On Nov. 30, Allyson Felix’s Saysh brand will be honored as Launch of the Year at the 35th annual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Nov. 29 print issue about how she became a footwear entrepreneur.
Just before Allyson Felix headed to Tokyo in July for the 2021 Olympics, she showed off a new shoe. But it wasn’t the usual athlete endorsement: The track-and-field star had announced the launch of her own brand, Saysh.
With the women’s lifestyle footwear line came both a new lifestyle sneaker as well as the sprinter’s custom running spikes, which she used to win two more medals this summer, bringing her five-Olympic run to a tally of 11. That streak makes Felix the most decorated woman in Olympic track-and-field history and the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history.
But Saysh wasn’t just a press op for another round of Olympic notches. The launch marked a new chapter for Felix after parting ways with Nike in 2018 after the brand failed to provide maternity support during her pregnancy.
Amid the breakup, Felix realized she still needed shoes to run in. So came Saysh (named after “seiche,” the phenomenon of a standing wave in an enclosed body of water) and with it the opportunity to rewrite some of the rules of the male-dominated athletic footwear world.
Here, Felix tells FN how she’s navigated the events of the past few years, the philosophy behind Saysh and what she’ll tell her daughter one day about standing up for herself.
Did leaving Nike bring the reaction that you expected?
AF: “I was really scared to speak up. I honestly didn’t know how it was going to come off. I wasn’t sure if I would be supported or if people would be critical of it. I was blown away by the women who were vocal with me and who told me their own stories. In one sense, it was amazing to have that support. But it was also heartbreaking that so many women had their own stories and had been through something and could relate to what I was going through.”
How will you tell the story of this part of your life to your daughter one day?
AF: “That’s a great question. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. I will tell her how hard it was, and how disappointed I was and all of my feelings — that I wasn’t valued, that my worth wasn’t seen. But that then I took action. That’s something that I want to teach her: When you believe in something and you want to do something the right way, stand up for yourself and speak your truth.”
You could have easily signed with another athletic brand. Why did you decide to start your own line?
AF: “I didn’t have shoes to run in at the Olympics. My brother said, ‘What if we did this ourselves?’ I looked at him like he was absolutely crazy. But the more I sat with it, I was so exhausted of asking for change. I had gone through the whole ordeal with Nike, and we were searching for a footwear sponsor that my values aligned with. I was tired and thought, this is a great opportunity to be that change. For once, not to have to ask for it, but to create something the way that it should be created.”
What was the very first step in building Saysh and its first sneaker, the Saysh One?
AF: “I reached out to someone — Tiffany Beers, who I respect so much. [She’s] this phenomenal engineer who has built iconic shoes, and we just DM’d her on Instagram and ran the idea by her. I told her what had happened, what I was going through. She’s a previous Nike employee and she connected with me as a person and with what I had been through. She had her own story. She gave us her insights and helped us piece together a team.”
Why was it important to you for women to be part of this process?
AF: “I didn’t know that there was such a huge issue with women not being involved in the process of making shoes. As a professional runner, [to know that] the shoes I’m wearing are not made for women, that’s crazy. How is that still happening? So it was very intentional that a woman would engineer the shoe, that our designer would be a woman. When you look on the tongue, you see Tiffany’s signature, you see Natalie Candrian, our designer’s signature. You see my signature.”
How do you feel about going up against the big athletic brands?
AF: “I don’t really even think about going up against them. It’s creating a new lane, creating for women, being community centered. Yes, our first product is the lifestyle sneaker. But we’re very much about our collective and bringing women together. We recently opened [our first store], Home of Saysh in Culver City, Calif. The idea was it would be community centered. It’s a place where, yes, you can come and buy shoes, but where you can also come for workouts and conversations [on topics like] motherhood and the workplace. It’s a very different kind of space. And we decided to have it in Culver City because it’s very close to where we are from and we look at it as welcoming people into our home.”
What advice do you have for women on how to make change individually or within the community?
AF: “It’s really scary, and sometimes there are consequences involved. But I think we can start making little steps, with your specific employer and having the conversation that oftentimes is so uncomfortable. There’s also power in the collective. I know for me, I did feel so alone when I was going through all of that. But when I spoke out and when there were other women who spoke out as colleagues of mine, I felt so much better. Our voice was so much stronger.”
Paid family leave is still being debated by lawmakers in Washington. How do you think women as a collective can confront this and make actual change?
AF: “It’s shocking to know that we’re so behind with our maternal issues and family leave. It was really me going through my own experience that opened my eyes to it. I got to go before Congress and share my story, so part of it is raising awareness so that we can ask how we can get people on board to put funding behind this, to do more research. And in talking about maternal health for women of color, a lot of [complications are] preventable, and that to me is what’s most devastating.”
Women entrepreneurs — especially of women of color — are still not afforded the same opportunities as men. What would you like to see done to open more doors?
AF: “When we thought of starting Saysh, [I wondered], why do I believe that this is not possible? I think one of the answers was that I never saw it growing up. People where me and Wes are from, they don’t start companies. We didn’t have friends whose parents had companies. So I think more founders of color, more women founders — it’s so important to see that in action and to have people at the table who not only are there but who have a voice and are decision makers. That’s a great place to start — and giving more people opportunities. I want [Saysh] to be a place where women and women of color can grow their careers. Obviously, there’s a lot to be done, but I just think about these as things we can do.”
For 35 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards — often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The 2021 event is supported by presenting sponsor Nordstrom, as well as Authentic Brands Group, FDRA, Informa, On and Wolverine Worldwide.