HIBT Lab! Saysh: Wes and Allyson Felix - Transcripts

March 16, 2023

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Allyson Felix is the most decorated American track and field athlete of all time. She’s also a mother. Those two identities came into conflict in 2018 when negotiating a contract renewal with her shoe sponsor, Nike.  Ultimately, Allyson broke ties with Nike because the new contract presented a significant pay cut and lacked adequate maternal protections. After struggling to find a new shoe sponsor, Allyson and her brother/agent, Wes, decided to take matters into their own hands and start their own shoe company, Saysh.  This week on How I Built This Lab, Allyson and Wes talk with Guy about their journey to the top of the track and field world, the decision to leave Nike, and how they built the iconic shoe that Allyson wore during her gold medal performance at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Plus, why most name brand shoes aren’t designed for women’s feet, and how Saysh is working to change that.  This episode was produced by Chris Maccini, with music by Ramtin Arablouei. Edited by John Isabella, with research help from Lauren Landau Einhorn. Our audio engineer was Alex Drewenskus. You can follow HIBT on Twitter & Instagram, and email us at hibt@id.wondery.com. See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.


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Hello, and welcome to How I Built This Lab. I'm Guy Roz. Alison Felix is one of the greatest athletes of all time. In fact, she is the most decorated American track and field athlete in history. And yet, when she ran in the Tokyo Olympics, she did so without a shoe sponsor. And it happened because her previous sponsor, Nike, offered Alison a contract that she felt was a lowball. And so Alison decided to do something totally unconventional. She made her own shoe, and she became the first Olympic athlete to run in a shoe that was her own brand. The idea came from Alison's brother and business partner, Wes Felix. And now, they turn that single idea into a shoe brand called Sash. It's a lifestyle and running shoe brand that is designed specifically for women's feet. And you might be wondering, wait, aren't all women's athletic shoes designed for women's feet?

Well, the answer actually is no. And you'll hear why in a moment. Alison and Wes both started track and field as teenagers, and it wasn't long before their talent and effort led them to much bigger competitions. Wes, you were really the first track star in your family, because from what I understand, Alison, you didn't really start running track until you got to high school.

And Wes, you went to USC on a track scholarship, right? I did, yeah. Yeah, I went to USC on a track scholarship. And Alison and I always kind of joke that it went from when we were younger, people would come up to her and be like, oh, you're Wes's sister, right? And then real quick, it switched. And it was like, you're Alison's brother. So it was something Alison and I really were able to share together, this love for the sport, this kind of passion to try to excel in it. She just, a whole lot better.

Alison, you decided your senior year of high school to go pro, which I guess was kind of controversial at the time because you were offered, obviously, every school wanted you on their team and including USC where Wes went. But you decided that you would sign a deal with Adidas and become a professional athlete and still eventually go to college and do your degree. But that was kind of like a, as I say, it was kind of a controversial decision

at the time, right? Definitely. It was something that in the US, to my understanding, no one had done before. And so, people had all their thoughts on it. I remember watching one of Wes's track meets. It was like the USC UCLA dual meet. And it was on TV. And so I'm watching in the broadcast and somehow like my name comes up and they start talking about this decision. And if I go pro, it's the worst decision in the history of high school athletes. And so it was just a lot of people had different thoughts on it. But for our family, it really came down to a timing thing. Wes was at USC and I understood like to be a collegiate athlete, like NCAA's came first.

You do all of the events. It's about points and all of those things. And at this time, the Olympics were gonna be the next year. This is Athens 2004. Yeah, Athens 2004. And so it was like, if I'm going to try to make that team, I'm really gonna need to focus in on one event, peaking at the right time and giving myself the best shot.

And so ultimately that was kind of the decision maker. This is Athens 2004 and that was at 200 meters. Exactly, yes. So as a result of that, you couldn't get a scholarship and compete at the collegiate level. But obviously you wanted to compete in the Olympics, which you did, you won a silver medal in 2004. And in this sort of parallel world, Wes, you've got the successful career at USC, pec-10 champ in the 100 meter, I mean, but also it sounds like Wes, you were also really focused on just college and getting a degree, knowing that probably this was not gonna be your career.

Yeah, definitely, yeah, definitely. I like never thought about it as a career. I knew I wanted to work in sports and entertainment, wanted to do deals and didn't have this full master plan of what that would look like. But at the time it was just, let me run fast and work hard. And it was what was paying for college. And also I was running well, winning felt good. And my dad said, if there's an opportunity to continue running, why would you not take that? School's gonna be there, your mind's gonna be there, but this opportunity to run professionally to go and sign a sponsorship deal, that's only there for a little bit.

And you did, and you did, after you graduated, you did become a professional athlete for a few years and ran for Nike. I mean, it sounds like you were trying, I mean, you were sort of, there was a goal possibly that at least compete for the Olympic trials, but you, I guess there was a detour that you took as a result of an illness, right?

