In the very beginning, 1972 to be precise, there was a piece of legislation, Title IX, 37 words, that paved the way for girls and women to take to the fields and courts across America. Soon those same young women stormed from the locker rooms into the world of work, busting barriers in board rooms, operating rooms, court rooms and yes, even oval rooms.
From that piece of legislation, teams were formed, careers launched, colleges reformed, markets made and businesses built. And, an idea was hatched. In the spring of 1989, Missy Park, having quickly plowed through eight or nine jobs in four post-collegiate years, realized that no one in their right mind was going to give her the job of running a company. She also noticed that no one seemed to be too interested in athletic gear specifically built for women. With those two insights, Title Nine was born in a garage in Berkeley, CA.
In the beginning, there was just Missy in her house, merchandise in her garage, a phone on her living room table, and 13,000 very bad catalogs on their way to some understandably, unresponsive customers. There was cycling gear and running shorts. There were funny-looking tights. There were even basketballs, but no tops or tees, and there were very few orders. There was an inventory-destroying flood. And, there were a lot of excess basketballs. That first mailing generated a sum total of 56 orders, only 7 of which came from folks Missy didn’t know.
But in the beginning, really by complete luck, there were also sports bras, 4 of them pictured in black and white. Those sports bras SOLD and quickly became the foundation of our soon-to-be, very fit business.We’d sell our excess inventory at rugby tournaments and race expos…a very early form of our Blowout Sales. Our first models were our friends and teammates. They were fun to work with, they knew how to do a lot of sports, and they were inexpensive. Actually, they were free. Missy even tried her hand at photography. She was cheap, but not very good. We would cram our photo shoots in on non-tournament weekends because that’s when our “models” were available.
In the beginning, Title Nine was a small group of women runners, ruggers and athletes. We didn’t know a balance sheet from a balance beam, but we were a team, and together we learned the business from the bottom up. We were the very first to believe in the crazy idea that women wanted sports gear of our own. There was no Athleta, no Lululemon, just a small group of passionate, athletic women in Berkeley working to build a business around the idea that we would change the world, if we could just get our workout in.
In the beginning and really to this day, we learned business the old fashioned way: by trying, failing, learning and trying again. It has not always been pretty, but over the years it has proved effective.Slowly, we began to see progress. We began to figure out what we liked to sell and what our customers liked to buy. We only offered products that fit into both those categories. And our customers began ordering from us in more consistent and predictable patterns.
The red ink slowly turned to black and by 1993, we were profitable for the first time. With that profit came more opportunities. In 1995, back in the days of dial-up and “You’ve Got Mail,” Title Nine was one of the first to launch a website. In 1997, we opened our first retail store, renting from a notoriously foul-mouthed curmudgeon of a landlord…more learning opportunities.
As we grew, we realized that this company we were growing could do more than just sell stuff. In the late 90s, we started using some of our profits to create opportunities for girls and women to participate in sports. We partnered with nonprofits and developed a basketball league for 4th and 5th grade girls in the Oakland public schools. T9ers coached and refereed each game and practice, eventually growing the league to 40 teams. And thus Starting Block was born.
In the 2000s, the Title Nine Olympics were launched so that we would always remember what it was like to play hard and play together with our co-workers. And we began to put on our very own races, the Title 9K, so that we could run with our customers. The aughts also brought on a retail expansion of sorts, moving from 3 stores to 23 stores over the course of a decade. The aughts brought the boom and bust of the dotcom. And, the aughts brought more competition to our little corner of the retail universe. Gap and VF Corp all piled into the category.
But, to this day, Title Nine remains the largest independently owned and operated retailer in the women’s fitness and adventure space. We are the only company owned and operated by a passionate and opinionated group of gals (and some very cool guys) who know a thing or two or 13 about sports gear and sports bras.
In 2009, we celebrated our 20th Anniversary. We are bigger than we were back in our early days. We are no longer a “catalog” company, but an omni-channel retailer with 18 stores across 9 states and a thriving ecommerce business. We sell sports bras, hundreds of thousands of ‘em, and everyday bras. We sell sports gear, and we sell everyday clothes for sporty gals.
But, as we have grown we have remained committed to the idea that Title Nine can be a petri dish for experimenting with ideas around women and work, images and media, ownership and accountability, risk and reward, conflict and collaboration, leadership and followership. These experiments are not always pretty, but they have pushed us to some of our worst and then ultimately our best places.
In the end, we at Title Nine hope to help continue the changes that were set in motion by those 37 words of Title IX.