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‘We are that vehicle for change to create a more equal future in athletics’: Q&A With Natalie White, Moolah Kicks Founder and Boston College Alum

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Moolah Kicks Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“Women’s feet are different from men’s in five places,” Natalie White (BC ‘20) explains to me, as she holds up a pair of Moolah Kicks sneakers. Makes sense to me, I think. It’s why we have women’s running sneakers and men’s running sneakers — having the right shoes for intense athletic activity presumably keeps you safe from risk of injury.

And yet, there aren’t shoes that are specifically made for women’s basketball players on a consistent basis. Recognizing that there was an opportunity to step up and make some change in the landscape of women’s basketball, White created Moolah Kicks, a performance basketball brand focused on creating sneakers for women’s basketball players. In manufacturing only women’s basketball sneakers, she also sends a subtle message that women’s basketball is going to be prioritized.

When we heard about Moolah Kicks back in April 2021, we knew that we wanted to talk with Natalie and hear all about the business. So we sat down with her at the beginning of October and spoke about why & how she created Moolah Kicks, what it was like starting a business during a global pandemic, and what’s next for the brand.

Natalie’s story and rationale for creating Moolah Kicks is more important than ever as we move into an era where women’s sports are prioritized and supported, and aren’t looked at as second to men’s sports.

To start, tell me a little bit more about yourself!

I’m someone that has always been really passionate for equality. I grew up in New York City, where I think I was really tuned into so many different cultures and [saw] so many different areas of life. I’ve always been a sports head, I’ve always been a sneakerhead, from the time I was wearing Jordans in the 7th grade! I had the Air 1’s — I’ll never forget some of my first pieces of my sneaker collection. I’ve always loved sneakers, I’ve always loved sports, and I’ve always been passionate about equality and started to learn about it from an early age.

I went to BC [and] I studied finance — once again, I loved numbers, and everything really came together and it made so much sense for me to start this brand and start this business, and I have to say that at this point, I feel like I’ve lived the business, my life is the business. Who I am outside of it is exactly who I am inside of it too.

What drove you to start Moolah Kicks?

Being at BC and being so involved with women’s basketball there — whether it was managing the varsity team or playing on the club team — I wanted to stop complaining about the differences in treatment and opportunity in fans, and do something about it. And I feel like there are so many bodies and accounts that are drawing attention to the problems, but there’s not too many people who are all-hands-on-deck ready to solve it or ready to create progress around it. So I founded Moolah Kicks because not only is there a lack of opportunity, but [also] it stems from the fact that women’s basketball doesn’t have anyone that prioritizes them first. Whether it’s the NCAA, whether it’s schools, whether it’s brands and tournaments, it’s always a men’s basketball focus — and then throw a ‘W’ on it for the women’s tournament. And [it’s] “let them play before, let them play after” — that’s how it is, right? “Let them play.” But the boys are the main event.

And part of why women’s basketball continues to struggle is that’s how it’s been set up! With Moolah Kicks we’re making sneakers that are created specifically for female basketball players, but we’re doing so much more than that. Because when we are focused on women’s basketball, we are sending this message that women’s hoops is a priority. It’s not to be seen as JV, it’s not to be seen as a warmup. When you focus on it, we’re going to end up separating it from men’s basketball and kind of taking the cap off and showing how much it can grow.

Because before of course, we saw that people would see men’s basketball as varsity and women’s as JV – and as you know, it’s hard to grow when you have that cap of “oh, it’s never going to be men’s basketball.” We’re always comparing it. But when you move it to the side, which is what we’re able to do by focusing on it, we take that cap off and are ready to show the world and ourselves just how impactful women’s basketball can be.

What’s the story behind your brand’s name?

The name is slang for money, of course. Growing up in NYC, street culture and street basketball is the cornerstone of basketball culture. So it was really important that the brand name was slang to signify and put a positive reflection on the street culture that’s Rucker, Dyckman, West Fourth. And then the money aspect is — the meaning of the slang — signifies that through this brand there are going to be more financial opportunities for women in sports.

What was it like starting a business during the pandemic?

