Today on Creators + GoodThin.gs I catch up with Sarah Sukumaran, Founder of Lillith, designed for womxn, desired by everybody. We talk about how Queens, Nike and Sneakers has made her the woman she is today and how she's helping to shift the narrative.
For those unfamiliar with you, tell us who are and what GoodThings you create.
My name is Sarah, I was born and raised in Elmhurst, Queens, New York, and still reside in Queens. I’ve spent most of my career in the tech startup world, primarily in the e-commerce analytics space. I have a business degree, but ended up pursuing a more technical career having learned to code on the job and becoming more and more technical as my career progressed. So in 2016 I was Head of Product at Jirafe, a merchandising analytics company that analyzed data from storefronts on BigCommerce, Shopify, Magento, and SAP Hybris. Head of Product or more broadly, product management, means that I oversee the design and product development of the software, how it looks and how users will interact with that interface or in our case, the reporting dashboard experience. I always like to clarify that because some folx assume that I work with physical products, especially in my most recent role at Nike.
Jirafe was acquired by SAP, a large enterprise tech company based out of Germany. I continued to work at SAP for three years, traveling frequently to London and Munich but was still working on the same Jirafe product offering and had an itch to work on something new. Then I had actually gotten a call from Nike to come work on their team, which was really out of the blue but super exciting for me. Nike had just acquired a new predictive analytics company (it predicted future cash flow for Nike) and needed a Director of Product to come onboard and redesign the platform for Nike’s internal users. And for me, that was a dream job, because growing up in Queens, sneaker culture was very much Queens culture.
I was a bit of a tomboy and kind of just hung out with the guys and was always super excited to see what they had on their feet; they were the ones who always had the flashy, high heat footwear. And for me, I was really in love with the AirMax lines - AirMax+, AirMax 95, AirMax97+, etc. But despite my love of sneakers, I never imagined pursuing a career that would bridge that interest. To be honest, I don't think I even knew how to pursue or break into footwear. My career choices the last 10 years were really centered on ROI - what jobs were going to help me pay down my student loan debt and my family’s debt and make sure they’re okay for retirement. Tech wasn't a passion but it def paid the bills. When Nike called I thought, OK, this is awesome. I can work on my shared interests in data and tech, as well as footwear. They said they wanted someone who had the startup experience of managing lean teams and who could move quick. So I jumped at the opportunity. I was actually interviewing at Bloomberg at the time, too, so I had these two very different job offers in my hands. Bloomberg required business casual so the decision was easy, especially since I was coming out of the startup world where I lived in jeans and hoodies. Nike just made sense for me at the time.
And that was a whirlwind experience, because as soon as I joined, I was on a flight out to Portland, to meet all of the teams that would be using this platform. So I really hit the ground running. And that was an exciting two years. But very early on, I got the sense that I was moving too fast for Nike. Like literally they told me you're moving too fast because I started shipping product after the first three months. And I think it kind of scared some of the internal teams because that put the spotlight on them to move quicker. Something to keep in mind is that Nike had just announced their consumer direct offense in 2017.
Yea they are definitely more about the story of the athlete.
That's right. They are amazing at storytelling. That's where they excel. I think my colleagues were certainly apprehensive when my team approached them with our data/platform - I got the vibe some felt their jobs might be at risk or they would be ‘automated away’. It’s interesting because I was recruited under the pretense my team would be able to move quickly and operate without red tape yet we received pushback time and time again. And now, if you listen to their earnings call, they now talk about their accelerated consumer offense.
The signs to leave were there early on but I genuinely wanted to stick around - I was used to jumping jobs every two years the way us tech folks do and wanted something more long term. But as time went on I found it increasingly hard to reconcile I was being under-utilized. Maybe I just thrive on startup chaos. And all this time, I was still in disbelief on how womxn consumers continued to be overlooked. I can talk a little bit about that if that's helpful?
Yea I think that's a great pivot, because there is so much happening with women in sneakers right now. Talk to me about that.
Yea so, as a sneaker consumer, over the years, I've always had to either shop in the men's section or brands told me to shop grade school (GS) sizes. And unfortunately, when a high heat sneaker drops, it drops in a men's 7, which is a womxn's 9, which cuts out a fairly large group of womxn. If we want to get a Travis Scott drop, or if we just want an AJ1, in a special colorway, it's usually impossible. I'm literally shopping in the kid’s section. And the problem with that is, performance tooling is completely stripped out for kids (understandably since they’re feet are constantly growing). But you're telling grown ass womxn to shop in GS sizes if they want a high heat colorway/drop? It’s disrespectful. Womxn are literally shopping/wearing kid’s sneakers that have no built-in support for their feet.
Yea the tooling for kids make sense, but the colorway selection for women hasn't been that great.