Yeah, yeah, totally. I had a liver virus, I just was in practice and just felt really tired, couldn't hit times. And my coach was kind of like, what's going on? And I was like, I'm not sure. And he's like, are you getting your rest? Are you doing all the things? And I'm like, I'm doing all the things, like nothing's changed. And went to the doctor and so we start the test and they run through and see like, yep, your liver enzyme levels, liver function levels are like off the charts, something here is wrong. And it's probably a good six months of just in and out of the hospital, constantly taking tests, liver biopsies. But ultimately we got to a point where the doctor just said, we know that there's something wrong with your liver. We know that there is at least at minimum a virus attacking your liver. We think that you need to stop competing.

And so stopped competing. And yeah, and I think in a lot of ways, it was like, it was really hard,

but it was probably the best gift I could have gotten.

Yeah. Meantime, Alison, you became a student at USC. And I guess you weren't on the track team. You were competing at the international level,

but you weren't, you were a student at USC studying education. Yeah, I was studying education. I was a normal student, but I was also a professional athlete at the same time. And I was having a really tough time, like my freshman year, because the way that track and field works is the majority of your competitions are overseas. And so here I am, like, you know, in Switzerland, racing and trying to explain to my professor why I need to take like a final on the road. And they're like, but you're not on the track team, you know?

So it was, that first year was really, really bumpy. You would go to the Beijing Olympics and compete again. And once again, you won silver in the 200 meters. The team won gold in the relay. And meantime, Wes, you kind of knew that your career as a runner was over.

And so what did you decide to do? Yeah, I knew that I was really interested in business. And so I called one of my friends and I was like, hey, I think I'm gonna start like a fake business. Like, I just wanna practice, like to just see like, what are the steps? How do I build it? Like, what do we do? And he was like, yeah, that doesn't sound like a good idea. Like, why don't you just actually start something? And I was like, yeah, I have no idea how to do that. And he was like, well, I think you could figure it out. And so I had this idea that was a online women's fitness email newsletter, and I like learned how to code and, you know, I took this idea and built this website and built out an email newsletter subscription service. And, but along the way, you know, I also was talking with Alison and was just like, yeah, I don't know.

I'm like, kind of, I'm getting into this thing, like building this thing. But I've always wanted to, you know, do deals for athletes. And what if we work together? Like, what would that be like? And we started this conversation of just exploring it, you know? And what would that even mean? What would it look like? And I remember that, you know, Alison had like her contract with Adidas and it was this really great deal, really, really incredible opportunity for her, a really big deal in the sport. But I looked at what she was making off the track. I was looking at, you know, those sponsorships that she had outside of Adidas. side of Adidas. And we kind of looked at each other and I was like, I think I can do that.

I can go scrape up that much money. And I was like, in worst case, you know, then it doesn't work. And you go back to, you know, a more traditional agent in the sport, but what if it does work and we get to do it together? And so I remember I wrote her a letter and this was after our conversation and we should look for this one day because it was probably so ridiculously formal, trying to be professional at 25 years old and send it over to her and said, you know, basically, dear miss Alison Felix, I think we can partner up and I think we can change the world a little bit. And yeah, she was sweet enough to say, yeah, I think we can.

So you, you basically become your sister's agent at this point. Yes. And one of the cool things that you did, I think it's so important for anyone who's going into any field to think about doing exactly what you did was you reached out to Serena Williams agent Jill Smoller. You didn't know, you had no connection to, I guess you got to her over Facebook and you said, Hey, can I like hang out with you for a little bit of time just to learn

from you? Yeah, completely. I thought there is a whole lot that I don't know. But I also knew that kind of this, this dream or vision that I had for my little sister was bigger than just what I had seen in track and field. And I thought, okay, if we could build any sort of business around the female athlete, who would I want her to be? And I was like, well, Serena, you know, and I was like, well, who helps Serena do what Serena does and looked it up and found Jill's name and got her phone number and called the office and got to her assistant and tried to set a meeting and couldn't get a meeting, couldn't get a meeting and get a meeting. And finally I was like, I'm just going to try on Facebook. And I had no idea if she would be on Facebook and sure enough she was send her a message she wrote me right back and she said, what are you doing? Why didn't you call my office instead of meeting like a normal person. And I was like, I've been trying to get to you like through your, through your office. It's not working. And she was like, all right, come in tomorrow.

So I came in tomorrow and she was like, so what are we talking about? And I just I just pitched her what I thought Alison could be. And she said, I really like you and I really like this idea and I think Alison's incredible.

Let's do it. Yeah. So what did that mean? I mean, because being an agent, right? Like there's a certain kind of approach you have to take. And so how did you learn? What did you learn from her about how to do deals

and how to represent Alison the best way you could? Yeah, totally. And I would say like what Jill taught me right away was first humility. And she said, there's going to be days you might be on a private plane with the CEO of some big company and there will be days you're going to go and you're going to run and you're going to grab your client water. You need to be exceptional at both of them because the job is both. And she was like, you're never that important to not go and run and get the water. And I was like, OK. And that was easy with my sister, because if she was thirsty, I wanted her to have water. But the other thing she taught me was how important information was. And she was like, a lot of people are gonna come to you with opportunities. That's great. She was like, you don't need me for that.

