Who Runs the World? Women.
Although the running industry is still dominated by male-owned and -operated businesses, women are leading the charge with a new generation of organizations focused on empowering women who run.
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Women have always run. From prehistoric times when women ran out of necessity to protect their young to the 1928 Olympics, the first Games to allow women to compete in track and field, to the present day, where women run for health, for fun, for competition, and for community. Today in the U.S., women account for 60% of race finishers overall (5k though marathon distances.)
Despite a long and storied timeline of women who run, the running industry was and is overwhelmingly male, with nearly all major shoe brands having been founded by men: Nike by Phil Knight, Hoka by Jean-Luc Diard and Nicolas Mermoud, Saucony by A.R. Hyde, to name a few. Nike currently has a male CEOs, while Hoka maintains a female company president and Saucony a female Chief Marketing Officer. Times are changing, and women are more and more frequently leading the change.
For those willing to look beyond the big box names, women-founded and -owned running companies and run-focused services abound. Meet some of the most prominent and up-and-coming names of the run industry who are changing the game for women. These are the new history makers servicing the women’s running market and sports culture.
Company: MALO Republic
- Founded: 2019
- Founder: Beth McKenzie
Meet Beth: Beth McKenzie is former professional triathlete and Ironman champion, but pivoted in recent years to chasing a U.S.Olympic Trials qualifying time int the marathon.
MALO is the sister brand to McKenzie’s other business WYN Republic and stands for Making Active Little Ones, which stems from the brand donating one piece of clothing for each sold to underserved youth around the world. (MALO has donated the equivalent of $97,000 worth of children’s activewear in 2022.)
McKenzie says that founding and owning MALO has been rewarding in more ways than one.
“There’s the macro piece, which are the donations we make via MALO,” she says. “We’ve held MALO color runs for three consecutive years in 14 small, largely Indigenous towns in Australia, and it’s amazing to see the growth of the kids and their dreams over time.”
On a personal level, McKenzie says she is a “runner at her core” and wanted to make clothing for women that had all the things she needed as a runner – women-specific fits, pockets, quality fabric, etc.
McKenzie notes that women may face unrealistic expectations from others in the running industry, though.
“Society sets the expectation that women should work like we have no kids and parent like we have no career, not to mention trying to squeeze in [workouts] on top of that.”
McKenzie elaborated that because of her multiple roles—parent, spouse, business owner, runner—she has sometimes felt she will never be “good enough” at any of those roles. She went on to say that she’s learned to learn on her support crew like her family and coworkers to help her balance each area of her life, but cautions others to remember that “the biggest secret is that absolutely no one ever truly ‘does it all.’”
“I think female runners who start businesses of any kind are destined for success,” McKenzie says. “We are the ultimate multi-taskers and problem solvers, which are keys to entrepreneurship.”
Her biggest piece of advice is to give yourself grace; learn to delegate and be at peace with it. Although no one may do a task exactly as you would have, getting something done 90 percent correctly is amazing “if it also allows you to balance other areas of life, like family and training,” McKenzie says.
Women’s Running’s Favorite Piece: The MALO All Sport Support High-Impact Bra is perfect for runners who like full coverage and no bounce in their chest, and the Little Bit Longer 2.0 7” shorts take care of any inner thigh rubbing that can quickly ruin a long run.
- Founded: 1995
- Founder: Anne Kelly
Meet Anne: Anne released JunoActive’s first catalog in 1995 under the title “Junonia.” Their motto in 1995 remains very much the same today: “Dedicated to the active lives of women size 14 and up so they can live their lives to the fullest.”
“At the beginning [of JunoActive] I took my business plan around to investors who at that time were all men,” Kelly says. “I had just completed a master’s in business at the London Business School, too.”
Kelly went on to say that the standard reply from the male investors was, “If larger women exercised, they would be small, so where is the market?”
This understandably exasperated Kelly, whose explanation about how biology doesn’t always work so binarily was not well-received by those men.
Instead of abandoning her idea of creating activewear for women size 14 and up, Kelly revisited her plan and was able to get her business off the ground with “just money from family, friends, and early employees…We went from there!”
