As we continue in our commitment to elevate diversity, inclusion and equality conversations, FN is shining a light on Black-owned businesses in honor of Black Business Month. For these next few weeks, we encourage you to get to know these incredible Black-owned companies and support them all year round.
Jeffrey Henderson has a funny way of stumbling onto great ideas.
The famed footwear designer, who worked for Nike for almost 15 years, brought his NinetyNine Products sneakers to the U.S. market in January 2019. The shoes, however, were never meant to be produced and sold, and NinetyNine Products was never supposed to be a brand.
“I was in Asia at a factory joking with the owner and said, ‘If you make this shoe as well as I want it made for the U.S. I’ll buy some,'” Henderson explained. “I was like, ‘I want a full and carbon plate, I want there to be Japanese lacing, I want the best materials here and there and I want it under this price.’ It was basically a challenge. The next time I showed up in China, he showed it to me in a box laughing and was like, ‘How many pairs do you want?’ I had to come up with a brand that meant something because he basically called me out.”
He continued, “I had no plans or in creating a brand. I always thought it was weird to have a brand that I would make of something that I would want because I always worked for companies, so that never really connected with me.”
NinetyNine Products currently offers one silhouette, the Point, a comfortable and stylish look that retails for $99 via Ninetynineproducts.com.
Aside from selling the shoes, Henderson has made giving back a priority. Since the debut of the Point, he has done giveaways for people in admirable, but often overlooked professions who need underfoot comfort all day long — specifically, teachers.
“Teachers will always tell you, ‘If you could give something to my kids, that is great.’ And I was like, ‘No, I want to give to the teachers.’ No one thinks about the teachers. My mother was a teacher, so I know that,” Henderson said.
The initial giveaways to educators were done in New York, specifically Brooklyn and Harlem. However, with nearby hospitals overcrowded for months due to the coronavirus crisis, Henderson shifted the focus of giveaways to health-care workers at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Although there was never a plan to create a brand, now that NinetyNine Products is gaining traction, Henderson said he plans on making more investments into the company moving forward.
“I didn’t want to devote a lot of time to a project that I wasn’t fully engaged in, in terms of building something out, in terms of sales and distribution and marketing. I just wasn’t there for those reasons,” Henderson explained. “Now that I’ve started to see the interest level coming up, we’re starting to explore. What does this look like? What is our real strategy around it? We’re just starting the real conversation of ‘let’s figure out what this really means in terms of distribution, growth and other products that are in the mix.'”
He added, “I’m a designer at heart so I was already making other shoes without a strategy in mind.”
Nevertheless, the framework is coming together and, for 2020 and beyond, Henderson is sure there will be more shoes and other products coming — 98, to be precise.
“At the end of the year, we’re going to do a drop for holiday with some more colors, maybe some more materials, and then we’re going to go pretty broad in the spring and fall,” Henderson said. “The goal and the joke was we’re going to have 99 individual products. Not all shoes. We’re going to branch out. The idea is we want to have something that covers your entire life with 99 products.”
Running an emerging sneaker brand is already quite the task, however NinetyNine Products isn’t where Henderson expends most of his time and energy.
And Them, an agency founded Henderson in 2014 that focuses on brand and product design as well as design management, is his main priority. Since the launch, the team at And Them has worked with several big-name clients, including Yeezy, Allbirds, Koio, Converse and Everlane.
Also, he is working on GoodThin.Gs, an e-commerce platform that sells “product with a purpose.” Since its debut, it has grown to also serve as a means for storytelling with a purpose.
Like NinetyNine Products, GoodThin.Gs wasn’t supposed to take off either.
“It was a side project that started off as a joke; it was a way for friends of mine to sell T-shirts or share ideas that we had,” Henderson said. “I wanted to learn e-commerce so I built a site to put some stuff on there and it turned into a bit of a monster for random projects for people we worked with.”
Now, Henderson said the GoodThin.Gs is seeking out talent who can “take the mantle” and help it become a platform to educate and inspire young people, particularly those who need extra resources to break into their desired career paths.
All of Henderson’s business ventures to have at their center a mission to bring along underrepresented groups — and it’s by design. The entrepreneur and is well aware of the climate surrounding racial equity, especially the footwear industry. And as an industry veteran, he believes his importance is beyond creating product for people to consume.
“Everybody Black in this industry knows how difficult it was [to get here]. They also know that if they survive for 10 minutes, it was because they were being helped by somebody,” Henderson said. “Every person of color in the industry has spent 25 to 35% of their time helping other Black professionals whether they were paid to do it or not. This is not new to us, it’s just more people are actually are now listening to the conversation.”
He continued, “With the agency, I’ve pulled people along on the team that wouldn’t normally get run in different businesses — who are no different than me … This is also why I’m making NinetyNine bigger, so there’s a bigger piece for myself and folks who I hang out with. We’re going to make the table bigger for us, which will by default make it bigger for other people of color.”