Exactly! Like the colorways - they just pink it and shrink it to start. There's glitter. There's zippers. I have a pair of AJ1 Rebels and I do not know why there is a zipper on it? Zipper has since broken. But that's what they put out for womxn; it's all the bells and whistles that we didn't ask for. And so that's always been my struggle. I also started shopping in the men's section at an early age. I had a bit of a growth spurt. And I’d be immediately attracted to the men’s Finishline window when the latest AirMax+ would come out, but I would never be drawn to the hyper femme styles. And I had always had that feeling of like shit. Why are they not giving us footwear that we want? I actually wear a lot of New Balance because I feel New Balance embraced a lot of the gender neutral colorways, super comfortable for my flat feet.
I saw that as an opportunity for me to focus on issues ranging from sizing, colorways, performance etc. while Nike is looking at men's yoga.
LOL. I'm laughing because I'm actually wearing Nike Yoga right now and they are really comfortable, but it's one of those things where I don't know that I ever needed it, but thank you Nike.
Exactly and again, it's them positioning themselves as a competitor for Lululemon. It's smart, but why aren't we doubling down on womxn's footwear? Massive opportunity there. And that's when I finally decided to talk to my manager about leaving. He totally got that I was frustrated at our slow pace and overall being underutilized. And I said, OK, I'm going to work on this full time, inspired largely by a group of womxn that belong to this network called Chief. I pitched the idea to them one night and they ALL started airing their footwear grievances to me. So that’s when I thought maybe this idea has legs, let me start putting together a pitch deck, just to get my ideas down, with the hope of moving towards something, anything!
Yeah. That's divine in the sense that one thing ends and another begins. So talk to me about that, like how the idea for Lilith really sort of developed from this moment within Chief, and leading up to you realizing that was what you were going to focus on full time.
Yeah. So I felt the stars were really aligned that night. Everyone was super supportive. I ran into a woman in the bathroom at Chief and we just started talking kicks because she just got back from a run. And I gave her the high level and she just got it and was willing to put me in contact with VC firms. She started making intros super early on. Literally, just to get me in front of people. I started actively having conversations and putting it out in the world to see, does this have legs? What's the feedback that I'm getting? Got a lot of positive feedback, but I think the biggest thing was people were wanting to see the footwear designs and the brand ethos. I'm not a marketing person. I'm such a data person. So when I talk, it's very rational and to the point and the deck was rooted in a ton of data. But they said we want to see the vision. Where are you going with this? What’s the ethos? But I later abandoned the idea of fundraising and am currently bootstrapping.
So how has that development process looked like, both on the product and branding side, because I understand you're aiming for a 2021 launch, correct?
I met Jeff (Henderson) because someone at Chief mentioned I should talk to her business school friend who had worked in footwear development. That friend had worked for Nike but unfortunately was out of the industry for some time. But she suggested I connect with her old colleague Jeff who was actually in NYC and said he’d be best to guide me in the right direction.
So I met Jeff in Harlem with the hope of hiring his design firm - &Them - to assist with the footwear development process. I actually had my VC pitch deck with me, ran through it with him, and he quickly realized there was an opportunity there. I was there pitching him to take on my project and at the end of it, he was pitching me so he could come on board as an advisor! He also told me that he wasn’t comfortable being involved unless I was no longer full-time at Nike. So I would say March or so, he linked me up with Sara Jaramillo. She's awesome, because I was so anxious going into the process. I know nothing about footwear development, tooling, uppers. And she was very thorough about the process. She's like, don't worry, we'll get there. We'll get there. You have to trust the process is what I learned, especially with creative work.
But yeah, it's been good and stressful. So far we have the branding done. The footwear designs are done. We're waiting for the first sample to come back from the factory, as trips to the factory are off the table at the moment given travel restrictions. So that's kind of where we are now.
Nice, so you said the name - Lilith - is inspired by your sister, tell me more about that.
So my sister had told me about Lilith 5 years ago when I first had the idea of doing something in the footwear space. Lilith was known as Adam's first wife, who was written out of history by male scholars because she chose not to be submissive to man. She was subsequently demonized as a baby snatcher, night monster; basically a night hag is what I think is what Lilith translates to. I thought it was a great name and reference, considering how womxn are treated in the footwear industry, both internally, as employees, and as consumers; womxn are often overlooked and always asked to compromise. When it comes to quality, when it comes to colorways, when it comes to fit, you have to either choose performance or choose style. I also liked the Lilith occult/astrology connection which we’ve tied to some of the other brand influences that consumers will see.
Wow first of all I've never known this back story... But that is a powerful story and translates well in this industry. So what can women expect in terms of product? I know you don't plan to compromise, but are you developing for more of a lifestyle category, or more performance driven offerings?