Today, JunoActive designs performance activewear for plus-sized women. Their products use high-tech, wicking fabrics and are tailored specifically for plus-sized women. In addition to activewear, JunoActive offers swimwear, casual wear, intimates, sleep and loungewear, and jackets.
Remembering how frustrating it was not to have investors see her vision, Kelly shares this advice: “If you are an entrepreneur, you are always looking for opportunity on the horizon. Expect people to say you are crazy…Stay the course. Persistence usually wins.”
Women’s Running’s Favorite Piece: The Comfort Support Zip Front sports bra has adjustable back straps, a front zipper and hook, and inside pockets for breast inserts, making it mastectomy insert-friendly. JunoActive also has a “skort” option, the QuikWik Lite Skirted Short and it has pockets, the ultimate feature for women’s activewear.
Company: Roam Loud
- Founded: 2020
- Founder: Toyin Omisore
Meet Toyin: Toyin Omisore founded Roam Loud to “unapologetically create a lifestyle where Brown skin is at the forefront and not an afterthought.” Omisore went on to explain that “there are so many women like myself that value health and wellness in every aspect of their lives. So why not create a brand that supports that journey…where we are seen and celebrated.”
Omisore, who is Liberian-Nigerian American and was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, was also inspired to found Roam Loud by her grandmother, Cynthia Grey Horton. Omisore notes that “her personality and legacy embodied the essence of roaming loud in the world.”
With Roam Loud now in well-known stores such as Kohl’s, Omisore reflects that the most rewarding aspect of the company is “seeing and hearing from our community, who we call Wanderers. I absolutely love to watch the videos our community creates and read their emails or direct messages. It feels good.”
Omisore says that with the amount of time and energy she spends on crafting high-quality apparel, it makes it all worth it to hear from someone who is enjoying the brand and products.
Like nearly all business owners, Omisore notes that the hardest part of founding Roam Loud has been “finding a balance between work and play.” She says that this year, managing her stress levels is non-negotiable, which can look like taking control over how she moves through busy periods in her personal and professional life and not letting that stress control her.
Omisore says she fears “living a life wondering, ‘what if?’” Omisore was a full-time social worker for eight years who never forgot about her dreams of one day owning her own business.
“From the first day on the job as a social worker to the day I left, I had a quote on my desk that said, ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’” Omisore says. “It was my daily reminder…that I had yet to truly bet on myself.”
Omisore says that her advice is more of a question. She encourages women to think about what they would do if they weren’t afraid, and what if, on the other side of that fear, was making your wildest dreams a reality?
Women’s Running’s Favorite Piece: While Roam Loud has plenty of activewear options from leggings to sports bras, for those post-run couch sessions, check out their plush Blanket Set sweatshirt/sweatpants combo.
Company: Erica Sara Designs
- Founded: 2010
- Founder: Erica Sara
Meet Erica: Erica is a mother of two and business-owner who holds a business degree and worked for many years at high-end fashion companies before venturing off to create her own jewelry business, Erica Sara Designs. Erica’s designs were “born out of a dream to help others wear their dreams,” and feature inspiring messages and run-focused designs like necklaces engraved with “13.1” to symbolize the half-marathon mileage distance.
Erica is a runner herself and started running to “prove to [herself] that she could handle anything during an especially difficult time in her life.” She says that now that she gets to help other women celebrate their “why” and commemorate their journeys and finish lines is “by far the most rewarding part” of what Sara does in her business.
Erica’s designs are now worn by tons of women worldwide who want to celebrate their dreams and achievements, especially those that are related to running. But like with other business owners, Sara has faced scrutiny on her journey.
“There’s a certain ‘boys’ club’ mentality with some of the older jewelers I’ve tried to work with to develop new chains or components,” Erica says. “I’ve never considered it an obstacle. Instead, it seems to me that’s a great way to filter out the type of people I don’t want to work with.”
As with other business owners who also respond to “mom,” Sara says another challenge is juggling motherhood with her work.
“Now that I have two young kids, I find myself having to choose between work and time with my kids more than I’d like to admit,” Erica says. “The mom guilt is strong, but I try to remind myself that I’m setting a good example and exhibiting the type of strong work ethic I wish for them one day.”