What you don't know is how much other people are getting for that same opportunity. And when she said that, it fully clicked and my trust for her grew even more. And people would come to me and they're like, you've got the biggest athlete in the sport. Why do you have this talent agency? Why are you doing that? You know, like the deals are gonna come to you. Why would you split the commission there? And it was because somebody can come with a 10 cent offer, but it's really a dollar deal. And that's what Jill helped me with. And I learned really quick, they saw Alison's brother and that was an opportunity to take advantage of us. And as soon as I brought Jill in, then it was, I've got to get it together. The numbers have to be right.

It has to be fair. And so the issue wasn't, could we get the deal or not? We could get the deal. We just couldn't get the deal for the right money.

And Jill made sure the money was right. Wow. Okay, so here you are. The two of you are building a business around Alison and her incredible talent. And I guess shortly after launching your own agency and becoming Alison's agent Wes, you secured a new sponsorship deal for Alison. So leaving Adidas, signing with Nike. And then two years later in 2012, Alison, you get to the London Olympics, you finally win the gold in the 200 meters,

which that must have been an incredible moment for you. It was, it felt like such a long time coming. And when Wes and I started to work together, it was like this sense of relief because it was just like, okay, I can fully trust this person. I can put my head down and do what I need to do. And so I remember going into the London Olympics and obviously now the pressure is even more because it's like, I've tried this twice before. I don't want to wait four more years to have another opportunity. And I just had this sense of calm. I remember like getting to the starting line and I looked back at, I log every workout, I write everything down. I remember like just going back over it. And I was like, I'm ready. Like if this is for me, it is going to happen because there's nothing else I could have done in preparation. And I remember just giving my all and then finally, looking up to the scoreboard and seeing my name come up there.

And it was just like, I think the relief was bigger than the joy, if that makes sense. It was just, and I think I also had just built it up. Like I thought like once I got this gold medal, like everything was going to change. Like I just, this is what I've been like aiming for. And then I remember like coming home and being like, oh my gosh, I feel exactly the same. Like what happened here? And I think the lesson in that was just really like, instead of just this one goal that I've been aiming for, like the beauty has been along the way. Like that was the magic. And I had to just like look back and say, like the next time I have like a defeat or a failure, like I'm going to embrace it. I'm going to like go, I get another opportunity.

Like I'm just going to have a different mindset. Meantime, from a business perspective, what are the things were you guys thinking about to kind of build out the business? Were you already thinking about, Hey, maybe we can do a line of apparel or maybe we can work with a beverage company? Were either of you thinking about starting something yourselves

or was it mainly focusing on endorsements and partnerships? Yeah. It was really focused on endorsements and partnerships. I think that like everything that we had seen was this constant reminder that the individual athlete, it's not really about that, it's about the big brand that you can help sell their product. And the goal is have the best brands. And if you have the best brands, then you'll have the best brand too. And so I remember us really focusing on the blue chip sponsors. Make sure you have Visa, Procter & Gamble, Nike, Gatorade, like these are the ones that if you partner with those companies, they have a similar type of storytelling and that's what allows you to become Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan. It's the sponsors that do it. And so it was this idea that like our job is work really hard, Alison has to win on the track, I have to go find the sponsors and then make sure that there's a cohesive story. And if we do that, then everything else

that comes into focus and it all takes care of itself. We're gonna take a quick break, but when we come back, we'll hear more about Alison's Olympic triumphs and the contract renewal offer from Nike that changed everything. That's ahead in just a moment. I'm Guy Roz and you're listening to How I Built This Lab. With Audible, you can enjoy all your audio entertainment in one app. You'll always find the best of what you love or something new to discover. Audible offers a really wide selection of audio books across every genre, from bestsellers and new releases to business, mysteries and thrillers, wellness, celebrity memoirs and more. And get this, as an Audible member, you can choose one title a month to keep from the entire catalog, meaning it's yours forever and you can come back and listen at any time. The Audible app makes it easy to listen anytime, anywhere while traveling, doing chores, walking, working out, you decide. Lately, I've been using Audible to listen to Patricia Lockwoods. No one is talking about this and it's been absolutely incredible to hear that book. New members can try Audible for free for 30 days.

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audible.com slash built. Life is short, and it's full of a lot of interesting questions. What does happiness really mean? How do I get the most out of my time here on Earth, and what really is the best cereal? These are the questions I seek to resolve on my weekly podcast, Life is Short with Justin Long. If you're looking for the answer to deep philosophical questions like, what is the meaning of life, I can't really help you, but I do believe that we really enrich our experience here by learning from others, and that's why in each episode I like to talk with actors, musicians, artists, scientists, and many more types of people about how they get the most out of life. We explore how they felt during the highs, and sometimes more importantly, the lows of their careers. We discuss how they've been able to stay happy during some of the harder times, but if I'm being honest, it's mostly just fun chats between friends about the important stuff. Like, if you had a sandwich named after you, what would be on it? Follow Life is Short wherever you get your podcasts.

