In our May “Women in Power” issue, six of Nike’s trailblazing execs at the center of the brand’s ambitious strategy sat down with FN for exclusive interviews to discuss their unique career paths, Nike’s 50th anniversary and lighting the path for the next generation.
When she stepped into her role as VP/GM of Nike’s global women’s business right in the thick of the pandemic, Whitney Malkiel had a powerful revelation.
“Everyone was managing life and work, and it was complicated. It was important to establish tight priorities and make sure the team understood where we were focused,” she said. “Almost just as important was to get that quick win. So much was out of our control, so I wanted the team to feel we were back in control,” said the 18-year Nike veteran, whose career path at the company has been anything but straight.
“I had an opportunity to be at the city level in New York closest to the consumer. I worked in three geographies, and for the last eight years, I worked at the global level. I’ve had the opportunity to move between functions. That’s given me empathy for everyone up down the value chain,” she said.
Malkiel is now firmly entrenched in a women’s category that has become increasingly important for Nike — and the entire athletic market. Many insiders believe it has taken too long for top players to address the specific needs of women, but now many brands are doubling down on their efforts, and the competition is fierce.
At Nike, the company is centering its efforts around three key areas: team sports, fitness and lifestyle.
“Team and organized sport is one of our priorities and where we’re most comfortable — basketball, global football (soccer), tennis. We want to increase participation and remove barriers,” Malkiel said.
“Fitness is where we’re seeing competitive pressure, which is amazing because that means the industry is growing and healthy. It makes us better, more focused and helps us make decisions faster. And then we think about lifestyle: that’s our secret sauce, our ability to mix sport and culture and showcase it in lifestyle.”
The increased focus on lifestyle is also visible in some of Nike’s newer partnerships and campaigns centered around dance — for example, its deal with Megan Thee Stallion, revealed in 2021, made big waves. Malkiel also pointed to the brand’s tie-up with Parris Goebel, the choreographer behind Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty shows and Jennifer Lopez’s 2020 Super Bowl performance. “Dance athletes have become really important,” the executive said.
Across the broader athletic arena, interest in women’s sports has never been higher, and Malkiel believes this moment represents a true tipping point for female athletes.
In March, for example, the Barcelona women’s soccer team beat rivals Real Madrid in front of a crowd of more than 91,000 fans. It was the most highly attended women’s game in history, with the previous record set at the 1999 World Cup final between the U.S. and China.
“This is a moment when there’s so much energy in women’s sports,” said Malkiel. And she believes much of that is due to the athletes themselves, who are shedding light on critical topics such as mental health and equity in sports.
“They’re comfortable expressing barriers they’re seeing. They are [using their platforms] to drive change that will translate into innovation, [new] thinking and more participation for young girls,” she said. “My goal is for us to all look back and think of the 2020s as the decade of women’s sport. If we can capture this energy and pull it through the decade, and build equity in sport, that’s a defining moment.”
Inside Nike, Malkiel sees that same kind of spark among the next generation of female leaders. “I love to ask questions to show them they can be bigger and take them to a place they might feel is a little far out,” she said. “What I have found is that I think they are going to hold us and the company more accountable.”
Malkiel also takes pride in setting an example for her team when it comes to setting boundaries and striving for balance. She said, “I have three boys, and a husband I’ve been with for 30 years. I’ve been extremely transparent about ‘family first.’ I think role modeling is important.”