Erica says her biggest goal for 2023 is to bring in some help for her business to help her have more balance between work and family.
Erica advises that for women considering starting their own business, to “start with something you love” because the more connected you are to your work, the better.
Erica reminds women that even when the whole picture is daunting, believe in yourself—you can achieve your goals, it’s just a matter of figuring out each step along the way.
“Stay focused and start small — the quickest way to failure is to try to do too many things at once, she says.
Erica also suggests looking at mistakes as learning opportunities.
“Embrace your mistakes because there will be plenty,” Erica says. “The learning you will experience from these mistakes is how you will grow.”
Women’s Running’s Favorite Piece: Erica’s “Cities and Races” designs are truly one-of-a-kind. We often have such deep connections to the location or event where we have a breakthrough or overcome a challenge. This line of Erica’s work is stunning.
Company: Paradis Sport
- Founded: 2021
- Founder: Sarah Weihman
Meet Sarah: Sarah Weihman is a former NCAA Division 1 athlete and a trained architect. After wearing the same brand of women’s underwear for years, she was dismayed to find out that the cut and measurements had changed, meaning the underwear was now uncomfortable for her active lifestyle. Thus, Paradis Sport was born and is named after Marie Paradis, the first-ever woman to summit Mont Blanc, which she did in 1809 in long wool underwear and a skirt.
Paradis Sport makes women-specific underwear for active women. The cut, compression, and overall fit are designed to promote comfortable, sanitary, and seamless underwear for sport and life.
Paradis Sport may be new, but it already has a strong adoption by its multiple running ambassadors, including Sika Henry, Britta Clark, Cha’Mia Rothwell, Hilary McCloy, Caitlin Patterson, and Kait Miller. Weihman says that the most rewarding thing about owning Paradis is growing its ambassadorship and adoption among women in sport. Weihman’s favorite thing to do is share about Paradis Sport in her sponsor tent at trail races and meet other women in the running community.
Weihman is dedicated to creating an environmentally sustainable brand with Paradis Sport. From using recyclable and compostable packaging to offering free ways to recycle old undies, Weihman wants Paradis Sport’s environmental arm to be more than just for show—but that can come with a literal price.
“I love knowing that Paradis Sport is doing the right thing environmentally,” Weihman says. “But the development process is very long and expensive compared to manufacturing overseas, which is what practically every other active underwear brand is doing.”
That being said, Weihman says the win here is “when we get great feedback from customers on product quality,” so she plans to forge ahead with her environmental and high-quality product mission.
“You don’t have to know everything about a business or product or any other aspect of starting a company before you dive in, so don’t be afraid to begin,” Weihman says. “There is so much to learn and it happens gradually, little by little.”
Weihman also suggests crowdsourcing advice and info from trusted sources like friends, family, and coworkers who may have had experiences with their own businesses.
Women’s Running’s Favorite Piece: The Seamless Bikini underwear is perfect for hiking, running, or hitting up the gym. It stays in place, doesn’t chafe, and is seamless.
- Founded: 1997 (The company briefly shuttered in 2017 and relaunched in 2019.)
- Founder: Bonie Shupe
Meet Bonie: Bonie Shupe stepped in to “re-found” Ibex in 2019 after the brand shuttered in 2017 (Shupe was not part of Ibex prior to 2019) to create the “highest quality, most ethically sound merino apparel possible.” Her inspiration came from the Ibex goat, which traverses a variety of terrain across Asia, Europe, and northeastern Africa and migrates with the seasons.
“Ibex was born for the modern migration from slope to city, and everywhere in between,” Shupe says. “We only partner with suppliers who share our commitment to supporting the wellbeing of the global community.”
What Shupe means by that is that everyone who works on Ibex products, no matter where they are or what role they play, does so in a “fair, safe, non-discriminatory and empowering workplace.”
Ibex is also a certified Climate Neutral company, and it is Shupe’s goal to lead the way for the entire running industry when it comes to sustainable production.
Shupe, who is a runner, likes to use metaphors from the sport to describe running a business.