You can also listen ad-free on the Amazon Music or Wondery app. Welcome back to How I Built This Lab. My guests are Wes and Alison Felix. All right, so the two of you are building Alison's track career around sponsorships with big brands, and I guess this was sort of the typical playbook for an Olympic athlete. And Alison, you would go on in the Rio Olympics in 2016, I think, to win a silver medal and two gold medals that year, and then the next year, 2017, you are up for renegotiation with Nike to renew your contract. And I guess they came back with a surprisingly low-ball offer.

What do you remember about that? I remember when Wes called me, and he told me what it was, and the number was 70% less than what I had been making. And I remember just feeling like somebody had just like punched me. And at this point, that World Championships that we just came off of, I think Wes, correct me if I'm wrong, I think I had become the most decorated athlete at World Championship history. Yeah, that's right. Yeah, so it was like this moment of like, aha, like we were celebrating, like, this is great. Like, for me, I had been happy at Nike, and I was just like, okay, cool, I'm gonna sign, you know, this will be my last deal. I'm gonna end here. Like I didn't think anything more. So then when it came back, it was just like, oh my gosh, they don't believe in me anymore. And for me, like, that is just huge. Like, I tried to be a good partner, you know, go above and beyond whenever there was calls, you know, I remember getting a call like my 30th birthday that I had, like, planned for like a year.

And, you know, I got a call like, well, can you be here, like somewhere across the world? And I'm like, yeah, I guess I have to cancel my birthday party, you know. So it was just very hurtful.


Yeah, that's right.


I remember getting- Yeah, yeah. And at that point, as you mentioned, you were the winningest track and field athlete in the world. Like you'd won more medals at world events, which is amazing, but this is a thing. Like, you know, it doesn't matter how often you go to the meetings and how often you show up at headquarters and how many times you say yes, and all the people there who love you and work with you, like at the end of the day, like it comes down to a renegotiation and none of that seems to matter and it's crazy,

but it's like how big corporations work. Yeah. And I think that's, you know, like you said, that's how it works. And I was like, okay, I guess I'm at that age where, you know, it's up and it's, you know, it doesn't matter that my performance hasn't gone down. It's just like, this is what happens at this time period and it's business and I, okay. But then at the same time, I had been putting off like my real life stuff that I wanted to do because I was like, well, you know, my job is to win medals, I have to be focused on this. And so that's when all of that shifted. And I was like, okay, well, if they're offering me this, they think I'm done. I've been waiting to like, you know, I want to have a family, like do all these things.

I've just, why am I waiting any longer? Yeah, so you ran unsponsored because you were in these negotiations with Nike that would last about a year and a half. But meantime, you became, you were married and became pregnant with your first child. And you were worried about anyone finding out that you were pregnant while you were training.

So you would train in the dark to hide your baby bump. Yeah, so this was like something that had happened in track and field and I was naive to it. You know, when I was younger, you know, I had been in the sport since I was a teenager and I kind of heard whispers and saw different things. And then as I got older, I really understood what it was. But women really struggled through pregnancy and motherhood in track and field. And so what they would do is if they were like in between contracts, like I was, they would hide their pregnancies, they would sign new deals and then they would carry on. Or contracts would be paused, athletes would be reduced. And so there was just like all of this struggle that would happen. And so I was just, I had so much fear around-

Because you were still negotiating with Nike

in the hopes of resolving this. Yes, it was the worst timing ever. And I told Wes, I was like, I've been the best client up until now, I'm now I'm making life really hard for you. And so even where we started off those negotiations, we didn't have anything on paper yet. So the fear really was that even that 70% less would be taken away once they found out that I was pregnant. So that's when I started to say like, okay, I'm just gonna do what everybody else has done until I'm ready to, you know, see something on paper and disclose my pregnancy. And so I trained at four o'clock in the morning when it was dark. I went on for a time period where I was competing and I was pregnant and nobody knew. I wore baggy clothes, I rarely left the house. Like this whole time period that like I had dreamed about and that I was so excited about that should have been celebrated ended up being the most isolating, dark and lonely

and just really difficult time period in my life. You also had preeclampsia, which I'm very familiar with because my wife also had it with our first child. And so you gave birth at 32 weeks to Cameron,

to your daughter. Yeah, I mean, it was crazy. And being an athlete, I think I took my health for granted. I just never imagined I would be in that scenario. And there was points where, you know, when I called my family, you know, they weren't sure if what they were coming for, you know, were they coming because I wasn't going to make it. Were they coming, you know, to meet granddaughter, niece? Like it just, it was very scary. And then I think it just made everything feel so heavy because we're going through still this just brutal renegotiations. And then this like real life event happens where it's like, does any of this even matter? You know, I just want my daughter to survive. I want to be able to leave the hospital. And it was just, it just felt like too much.

