s power—and women’s capacity to take on a fight—lives at the heart of our cultural imagination. The most powerful heroine in the Marvel universe is fine, but will face critiques of not being significant enough. Professional women athletes can win—with substandard pay—but not without being critiqued for celebrating too much while winning by too much. If women fight politically, they ought to do so without being too fiery and must, above all, remain likeable.
For Lynn Le, the fight is not defined by these tired reproaches. The fight is transcendent.
Le, founder of women’s athletic company Society Nine, is trained in mixed martial arts, has a brown belt in Krav Maga, and taught kickboxing for two years. She started Society Nine in 2015 after watching too many other companies hawking their lowest-quality boxing gloves to women by making them pink—that’s what girls like, right?—without adapting them to actually fit women or keep them safe in a fight. In the company’s original Kickstarter, Le suggested Society Nine was out to prove that way of thinking was dead wrong. In 2015, women already made up nearly 25% of a then-$50 billion combat sports market. “Make it pink” was bad for women fighters and a weak business model. Society Nine wanted to build something smarter, stronger.
Society Nine’s name is itself an homage to Title IX, the 1972 law that assured women equal access to federally funded educational activities, including sports. Just making men’s equipment pink and sending women into the ring wasn’t equality, and it didn’t reflect women’s power or potential.
Despite the rise of fighters like Amanda Nunes and Claressa Shields, and the crossover appeal of someone like Ronda Rousey, there’s been little philosophical discussion around what combat sports can do for women on a deeper level. “There’s less talk around what spiritually it can do for an individual and in the context for women in boxing, in combat sports—this desire to release as well as address and encourage that feeling of fighting in boxing and combat,” says Lynn. Sports, she continues, are a special way to manifest a feeling, not of helplessness, but rather ownership. “Ownership of your own body. It’s an ownership of your power, and an ownership of protection and security for oneself.”
Le, who is 4’11”, says the first time she threw a punch was after a trip to Israel. She’d heard about Krav Maga and wanted to try a new sport. That first punch was a spiritual awakening. “It unleashed a whole slew of emotions along the emotional spectrum that I never knew I could feel all at once. I felt like a new sense of womanhood was unleashed, like a fuller sense of self.” She still feels that way today, throwing a punch after having a bad day, or when life feels out of control, “or like I need to regain my own sense of ownership of my ground.”
Le is not alone. Boxing is among the fastest growing specialty fitness categories with boutique gyms popping up throughout the country and in on-demand online training sessions. Le pays attention to larger sports apparel companies “because they are industry leaders for a reason,” whether or not Society Nine’s customers feel they’ve served women appropriately. There’s something to learn from the big companies, but also an important lesson in watching customers choosing Society Nine with their dollars.
After four years, Le’s startup continues growing, between rates of 30 percent and 50 percent each year.
Another advantage Society Nine has had over its early years of steady growth is a business philosophy informed by combat sports. Le likens boxing to yoga in some ways—there’s a lot of focus and power in each. Boxing, true, is more explosive, but she sees both activities as transcendent in their own way, each offers a level of mental clarity that can travel with a person through the rest of her day. Moreover, boxing and sparring teach resilience, a knowledge that some rounds will be rough, you may be “either getting the crap beat out of you by your training partner or you feel like dying.” When the match gets rough, you have to find your breath. In boxing, and in business, you have to stay calm and constant, keep focus. Combat sports taught Le to prepare for the long stretch too. If you sprint on the first round in a fight, in the following rounds, you’ll get smoked. You’ll become reactive, shortsighted, instead of controlling your pace. For a startup, working to keep the long haul in mind is vital because so much energy can be spent too early, which is simply not sustainable for an entrepreneur or her company’s staff.
Society’s Nine’s customers run the gamut from those preparing to throw their first punch to dedicated athletes. “It's the sense of encouraging them to own their place in their journey and own their place in where they are in their life—feeling supported, literally down to the glove.”
Assuring the gloves and training gear Society Nine sells are top-quality is vital on a utilitarian, performance-based level. For example, their range of boxing gloves are designed with extra padding for sparring, or a lightweight model for bag work. The boxing and Muay Thai shorts are cut for women but also include a pocket for keys if going out for a run or for stashing one’s mouthguard. This, in a world where women are still begging for more (and usable) pockets. Listening to customer demands is also driving Society Nine toward new products. In the coming year, Society Nine is set to launch women’s head gear and shin guards.
But there’s also an element of kinship with the brand’s values that matters to customers. Le explains the underlying core mission of the company: women are allowed access to combat sports and “they’re allowed to access their power.” She clarifies, “I shouldn’t just say women, but self-identified women too… we have transgender women customers. We have gender non-binary customers who gravitate toward our feminine warrior energy that we put out as a brand.” By talking with transgender customers, Le has learned that it is important that Society Nine own its feminine voice as a company while leading a brand that is obviously central to women “while still making sure that all self-identifying women feel like they have a right and ability and a welcoming space for them to join in.”
Society Nine is full of lessons in power: not taking women customers for granted. Listening, adapting to their needs, their specs, their vision of what they need to fight and win. That’s how you grow a following of loyal warriors. For Le, success has meant leading a company like a fighter who wants to win, and who keeps taking on steadily bigger competition. Unlike many startups, Society Nine has made it through those lean, bootstrap years and now has the opportunity to not only respond to customer needs but reflect back women’s power and their aspirations for their next fight.