“Running a business is a lot like running an ultramarathon,” Shupe says. “You look at the [run] course and try to be strategic about when to sprint or climb [while recognizing] you are running for the long haul. It’s the same as with a business.”
Shupe equated summiting a mountain to achieving a new milestone in a business.
“You keep your head down, put in the effort, find your rhythm, and then when you get to the top it’s an amazing view. That’s also like running a business.
When Ibex reopened in 2019, Shupe approached the relaunch with the strategy of being transparent, open to criticism, and willing to admit her mistakes. She says that being vulnerable has created a growth mindset for her and the business, which is “growing at an incredible pace.”
Shupe has three pieces of advice: “Follow your passions, don’t second guess decisions, and stick to your end goal.”
She went on to give another running to business metaphor: “If you show up and do the best you can every day you get stronger, you add to your skills—this goes for life, work, and training.”
Lastly, Shupe wants to remind others that perfection is the enemy of progress—be ready for curveballs and overcome mistakes with grace.
Women’s Running’s Favorite Piece: The Wool Aire is an ultra-light nanopuff jacket stuffed with merino wool, which optimizes thermoregulation whether you’re hitting the road, the trail, or the slopes for some cross-training.
Company: Black Girls RUN!
- Founded: 2009
- Founder: Jay Ell Alexander
Meet Jay Ell: Jay Ell Alexander acquired Black Girls RUN! (BGR!) in 2018 from the original founders and has grown the organization to a nationwide movement in the ensuing years. She is also the owner and CEO of The Vaughn Strategy, a public relations firm.
Alexander is a runner herself who has completed numerous half marathons, 5Ks, and 10Ks, as well as one full-distance marathon.
Alexander has seen BGR! grow from just a few local ambassadors to helping 250,000 Black women to “adopt a healthy, active lifestyle through running, movement, and community,” she says. Alexander aims to continue to transform the running community by aiding in the diversification of endurance running.
Since BGR!’s founding in 2012, Alexander has forged partnerships with well-known run brands like Saucony, Brooks, REI, and Fleet Feet.
Alexander’s favorite thing about BGR! is getting to know its community on a personal level.
“The most rewarding thing about owning my own organization is the feeling you have when you are able to meet the women that this organization directly supports,” Alexander says. “You are able to see and feel the change; I know that the mission of BGR! is making a difference in our community, and that’s all I need to stay motivated.”
Jay Ell’s Advice
Like other women business owners, Alexander encourages others to not wait on their dreams.
“There will never be the perfect time to do anything, so don’t wait,” Alexander says. “Set goals, be diligent, and have discipline in reaching your goals.”
Company: Blistering Pace Race Management
- Founded: 2016
- Founder: Michelle La Sala
Meet Michelle: Michelle La Sala began running in third grade with her dad for fun. This childhood activity spawned a lifetime of run-related memories such as running for an NCAA Division 1 program in college, completing 32 marathons and a handful of ultramarathons.
In 2004, La Sala was offered a volunteer coordinator role for the Los Angeles Marathon, which led to becoming the charity team coordinator with the New York Road Runners, and finally landing as the race director of the California International Marathon in 2014. In 2016, Blistering Pace Race Management was born.
La Sala says that her favorite thing about being president of a race management company is “having a front row seat to people living out their hopes and dreams.”
La Sala goes on to say that: “Running brings strength, sometimes peace, oftentimes joy, and when you weave those things into a race day, it can be such an incredibly memorable experience. My team and I get to gift that to people. It literally gets me out of bed every morning.
Speaking about the rise in women-owned businesses in the run industry, La Sala said she is glad that the running industry is moving away from being “such a man’s world.”
“When you think about things women are often chastised for, like ‘we are too emotional,’ that emotion is what helps me personally develop the experience we create for runners on race day,” La Sala says. “I think [women] are perfectly suited to excel [at this]!”
The rewards aren’t without challenges, though.
“Being the president of any company is hard,” La Sala says. “Being a woman can feel tougher sometimes because it doesn’t always feel like people take your word as final.”
La Sala credits her support network as a major asset that’s helped her “step forward as the leader I needed to be” while always learning on the job.