And in my mind, I had this like plan before any of this happened. I was like, okay, I'm going to have this baby. I'm going to come back in four weeks. I am going to train. Like this is what I know how to do. I'm just going to get it done. And then everything went out of the window. I, it took much longer than I could have ever imagined. And I remember my first workout back, my coach, he gave me a treadmill workout that was a 30 minute walk. And by the end, I am just crying because I just, I can't fathom how am I going to compete with the world's greatest? And I cannot even get through a walk.

And so it was a very humbling beginning to the journey back. You are still in negotiations with Nike in 2019. Wes, you are very much involved with these conversations with Nike. And I guess they're not budging. They're not going anywhere, right? Wes, what do you remember about Nike

just wouldn't move on their offer? No, they weren't moving. You know, and I think that one of the things that I would always try to do is let me put myself in their position. How would I look at this if I had their job instead of mine? And it was, you know, you can do what feels right and fair, or you can potentially get a top athlete for a whole lot less. It wasn't that they didn't think she deserved more money or that they didn't have more money to give her. It was on their end, a smart business decision. They looked at her age and said, you know, even if she goes and she can win more medals, she's got four more years left. Is another company gonna spend this kind of money and then also try to rebrand her? No, we don't think so. And there was an angle of this where we started to really fight for maternal protection. And it was because we said to them, you know, you're already offering her 70% less.

We were able to get it from 70% less to 60% less. So clearly you can see how great my negotiating skills were. So we get it to 60% less, you know, and then we go through this process of, you know, disclosing the pregnancy to them. And for us, it was really important that we had the offer on paper. We wanted that in writing, but we were never, for us, just morally, we felt like it wasn't right to sign that contract without telling them that she was pregnant. And if they decide they don't want you because you're pregnant after they already offered you a contract then they can deal with whatever the consequences of that are. But we'll give them the out. We'll tell them. We're not gonna sign it and then tell them after the fact. So we told them she was pregnant but we had the offer in writing. If they wanted to pull out, they could have pulled out. But then what we had to address next was the way that these contracts are set up, you get a bonus if you win a medal, you get a reduction if you don't win a medal.

So here was gonna be Alison. you know, 10 months after giving birth and she would need to go to the world championships, she would need to win a medal. And if she didn't, she'd get hit another 25%. And for us, that's where it was just like, no, that doesn't work. Like that's the line in the sand where that's not okay. And that's not okay for Alison, but that's not okay for any woman.

She's having a baby, no. All right, May 22nd, 2019, you kind of dropped a bomb on the world. You decided to write an op-ed in the New York Times about this experience of being pregnant while negotiating a contract with Nike. And I guess it came out of stories of other women athletes who were also dropped by Nike and essentially made the point that like, you know, Nike talks about women's empowerment and markets to girls and, but when it comes time for the rubber, you know, to meet the road here, like they don't,

they're not supporting female athletes who become moms. Yeah, so what originally happened was I had two teammates who were working on this story with the New York Times and Wes was actually involved in it because, you know, he had done all these negotiations and so he was working kind of like anonymously with them and we were kind of sharing different things. And the idea was just that that's what that was gonna be. You know, it was never going to attach a name to it. It was just that. And then the Women's World Cup was coming up. And I remember like this very vividly. I was sitting in Cameron's nursery and I got a call from Wes and he has, he's like, don't shoot the messenger, but Nike wants to know if they can use your image in this campaign. I think it was in a commercial, you know, for the Women's World Cup. And literally that was the moment that just changed everything. Cause I was just like, what? Like, you know, like everything I had been through, you know, and then the birth experience and I'm fighting my way back to get in shape and just like all of these things.

And I knew he was working on the story and I was just like, okay, I need to be a part of this story and we have to do this. We have to put our names to this. And I looked at my daughter. Like that was the reason why because I wasn't gonna let Cameron and her generation deal with the same thing. And at that point, it was kind of like, if I lose everything, then that will just be what it is because this has to come out.

Wes, when Alison told you she wanted to do this, take on the biggest athletic company in the world, how did you respond? Were you immediately supportive

or was a part of you nervous? No, I was really supportive. And now I say it in a really calm way. Like I was, there were definitely racing thoughts, but I remember I called up the editor at the New York Times and where I live, you lose cell service from the house until you get like down the hill. And I remember I called her at the house and I said, all right, let's go. And then got in the car, I drove down the hill. When I got down the hill, maybe three minutes, I had an email from Nike and it was no words, just a contract that they sent via DocuSign. And I called the New York Times editor and I said, wait, hold on, hold on, hold on. Did you already publish it? They just sent me a contract. And I think like in that moment and how Alison remembers her moment of sitting in the nursery with Cameron, I remember for me pulling off to the side of the road, shaking as I'm holding my phone, going through and looking at the contract and saying like, they had to have changed it. And I go through and I read through the first time, don't see any changes.

