- Nike isn’t known for spurring entrepreneurial activity, but that’s changing.
- Numerous Nike veterans, many with decades of experience, have started businesses in recent years.
- They include footwear and apparel brands, as well as candle companies and a cremation business.
Nike cofounder Phil Knight’s best-selling memoir, “Shoe Dog,” focuses on the company’s scrappy, underdog, and entrepreneurial roots.
Knight and Bill Bowerman launched Nike with a handshake, a tale known by all Nike employees. The waffle iron Bowerman used to invent Nike’s iconic waffle shoe is even on display in the company’s museum.
“Nike is the quintessential entrepreneurial company,” the 14-year Nike veteran Kate Delhagen, who now works as an
, said. “It was founded by Phil, who is entrepreneurial at his heart. That spirit blows through the company. A lot of us channel Phil’s lesson: $50 and a handshake, let’s go. Pour some ingredients in a mold and see if it works.”
Delhagen is among several Nike veterans who founded companies in recent years. They’re trying to disrupt everything from traditional Nike categories like workout apparel to industries like funeral services.
Knight is even getting in on the action. While he remains Nike’s chair emeritus, he helped launch a company last year that provides name, image, and likeness services for varsity athletes at the University of Oregon, his beloved alma mater.
Delhagen pointed to several factors driving the surge in entrepreneurial activity, starting with Nike’s stock-market ascendancy. Founders often struggle to find startup capital, but their Nike shares, which doubled the market’s gain in the past decade, have given many former executives enough of a financial cushion to self-fund months, or even years, of a new venture.
In addition to financial capital, former Nike executives have enviable social capital, with thick Rolodexes of former colleagues and business partners. Several recent founders have hired other former Nike executives for important roles atop blooming organizational charts.
The founders and new hires include some former Nike employees who were let go in recent rounds of layoffs.
“There are so many good people out there that have forgotten more about this business than a lot of people know,” Aaron Miller, an 18-year Nike veteran and founder of SoleWorks, said. “They’re just a phone call or a coffee away. Three years ago, five years ago, there was no way you were going to get that kind of knowledge on the street.”
A final factor: Nike has gotten so big that it’s focusing its energy on the biggest ideas in its sights, things like the metaverse and film development. On a Monday earnings call, CEO John Donahoe mentioned a sustainable fabric in development that “could do for apparel what Flyknit did for footwear.” Flyknit hit $1 billion in sales in five years.
“If you can’t create a $1 billion business, it’s just not worth the squeeze for them,” Delhagen said. “There’s a lot of stuff you can do between $0 and $500 million.”
Here are 14 companies started recently by Nike veterans. The founders also give advice for those considering making the jump from the safety of a Fortune 100 to the high wire of running a startup.