“My advice to women who are curious about the [run] industry is to be hungry. Volunteer…offer to be a captain…send an email…meet for coffee,” La Sala says. “So much of [the run] industry is who you know, which has its advantages and disadvantages.”
Volunteering is not only a fantastic way to give back to the run community, but it can open a door to leadership opportunities in the run industry down the line, too.
Company: Reform Physical Therapy
- Founded: 2018
- Founder: Abigail Bales, PT, DPT, CSCS
Meet Dr. Bales: Abigail Bales is a mother of two who holds a doctorate in physical therapy from New York University. She has always been integrated into the fitness space, whether as a personal trainer, physical therapist, or actively training for her own running race.
Bales is a trained pelvic floor physical therapist, which means she is able to help women regain their pelvic floor and core strength and function postpartum, a key for healthy recovery from birth.
“I became interested in pelvic health while studying at NYU,” Bales says. “When my friends started having babies, they didn’t know where to turn for information about how to safely return to running. I felt I could fill that void.”
Bales says that the most rewarding thing about owning her own practice is that she can spend as much time as she’d like with each patient, which can be anywhere from 1 to 2 hours.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to help patients who have given birth feel powerful and strong and return to their chosen sport, live without pain, or have pleasurable intercourse,” she says.
Bales saysthat being a pelvic floor physical therapist is a cross-functional discipline, which makes her job complex but satisfying.
“I have the privilege of learning from colleagues across the medical field… OB/GYN and internal medicine and the interplay of the body’s systems across the lifespan,” Bales says. “I make a point of spending time with other specialists to learn how to better serve my patients… I’m constantly challenged to expand my thought process.”
If Bales could reinforce anything about pelvic floor physical therapy, it would be that pelvic health “begins at potty training and stretches across the lifespan” and that pelvic floor health is not exclusively a “birthing person or female problem.”
Regularly consulting with your doctor or physical therapist can be a way to maintain good pelvic floor health regardless of pregnancy.
Bales imparted some advice for women who are returning to full strength postpartum.
“It is definitely a journey. The body changes during pregnancy and delivery, and the rehabilitation happens over the course of months and years, not weeks,” she says. “Pace yourself and prioritize your short-term versus long-term goals.”
Although each woman is different and should consult with their medical professional, Bales says that many women may be able to start the rehabilitation process as early as two weeks postpartum, like doing breathwork and neuromuscular reeducation to begin to control the “increase in intra-abdominal pressure that is required for every sport and fitness activity.”
To get in touch with a pelvic floor-certified physical therapist, you can visit the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) Academy of Pelvic Health Physical Therapy site or the Global Pelvic Health Alliance. Bales advises seeking out a professional who has completed either Herman and Wallace or APTA pelvic health courses.
Menopause Health Expert
- Practitioner: Jen Gunter, MD
Meet Dr. Gunter: Gunter is a mother of two and is well-known for her advocacy of accurate OB/GYN-related information on Twitter and the Internet. She is a self-described “fierce advocate” for women’s health and has devoted her life to caring for women.
Gunter has authored numerous books about everything from how to care for a premature baby to her latest, The Menopause Manifesto, which was published in 2021. The covers perimenopause and menopause, two topics often shrouded in misinformation. The Menopause Manifesto made it onto the New York Times Instant Best Seller list.
Gunter says that the most rewarding thing about working with women is assisting with “refractory issues of the vulva and vagina.” (A refractory issue is “a disease or condition that does not respond to treatment,” according to cancer.gov.)
“Giving people answers and treatment for something they were led to believe had no therapy is very rewarding,” Gunter says. “There is so much misinformation and disinformation about the vulva and vagina, even among medical professionals, so being able to help here is really rewarding.”
Speaking specifically about menopause, Gunter says that the single most important intervention for menopause is exercise and moving the body regularly.
Gunter is on a quest to decrease the amount of misinformation on the Internet regarding menopause and women’s health in general. Her two pieces of advice for women are that the term “balancing hormones” is not a medical one and to avoid supposed “experts” who use it. She also notes that supplements are unregulated medications and to keep that in mind when reading their claims and benefits.