I read through again, don't see any changes. I'm on my phone, I'm trying to figure out how do I search the document? So I can just do like a keyword search to just search for pregnancy, baby, maternity, I'm just not seeing it. I read through probably about 11 times and I just didn't see it anywhere. And I was like, I have to be missing it. There's no way. I just got the same contract. Why would they send it? What are the chances? And I called the editor back and I was like, I read through it 11 times. There's nothing any different. And she was like, well, how do you feel?

And I was like, yeah, let's go. Like go ahead and publish it and put my phone away and you know, drove away and remember thinking like, what are we doing? But there was still this calm. I think I remember calling my dad and just telling him, you know, here's where it's at. And he just said like, you can be proud of this. This is the right thing. And kind of held on to that. And yeah, and then we let it out to the world. And I remember seeing the New York Times news alert come through and just like that moment was it was terrifying, but it was also, I don't think I've ever been more proud of anything that that Allison has ever done

or that I've ever been able to do with her. We're going to take another quick break, but when we come back more from Wes and Allison Felix about how their experience with Nike inspired them to start their own footwear company, Seish, which makes shoes specifically designed for women's feet. Stay with us. You're listening to How I Built This Lab. Aaron Burr, a founding father who fought valiantly for the revolution, would later become the highest ranking American official ever charged with treason. American History Tellers is a podcast from Wondery that explores the events and people who shaped our collective history. Their newest season looks at the insurrection of Aaron Burr. Nearly 200 years after his death, Aaron Burr's legacy remains hotly debated by historians. After all, he was a hero of the Revolutionary War, served as a United States senator and even vice president. But Burr had his fair share of controversy, killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and conspiring to take America's Western front as his own, to rule over like an emperor. On American History Tellers, you'll learn more about Burr's desperate power grab, how it was thwarted by President Thomas Jefferson, and how our fledgling democracy endured its first stress test. Follow American History Tellers wherever you get your podcasts.

You can listen ad-free on the Amazon Music or Wondery app. Welcome back to How I Built This Lab. I'm talking with former Olympic track star Alison Felix and her brother and business partner, Wes. Alright, so you released this op-ed in the New York Times, which details your experience with Nike. And that was the moment that you probably didn't realize it quite yet, but that was a moment that would of course change the trajectory for both of you, right? Leading you from this business model that was about endorsements and sponsorships to a totally different model where you would do your own thing. You would actually make a product and that product would be shoes. At this point, Alison, you were planning to be in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, which of course happened in 2021. Obviously Nike was not going to be your sponsor. And tell me how the two of you started to think about, wait a minute, why don't we just make our own shoe? Like why do we actually

need Nike or Adidas on Alison's feet? Like why not make it ourselves? Yeah, it started kind of with, first, I got a new athletic apparel sponsor. With Athleta. With Athleta, yeah. They actually, they had never sponsored an athlete before. They read the op-ed and they were just like, let's just have a conversation and see where it goes. But I would say that that relationship really changed my mindset because I felt like they empowered me. They wanted to celebrate me as an athlete, but also as a mother and support the advocacy work that I had started to do. And so it was like just this different experience. And so that set us off in the path of, okay, let's try to find this in a footwear company. Like I love how this feels.

It makes me feel good. At this point, I'm like, I see so much more value than just financial value. So let's focus in on this and let's find it. And so at this point I'm still competing. So I'm wearing Athleta and I am actually wearing like Nike shoes and I would just like peel off the Nike sign and that's kind of what we were doing. And then I'm talking to Wes after like we're doing this search of like trying to find this potential company. And I just got to this place where I'm like, I'm tired. I am so exhausted of asking these companies and begging them to see my worth and my value. And it's like, how am I in this place? I'm trying to compete for my fifth Olympic games and I'm out here like hustling and grinding, like taking meetings and trying to sell myself to have like a shoe sponsor. And Wes, he's always been the one with the big ideas and the visionary, very like hopeful and optimistic and I'm like very much so the opposite. And so we're having this conversation

and he's just like, well, why don't we just like do this ourselves? Let's love that so much. Wes, how did the idea come to you? I mean, it seems so plainly obvious, but also so

insurmountable, a shoe, right? But of course that made perfect sense. How did you land on that idea? Yeah, Guy, this moment is probably going to be as I share this with you, what's going to keep me single forever. But it was the pandemic. I was sitting there, I was building Legos and I just, I remember thinking like building stuff. It's like so cool. Like I wonder what other stuff we could build. And that's how I kind of thought of it, you know, was like, huh, I wonder if we could build a shoe. And it wasn't a serious thought. I wasn't thinking about a business or anything like that. But then when Allison called and she kind of, she speaks to that frustration.