Yeah. So I think for me, I've always wanted to find a way where you can have a fashion forward shoe that has built-in performance largely driven by feedback that I received from a lot of womxn. They wanted the performance and comfort of a Brooks or an Asics, but not necessarily that performance, running shoe aesthetic. Because I love my Brooks, but they're neon, mesh, a bit garish - they don’t transition well if you’re in the office, running errands or want to grab dinner with your friends.
With more mass market consumers, we’re seeing a trend towards embracing more of a minimalist shoe, but I wanted to still focus on the womxn sneakerhead consumer which allows us to be bold in our choices. I had this idea to do custom tooling, but the overhead expense and time on that is massive. So Jeff suggested looking at Vibram tooling especially since they set the bar when it comes to performance and durability. And what I love about working with Vibram is that we're finally being able to introduce a level of performance that men have enjoyed, to womxn now. This type of tooling or technology typically gets stripped out for womxn’s footwear. Not sure if they think womxn consumers aren't paying attention to materials but that notion couldn't be further from the truth.
This is an early mockup iteration we did on Sphike RGS tooling. Our designs and tooling have since evolved and we’ll share more in the coming weeks and months. But interesting to note that the designs resonate across genders.
Yea Sara did let me know you are using Vibram outsoles, but just understanding the design aspect of it, it just makes sense because it's high quality tooling that is already available. And you can really kind of explore their archives without needing to put too much into the research and development. So do you feel as though. If you did not spend that time at Nike and really get to have that perspective of the data that you would be in footwear today, or do you think that you would exist in another industry?
No, I think that definitely precipitated that jump, because five years ago when I first had the idea, I felt I wasn't ready. I knew nothing of the footwear dev space. I'm not a sneakerhead type that's always posting my kicks nor do I have a large social media presence, I'm not known in the sneaker community. There's a lot of womxn with recognizable names. I’ve always been a more behind the scenes person. But having Nike on my resume, helped validate not just my understanding of the industry, but it became a credibility thing for those already in the sneaker space. For me, it gave me the confidence to actually make the founder leap because so many of my early assumptions about the womxn’s footwear space were being validated.
So to shift a bit, how has your identity as a Tamil womxn shaped how LILITH shows up in the world or how you introduce it to the world?
I identify as Tamil and regarding politics, I’d say I’ve always been that political activist friend. I've been going to protests since I was 13 but looking back, all of my friends, white AND brown have always dismissed my activism and politics thinking they were just my schtick. Something that Sarah does. For me being a Tamil womxn in itself is a radical thing and I think it was probably during my teen years where I really began exploring what it meant to be Tamil, the daughter of refugees and how this all defined my politics.
This year was a moment where I think some of my friends had to wake the fuck up because they've been asleep at the wheel. They've always dismissed vocal folx like myself with a “that's her thing”. They've never questioned, hell they’ve never asked about my own history and how my parents got here. They've never asked about how undocumented brown folx are routinely policed and harassed at the Jackson Heights subway station. They’ve been indulging in all their own privilege. And so in June, I went off on Instagram and I told my white friends, you all need to step the hell up and start speaking out because this is your problem.
And to your question of how LILITH shows up in the world, this is it. It’s not shying away from being political. I told my brand team, we need to think about how we show up as a brand and what is our political stance, because I'm not wavering. I shared that we need to be very clear about that from day one and be unapologetic about it, because that's how I've always been. But when you work a 9-5 there’s always that fear of how openly you can express your politics. More than ever, as a brand, people are going to rightfully hold you accountable. The murder of George Floyd. You have Breonna Taylor. You have Black bodies being murdered at the hands of a police state and everyone is only speaking up because of the fucking black box that they started putting up. Where have you been the last 20 plus years? So again, I feel this has always been top of mind, for brown and Black folks. But I think white folks are in the midst of a reckoning.
Oh, absolutely. Do you feel like your mission and your vision has taken even a more political stance, in a good way, in which you feel that importance of putting this idea out in the world and more so just that messaging? Especially with consumers now and our access to information, like if we don't f*ck with you, like it's just not going to happen. Information is is too abundant for us to find something out that goes against our own beliefs and values, and then to turn around and have six different options to choose from. And certainly people that understand the undertones of capitalism understand it as well - that you're voting with your dollars and feel like a majority of consumers are beginning to realize this. Right. In addition to like actually voting, and the importance around that.
100%! But yeah, just the framing of that was is it more important for you now because of the times, and something that has always been top of mind for some folks, but this has to be a part of the DNA of the brand, and it has to be explicitly said.
Yeah. So I think in the beginning I had always envisioned introducing the brand in a way that felt 180° of how I was seeing footwear brands or brands in general show up in the world. For example, the fact that it’s 2020 and we still rarely see Black and brown models be the center of a campaign.
