In Latin, the word ‘vis’ means power. It’s also etymologically linked to the word ‘visibility’—both of which former Nike executive Stefanie Strack wants to give the female athlete community through her startup, Voice in Sport—VIS for short. The community-centric website for girls and young women, ages 13-22, will feature educational content, offer digital mentorship programs and do advocacy work to address gender disparities within sport.
Strack serves as the face of her company as it launches, but she didn’t build it alone. Though she did put more than of $1 million of her own money into building VIS, she also brought on 150 other women to help her launch the platform. VIS’s target audience actually makes up a large portion of the 38-year-old entrepreneur’s team, with dozens of college athletes and students amongst the young company’s ranks.
“The teen female athletes’ voice is at the center of this company [and] is a big differentiator in our approach. So I wanted that voice to be authentic. And it had to be cool. I am a female athlete but I don’t know what cool is anymore—I mean, I’m almost 40. I’m old,” Strack, a former junior Olympian and D-I college athlete, said with a laugh. “So I brought on a bunch of really smart, passionate college athletes and students who do.”
Three core groups make up the VIS team. ‘League Members’ include 90 professional and collegiate athletes who will serve as mentors for the membership-based site’s users. Current members include WNBA players Alanna Smith, Kiah Stokes and Elizabeth Williams, professional runner Mary Cain, NWSL players Imani Dorsey and Darian Jenkins, and women’s professional lacrosse star Taylor Cummings to name a few. Olympic swimmers, skiers, volleyball players and dozens of college athletes are among the others to make the early VIS ‘League Member’ mentor roster—which Strack plans to expand internationally.
There are also 30 ‘Creators’ (college athletes and/or journalism or media majors who will write the content published on the platform) and 27 ‘VIS Experts’ (professional women who work in the fields of sports nutrition, psychology, medicine and even sports journalism). VIS Experts will also contribute to the site, offering insights for the VIS user demographic.
Those users will become ‘VIS Advocates’ themselves upon joining. With the ability to customize their pages and feeds, access a number of resources, dialogue with one another and participate in VIS’s mentorship program, new members will be met with both information and a sense of empowering community support, Strack hopes.
What the collective youth of her team may lack in business experience, Strack compensates for herself. A 14-year career at Nike culminated with command of the shoe giant’s Express Lane global initiative, which worked to expedite the process of bringing products to market. She followed her time in Beaverton, Ore., with a five-month stint as CEO of Rag & Bone, a small high-end fashion brand. But even before entering the fashion industry, Strack was stewing on possible startup ideas.
“I knew I wanted it to support women, to advocate for women, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it would be,” Strack said. “I didn’t have a business plan, I just knew that my purpose has always been to advocate for women and for equality, inclusion and diversity. But I didn’t quite know what I was going to create, so I took the role at Rag & Bone.”
She left the CEO position after what the apparel company described to Women’s Wear Daily as a disagreement over strategic direction to start what is now Voice in Sport. The timing worked in her favor—coinciding with the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 2019 FIFA World Cup win. Momentum surged behind women’s sports.
“Of all the companies that have been built around sport, most are grounded in men’s sports. Under Armour with boys’ football; Adidas with men’s soccer at the epicenter; Nike with running. There was an opportunity to truly create something with the female athlete voice and community at the center. And since this is a company for women, I wanted it to be built by women, too,” Strack said of her almost-all-female team.
Her first hire, however, was actually her husband, Alan, a former Nike art director who serves as the company’s creative director—and he is the company’s only male employee. “That’s also why I’m purposely self-funding,” she said. “I really want this to be something that is owned by these athletes and funded the right way so it benefits these women in the end.”
Without private equity or corporate partner money, Strack has had to be especially cognizant of the financial decisions she makes for VIS. Paying her professional athlete participants was one of the easy ones, Strack said. Equally important to VIS—and central to its founder’s mission to benefit female athletes—was fighting the gender wage gap and offering women an additional earning opportunity.
“Self-funding says someone is very committed and believes in what they’re doing,” said George Pyne, founder and CEO of Bruin Sports Capital, a global sports and entertainment company launched in 2015. “But it also means that person is going to have to be very disciplined. If you can start a business and run it with good financial discipline early on, that’s a very good thing. The challenge with that is sometimes not being able to scale or make investments that the business requires because you’re capital constrained.”
While Strack declined to disclose the details of the financial arrangement between VIS and its professional ‘League Members,’ she confirmed the company is compensating those it can in the group and hopes to increase pay as the platform grows. Strack plans to also pay the college athlete ‘Members’ at VIS once NCAA rules allow them to receive income for their name, image and likeness; legislative changes are expected in 2021.
“Providing opportunities to female athletes to earn income and to increase their yearly salaries and help close that gap has been a goal for many of us in the professional and international circuits,” said Cummings, a two-time NCAA champion and current Women’s Professional Lacrosse League player. “Voice in Sport is one of those platforms that’s allowing us to do that.”
VIS Creators work in an internship system—the first year of which is unpaid, but paid positions are on the way once the economics can support it—while VIS Experts give their time on an unpaid advisory basis. All of the above will increase VIS’s operating costs, which is why Strack anticipates bringing on investors and corporate sponsors in the near future.
The VIS ‘League Members’ mentorship program is designed to encourage extended engagement in sports among its users by providing advice, having candid conversations and directly addressing issues related to female sport participation. Users will have to apply for access to the free platform to ensure what Strack calls a “safe and authentic community.” Strack hopes all parties will benefit, which is why she’s even bringing on ‘VIS Experts’ in fields like sports journalism to support her ‘Creators.’ Early mentors seem to see the same potential. Cummings said she was drawn to the opportunity because she can “form amongst other mentors and with this younger generation.”
“Women supporting women at all levels is something that is so crucial to the success of female sports and women in general,” she added. Also crucial are mentors like Cummings. 77% of participants in the 2019 Female Leaders in Sport survey said a lack of exposure to female role models limits girls’ sports participation. The fact that only 3.2% of sports media coverage is devoted to women’s sports, according to data from 2015, exacerbates that insufficiency. Women’s sports coverage has only increased slightly since.
Many of VIS’s pro athletes, including Cummings, have already appeared on the VIS podcast (hosted by Strack). The audio offering is part of the company’s approach to solving to the media problem: creating their own coverage.
The Voice in Sport Foundation, which Strack started in order to do additional advocacy and philanthropy work starting with supporting girls’ athletic programs in schools, is also designed to eliminate barriers. Despite progress made in recent years, participation disparities persist among genders and within different demographics. The 2018-19 National Federation of State High School Associations’ Athletics Participation Summary found that 1.1 million (or 33%) more boys played high school sports than girls. 51% of girls drop out of sport entirely by age 17.
Partners will fund the Foundation’s philanthropic efforts and keep the VIS platform free for users. With the financial runway of her personal investment, Strack has time to find “the right” sponsors, she emphasizes, while she gets the site off the ground and begins building other revenue streams (like monetizing the podcast, for example).
In addition to conversations with potential corporate or private equity backers, Strack also wants to secure two lead individual investors: one male and one female. “I think it’s really important to have men and women supporting this,” she said. “We empower young women when everyone supports them.”
“Who your investors are is really important. But I think this is probably the best time ever for companies like this to be looking,” Pyne said. “Women’s sports over time is going to continue to grow. A product geared to giving voice to women’s sports participants could be a really good opportunity because I don’t think there’s another like product out there, and there are a lot of women competing in sports today. Being an early venture in that category is exciting, and there really is something to being an early adapter in a growth category. The key will be to execute that vision.”