And at times that kind of gets me to like, you're just, you're being negative. Like,

there's hope here somewhere. But in my own frustration, I said to her, well, why don't we just build our own? And, you know, she says back, like build our own shoe company. And like older brother I doubled down and I'm like, yeah, yeah, why don't we build our own shoe company? And she's just kind of quiet and then she comes back and she's just like, well, Yeah, I put together a plan and it was like, okay, okay. And I put my Legos down and I actually started thinking about it and again, like it's the beauty of building something is you don't quite know what you're building. You just start with the first step. Something I tell myself a lot and try to share with people is, you know, it's not about 10 steps. There's just one step 10 times. And I just thought through like, what's the first step? And I went back to her and told her like, I think this is the first step

and she was down to take it.

Yeah. Wow. All right, so let's start with the nuts and bolts here. You know you wanna do this, but first Alison's got the Olympics to prepare for and you wanna design a shoe and presumably you want this shoe ready in time so she can run in them in Tokyo. I mean, first of all, you guys had some sponsorship money.

So did you have enough to at least finance like a prototype? Yeah, we were able to, yeah, self-funded. And we said, we knew that if we were gonna launch this, you know, it started with the shoe she runs in in the Olympics. And at that point we were just thinking, if we make the shoe, she can wear in the Olympics. We think other track kids, college kids, high school kids, they'll buy this.

What an incredible platform, right?

For a runner to be wearing her own shoes in the Olympics? Totally. We were like, yeah, we're gonna be able to sell like a thousand of these or maybe like even 5,000, like we're gonna be able to sell these shoes, you know? And I remember talking with a developer that we found and asking her like, here's what we wanna do, do you think it's possible? And she's like, I mean, it's possible, but it's gonna be really hard. And I was like, okay, but also like how expensive is it gonna be? Because, you know, during that whole fight, Alison didn't get paid for almost two years, you know? So there was fear and stress around, is this the right thing to do? Is this a good use of money? Are we just doing this because we're frustrated? Like, but we worked through the process and got an idea of how much it could potentially cost. But in that process, there was something that Tiffany Beers, the developer that we worked with,

said to us that changed it all.

What'd you say? She was like, well, you know, shoes are not made for women. And I think we're like, oh, okay. Yeah, what does that mean? Yeah, what does that really even mean? And I'm like, no, we've all been to like Footlocker. Like we see, what's that wall of shoes on that side? You know, the pinks and all of those ones. And she's like, no, like they're not made for women. She was made off of a lass, which is a mold of a foot. And it's a man's foot that has been used to make women's footwear. And that just like, it took a while to sink in.

And then it just kind of like blew us away. We're like, well, so what is that wall? And eventually we understood like that wall was just marketing. There's nothing different about them. And then that changed our whole course

of how we were going about all of this. And that was because then all of a sudden that feeling that we felt there, it mirrored exactly what Alison felt when she got that offer of 70% less. It was, you have been so loyal to this company and they're totally taking advantage of you. They're taking you for granted. And we looked at that, thought of that wall in Footlocker of women's shoes by the major footwear brands. And we said, if that's marketing, women are coming in buying those shoes, not knowing their men shoes. They're buying those shoes because they believe they're women's. And it just helped us to see there was a much, much bigger problem. And the bigger problem was that women were being overlooked

by the brands they're most loyal to. Yeah, the idea that all shoes are basically designed from men's feet is just weird to me, right? And so this idea of building a shoe around a woman's foot, it's a little shocking to imagine that that was revolutionary, right? I mean, both of you sound like you were shocked

when you discovered that. I mean, I had been a runner for 18 some years at this time and I had no idea. And then we learned that there were molds

of women's feet, right? Yeah, we learned that as we talked with the last makers, as we went to go and build shoes and we said, okay, we have this idea, you know? And what we're hearing is it's not out there but we wanna build a last based on women's feet. And the guy's like, yeah, you want the model AJ nine, whatever, whatever. And I was like, wait, what? You have it? And he was like a last based on a woman's foot. I was like, yeah. And he's like, yeah, yeah. We've been studying feet for last hundred years. I'm like, yeah, we have a last based on a woman's foot. And inside I'm like, okay, well, how did we miss this.

the whole thing is crumbling, like this was a stupid idea. And I was like, well, who uses it? And he was like, nobody. And I was like, why would no one use it? And he was like, you know, probably money. And he's like, you'd be making two shoes instead of just one. And I was like, yeah, huh. And we had still never made a shoe yet. So that kind of made sense to me. If I have a business where I make 100 million pairs of shoes, you're burning through molds and no one's asking you for a different shoe. And women aren't saying, we're unhappy with our shoes, make one for me. Because they think they already have one for them.

And they don't have anything to compare it to.