But what’s top of mind is how we show up politically, because you know, when you see brand voices today, they avoid the conversation. A founder’s Instagram might talk about politics, but the brand’s Instagram completely avoids it. So that, I think has changed the dynamic, and how do we bring up these subjects that are so important and make sure that there is no difference to brand content and it’s very seamless. Right? Like, it shouldn't be like, oh, something happened today and now I'm posting about it. It should be part of the ongoing conversation. It should be part of the storytelling. So the people we profile, the people we have as models, that's going to be part of the content storytelling. LILITH NYC was born in the year of COVID and a renewed call for racial justice. So you know, I grew up in Queens. I grew up in Elmhurst, which was the epicenter for COVID. We had like the refrigerated morgue truck early March and April. Like that is very much a part of a trauma that's happened in Queens and the storytelling around who's been affected is incredibly important. Our community made up a large portion of frontline workers. Same with the Black Lives Matter movement - making sure that this is always a part of the conversation.
I finally feel like I have the ability to be unapologetic about it because I've always been making noise but folx didn’t pay attention then. But now everyone's like “Sarah, let me get your thoughts on X, Y and Z”. I think even in the footwear industry of how there was a meeting on Juneteenth where Dwayne Edwards from Pensole brought together Black and brown folks who work in the footwear industry, like how are we going to change year after year so this isn’t a one-time convo?
Yea I participated in that call. It was refreshing to see!
Oh, you were on it, OK? Yeah, and it's amazing to me, like the New York office for Nike is hella diverse, but if you go to Portland, it's completely different. But I feel like the more we talk about it and normalize it, the better it is for all of us. Right?
Yeah. You took me back to my corporate past, and those positions I've held. It's been 4 years but I was the "bad culture fit" within a very white male dominated and borderline religious organization, because I spoke out about things.
And it's unfortunate because I feel like, you know, again and again, we have this conversation about sneaker culture existing because of Black culture. Right. But if you look at who's actually making the money at the top, like all of VPs and Directors at these companies are all white. Some have now shuffled their company leadership but their junior positions are still predominantly made up of that are Black and brown folx. They are not in key decision-making roles. And there's no effort to make sure people are on a path to VP. VPs enjoy a long tenured career which means they’re not opening up roles for Black and brown folx. This summer we saw brands put on blast for all their discriminatory practices but it was all swept under the rug. They use Black celebs and athletes like Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick to deflect the conversation happening internally. But if you pull that all back, it's no better than what's happening in this country.
Yeah! That's a whole deeper conversation but corporate politics and, you know, actual politics drastically mirror each other.
Right! And they need to be aired out, all of them. That's what upsets me, is that despite everything that's happened, despite our conversation on Juneteenth, I have yet to see any progress. There are financial commitments being made but we need more Black and brown folx in leadership roles. Most of these brands are going through rounds of layoffs so that just further extends the time in which we’ll see any true in-house change. But I was excited about Adidas' S.E.E.D program because it’s centered on training Black womxn designers particularly because I see that as an opportunity for LILITH to hire these designers and make sure there's a pipeline there.
Yeah, it's a great program, and I'm happy to see it continue to grow, but there are some aspects about the program that are still part of the problem, but you can recognize that they are trying and slowly shifting the narrative with these initiatives. But I think it's a great program. I think what they're doing with it is amazing and it's really just access. Access to information and access to skillset, access to resources, access to networks and hopefully a job network, because I think that's most important. Because even with Pensole I think that's sort of like where you're at the moment. It's like what's going to happen with these women and folks after they finish these programs? Because there's only so much you can control, and the education aspect is just phase 1.
So there's another creator. She's a global apparel designer at Timberland, Alicia Pinckney. She was actually on the call on Juneteenth as well. She's freaking amazing, her design work for Timberland is amazing, and she just started a program called the Black Talent in Design & Fashion Fund providing scholarships to Black designers largely motivated by how scholarships were a huge support during her time in school. I think she's raised enough now to support beyond the initial five students. She left that call really inspired to find a way to support folx still in school. LILITH is a sponsor and my hope is to find a way that supports the fund more long-term. But yea she's awesome. Check out her work.
Yeah, for sure! There's a lot of dope women doing some amazing things in Sneakers, when you think about women like Jazerai Allen-Lord, and Jourdan Ash, who recently started the True To Us platform. It's the perfect time where women are just fed up and now are creating the change they want to see! They've been interested in sneakers for decades, and have always been put into this "pink box" (No not SBs) , essentially. And now as design is evolving, access and proper representation, specifically for women is not really on par with that. So I appreciate all the women doing what they can to create these platforms and these narratives that are needed. And we're very much looking forward to Lillith in the market!