As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Missy Park, CEO and founder of Title Nine. Missy founded Title Nine, named after the groundbreaking equality legislation passed in 1972, in her garage in 1989. A product of the catalog era, Title Nine’s paper catalogs featured women in sports, outdoors and in a different environment than what society had originally planned for them. Title Nine was born out of evolutionary necessity, and a progressive desire to support women in sports and in business. Through obstacles and business pitfalls, such as a flood that wiped out early inventory, Missy and the brand worked tirelessly to provide products, and a shopping experience that was convenient for busy women of the 80s and 90s, and Title Nine became one of the first to launch a website, in 1995. In the late 90s, Title Nine started dedicating a portion of profits to creating opportunities for girls and women to participate in sports, and a Pitchfest platform for women-led brands. To this day, Title Nine remains the largest independently owned and operated retailer in the women’s fitness and adventure space.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, the short of it is, that I come from a long line of hard-headed, convention-busting, southern women, and theirs are the shoulders on which I stand. I grew up in a small town in South Carolina in a family that had surprisingly “liberal” views about what little girls could and should do. So, I played a LOT of sports, all the way through high school and all the way through college, not a typical path for a southern girl.
In fact, I was amongst the first cohort of women that went all the way through high school and through college with Title IX in effect. Title IX was the piece of legislation that required all schools to provide equal opportunity for girls and women to compete in sports. Lucky me!
But during all of my years competing in interscholastic sports, I never once competed in apparel built for women. We would wear men’s shoes and uniforms…even the first sports bra was two jock straps sewn together! Once I completed college, I knew that I wanted to start a sports apparel business where women were at the center of that business. And so Title Nine was born, the very first company to design, manufacture and sell sports and fitness apparel for women.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Early on (and later too), money was tight, and the tighter the money would get, the lonelier I would feel. What I didn’t realize was that there are all kinds of “banks” but I needed to be willing to ask for help. Turns out that over the years, some of our most reliable “banks” have been our suppliers. On more than one occasion the solution to our cash crunch has just been a phone call away. I just needed to be willing to pick up the phone. Often, on the other end of the line, there was not just cash but also comfort, care and camaraderie.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
“Fail faster to succeed sooner.”
Especially in the early stages of a new enterprise, I have to continually remind myself to get to my first failure quickly because that is when the learning starts. When I first started Title Nine, lots of “experts” told me that I would need to raise at least half a million dollars before I could do a retail start-up. I didn’t have $500k nor did I have “friends and family” that had a $500k. Instead I just started in the fastest and cheapest way that I could. I printed a small flyer featuring women’s athletic apparel and sent it out to all the sporty women I knew. The mistakes weren’t as costly and the learnings were invaluable.
“There are 3 characteristics of every successful entrepreneur: persistence, persistence and persistence.” And, in fact, someone did tell me this: Gary Erickson, the founder of ClifBar. When we are going through challenging times at Title Nine, I remind myself that all we need to do is persist. That one bit of advice has gotten us through every company challenge we have faced.
“Business, at its highest and best, is a team sport. Choose your teammates and your coach wisely. Your success depends on it.”
I have spent my entire career trying to replicate the deep bonds and unanimity of purpose that I experienced on my college basketball team. When we navigated the Title Nine flood back in 2001 (see above) or we climbed out of a big business downturn in 2014, we were much, much greater than the sum of our parts. And when we were successful, we were all able to savor that success together.
“Momentum cures all ills.”
This is a mountain biking metaphor but it applies as well to business. I can’t count the number of times that if I had just committed a little more, gone a little faster or a little harder, well my momentum would have just taken me right over that tricky spot on the trail or at work.
“There is no such thing as work-life balance.”
To do something really great, whether in work or in your family or your community, it requires full focus and attention, no half measures. But, neither work nor family require greatness everyday or every week. At certain points in my family life, my family has required a lot of my time and attention, and I have happily given it. At other points, Title Nine has demanded my full focus and I have given it freely, knowing that the pendulum will swing back.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Make sure that you have people and activities in your life, other than work, that bring you joy. Then build that into your day, everyday. Exercising outdoors brings me both joy and peace, so I bike commute to work everyday, rain or shine. It is built into my workday, and insures that I arrive both at work and at home in a good state of mind.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many great mentors and leaders who have given me a leg-up in the world. Of course, everyday, I am learning from my co-workers, and I am grateful that they are patient with my learning curve.
Kathy Delaney-Smith is the Harvard basketball head coach and my first boss. She taught me that it is possible to wear the mantle of leadership lightly.
Diann Nestel was my college basketball coach and is a living reminder that the TEAM is always bigger than ME.
And of course, my parents both of whom raised me not to care too much about what others might think of me. This is a great and too-rare gift for any young girl.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
The continuing goal I have is to be the leader that Title Nine needs me to be now and also the parent that my children need me to be now.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
That Title Nine has helped and will continue to help move women’s movement forward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
The most important way I spend my time is to encourage women to lead and risk and own. Now more than ever, we need women running for elected office at the local, state and federal levels. At Title Nine, we are supporting She Should Run, in their efforts to get 250,000 women running for one of the 500,000 elected offices in the U. S.
To all those women reading this article… you should run for a local office in your community!