They've never put on a shoe made for a woman shoes. So you guys are fully committed to building the spike shoe for Alison to compete in the Olympics, but it seems so complicated and challenging. I mean, you obviously found the designers and they were willing to sort of work with you on this. And I don't know what to sort of the understanding and maybe they'd work with you on the project

in a bigger way on this shoe brand. Yeah, I think like one of the things that we found were we had more friends at Nike than we realized. And when that op-ed came out, I think there were a lot of people who said, thank you so much because I've had a hard experience and maybe my voice wasn't as loud or maybe it didn't feel comfortable to speak out. There were a lot of people that really respected what we had done around the op-ed. And as we reached out to our developer, she was former Nike. She reached out to a designer who was also former Nike who then said, yeah, we're in. They said, we built Michael Johnson's spike in 1996, the most iconic spike ever made. We'd love to help. We believe in what you're doing, what you're standing for. And we worked with Mike Freeton on this spike and Mike was one of Bill Bowerman's original proteges. He was there in the shed with the waffle maker, like putting shoes together. He's this master pattern maker.

And he said, oh, this is exactly why we started Nike at the very beginning. It's lost its way, but this is why we started it. And he was like, I would love nothing more than to be a part of it. And so we were able to have the best in the world working on this shoe. And they did it and definitely delivered on an unbelievably iconic shoe for a woman and the first shoe to win a gold medal by an athlete who owns the brand too.

Wow, so last year, I think you closed a Series A round, $8 million, athletic was an investor. And you now have two lines, the SAGE 1 and the SAGE 2. You described them as lifestyle shoes. So they're not designed necessarily for running, but you're designing a specific running shoe

as well right now. Yeah, so our SAGE 1 is lifestyle. It's great for walking. It can do a workout really well. I mean, I participate in all the wear testing and I go in on them, so it is possible. But yeah, so excited. The shoe that obviously has been, I don't know if I should call it my baby because I actually have a baby, so I probably shouldn't say that. But just really what I'm passionate about is this running shoe and really giving women something that they haven't felt before. And not for the woman who is trying to break the marathon world record, because I just don't feel like that is every woman, but the woman who is doing all the things,

I'm really excited to bring this into the world. Yeah, one of the smartest things that, I mean, in some ways it was the luckiest thing that happened to you that would happen with Nike because one of the smartest decisions you guys made from a business perspective was you depersonalized your business. Your business was built around Allison's ability to endorse and to win races. And now you've built a brand using Allison's expertise, Wes, your expertise as runners, and a business that can live beyond the two of you

that you've built. And that's what's most meaningful. I want this to be so much bigger than myself. It is about women deserving better. And that's our mission, that's our purpose. And we are all so aligned by that. And it is, it should go so much further than just myself. And so now as I've transitioned from track and field, like right into this business that I love and believe in,

I love that it's centered around that very core message. Yeah, and Wes, when you think about, I mean, you know, just two years ago, you're like, let's make a shoe. And your sister was like, what? And then now you've got a shoe and now you've got a brand. So, I mean, tell me about the vision. I mean, obviously this is, so much of this is about women and creating products for women. When you think about what Seyish will be in 10 years,

how would you describe it? Yeah, 10 years from now, I hope that Seyish is a brand that women feel really gets them. A brand that they are really proud of, that they know, sees them, and works really hard to know them. We've talked a lot about how we celebrate women holistically. You know, we have a maternity returns policy, where if you're a woman whose foot changes size while you're pregnant, I can't imagine like all of a sudden waking up and my foot's a different size. And now I need to throw out every shoe I ever had. So, you know, for us, we feel like our contribution to you doing the most incredible thing on the face of this planet, we can send you another pair of shoes in your new size. So I hope that like we are a brand that can meet women exactly where they are for everything that they need from us. And if we can do that in footwear, then we don't wanna stop there. We wanna ask women, what else is broken? What else are you realizing isn't made for you? And we wanna do our best to look for other things that aren't made for women.

And then we wanna show up and provide those products for women and make sure that they continue

to feel seen and known by us.

Quest and Allison Felix, thank you so much.

Thank you.

Thank you, this was incredible. Hey, thanks so much for listening to How I Built This Lab. Please do follow us on your podcast app so you always have the latest episode downloaded. If you want to follow us on Twitter, our account is at how I built this and mine is at Guy Roz. And on Instagram, I'm at guy.raz. If you want to contact the team, our email address is hibt at id.wundery.com. This episode was produced by Chris Messini with editing by John Isabella and research by Lauren Landau Einhorn. Our audio engineer was Alex Draywenskas. Our music was composed by Ramtin Arablui. Our production team at How I Built This includes Alex Chung, Casey Herman, Elaine Coates, J.C. Howard, Liz Metzger, Sam Paulsen, Kerry Thompson, and Kira Joachim. Neva Grant is our supervising editor, Beth Donovan is our executive producer.

I'm Guy Roz and you've been listening to How I Built This. Hey Prime members, you can listen to How I Built This early and ad-free on Amazon Music. Download the Amazon Music app today or you can listen early and ad-free with Wondery Plus and Apple Podcasts. If you want to show your support for our show, be sure to get your How I Built This merch and gear at wonderyshop.com. Before you go, tell us about yourself by completing a short survey at wondery.com slash survey.