Sportswear has few female CEOs, and it just lost another

The activewear company Outdoor Voices built its popularity on an easy-going empowerment summed up by its “doing things” mantra. “Things” is deliberately vague—an intense run and a restorative stretching session both qualify—and in the world of Outdoor Voices, those doing the things are mostly women.

No woman has more embodied the company and its image than founder Tyler Haney. But Haney, who started Outdoor Voices in 2014 at age 25 and stepped down as CEO last week, has now resigned from the company entirely, BuzzFeed News reported. Despite a good deal of attention and positive press, Outdoor Voices was losing as much as $2 million a month on annual sales of $40 million in 2019 and had operational challenges, according to an earlier story from Business of Fashion (paywall). Whatever happened behind the scenes, though, it leaves the world of activewear with one less female leader when it was already lacking them to start.

Activewear and sports companies from Nike to Adidas to Puma to Under Armour have historically been run by and geared toward men. “I think we probably all did a disservice to the female consumer and the woman consumer over the past 10 or 15 years,” Russ Kahn, a senior vice president at Puma, told Retail Dive in September. “I think for a long time athletic brands said, ‘We can just shrink it and pink it and that will be good enough for the female consumer.’”

Even Lululemon, which built its business on sales of yoga pants to women, was started by Chip Wilson, who once blamed women’s bodies for a batch of its pants being too sheer. As athleisure has grown as a category, and it’s become clear to companies they were missing a big opportunity, several have worked to court women. But among the more recognized players, only a handful, such as the young company Bandier and Gap’s active line Athleta, are actually run by women.

The issue isn’t limited to workout wear. Last year, just 12.5% of fashion companies in the Fortune 1000 had female CEOs, according to a study by global accounting and consulting firm PwC. That’s even fewer than companies in the aerospace and defense industries, which were about 20% female-led, and financial services, where 18% of companies had women as chief executives.

The consequence is bigger than just numbers: Women can bring a different perspective to businesses designing products for women, and while male-led companies are capable of serving all types of customers, there’s value in having companies offering other viewpoints. Haney told the New Yorker in a profile last year she started her company with the idea of freeing fitness from the focus on performance that is central to the giants of the activewear industry.

The story, by Jia Tolentino, noted Outdoor Voices was “one of a few highly visible, female-centered, life-style-adjacent, digital-savvy millennial brands built around a charismatic founder and her story.” While it’s become easier for women to get funding for startups, it’s also true they still generally face more challenges than men getting money to back their ideas. The company was able to raise more than $60 million, but it apparently hasn’t been able to scale as quickly as its investors wanted.

Whether or not Haney was the right person to lead Outdoor Voices as it tries to reach its next level is a fair question to ask. Still, the industry—and importantly—its customers lose a valuable bit of representation in Haney’s departure from the company she created. Outdoor Voices sent Quartz the following statement regarding the news:

Tyler has made a personal decision to resign from Outdoor Voices. We respect her choice and wish her the best. As the founder of our company and a creative visionary, she brought Outdoor Voices to an important stage in our evolution. Our focus remains on the future of Outdoor Voices and doing what’s best for our company and our team. To that end, after much consideration and exploration of numerous options, we have made the difficult decision to eliminate a small number of positions. We are grateful for the contributions of the individual team members who have been impacted. Our mission isn’t changing, but we believe that operating more dynamically in an evolving retail environment will position Outdoor Voices for long-term growth and success as we continue to build an incredible, positive community that is redefining how people think about recreation.

 

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