It was crazy! I actually used the money that I got from the housing refund to start the business, and starting [it] during Covid was a blessing in disguise because I think it really made me feel like I had an opportunity to take a shot at this with not as much risk for some reason. It felt like, “hey, I’m going to be at home for the next year or whatever it was, and so are all of my friends.” I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything, and a lot of high up people in the footwear industry were very accessible because everyone’s so comfortable on Zoom. I remember I met the CEO of Reebok I think one month into starting the business over Zoom, and that was in May of 2020 that I met with him. I remember having all of this exposure to executives across the footwear industry at such an early time in the business, and I think having those strong mentors is really what helped us get our foot in this industry that typically has such high barriers to entry.

So yeah, starting it in Covid — everything is a double edged sword right? So it was really good for some reasons, it was really challenging with supply chain issues and remains to be challenging with supply chain and travel and events that we can do. But overall I think a lot of the things we were able to pull off was because people were so accessible.

Your site mentions that you left investment banking to start Moolah Kicks. What was that transition like?

It was great. I mean, it was terrific. I think — of course I miss the pay. You know, I don’t make any money, I haven’t been paid in two years. We do have employees that are going to start making some money, but you miss that. However I feel every day that I’m doing something I care about and fighting to make a difference in the world of women’s basketball and women’s sports.

I feel like going from investment banking to starting your own business, you are ready to work. So at least I thought I’d come over and be like “oh, if I start my own business it won’t be as hectic, it won’t be as many hours as investment banking,” and I was totally wrong. It is just as many hours — you and I are doing this interview on a Saturday, I was working anyway — but for me it was the perfect switch to make. And there are ups and downs — when you’re doing something you’re passionate about it’s the best days of your life and the worst. Because something goes wrong and it feels like your world is crashing down, and if you have something hit all of a sudden the business and your life feels completely different. Because you’re giving everything to this brand versus working for someone else where you’re able to keep more of a steady pace.

How did attending BC prepare you to start your own business?

BC prepared me in the best way. I went to CSOM, and I felt as if what you need to be an entrepreneur is to be a generalist. And that’s exactly what the education at BC gave me. I took as many art classes as I did finance — that’s a fun fact about me, I guess — and I had exposure to marketing, operations, all of these different disciplines, and I have needed to tap on every single one when I was building this business.

What was the process of creating your brand like? How long was it from getting the idea to getting the shoes on the market?

From idea to market — it took two years. And 18 months of those two years were basically done on research and design myself, and networking, and pitching, pitching, pitching. I had to pitch to factories, I had to pitch to investors, to business partners, to everyone. And I’ve gotten a lot of no’s, but I’ve also gotten a lot of people that have really stood behind this brand and really gone above and beyond and said “I’m really excited about what you’re doing, it’s incredible, it’s definitely going to make a difference and I’m here with you.” So I feel like throughout the two years I’ve kind of built a little army of Moolah fans that have been able to put us in the position that we are today. For big brands it typically takes 18 months from the start to finish of a sneaker. So for us to do it in 18 months when it was myself and our head of design is really crazy. It just means there’s a lot of hours going on behind the scenes.

Can you talk a little bit more about the box design you chose for the sneakers?

Courtesy of Natalie White

So basically with the box, it is a visual representation of how everything we do is poised towards creating a bigger future for women’s basketball. The box itself shows the experience that you and I had connected on earlier, where women’s basketball isn’t as celebrated as men’s basketball.

[Author’s note: We spoke prior to the interview about the disparity in attendance between men’s and women’s sports at BC, specifically highlighting women’s basketball and women’s hockey.]

And so you can see the difference in attendance in 2019 at the men’s versus the women’s games, where in the blue is how many people showed up to NCAA men’s games and the yellow is how many people showed up to the women’s. It’s about 30% [to the women’s game]. And on the inside of the box, you get a different picture. You get a picture of what the stands will be like as Moolah grows and as women’s basketball grows and the following behind it grows. Of course you have a message from me [at the top] to all the players, because all of this is only possible because of our women’s athletes but inside the box you have this packed crowd surrounding a little Moolah-sponsored court signifying that the next time people take the stands this is what we’re fighting for. So we have a little bit of reality on the outside of the box, but opening it up and picking up the sneakers you see the goal of the packed stands inside.

How did you come up with the design?

I think in every area of the product, it’s been well thought out and very intentional. And the box is no different. For the box I knew this is an area to make a statement, but to be a little bit subtle about it. And that’s what’s really important about it — we are that vehicle for change to create a more equal future in athletics. But we don’t necessarily have to write it on everything we do because even the box is this message experience that is showing where we are and where we’re going. So in terms of how I thought of it, I think it just felt like the perfect representation of what our brand ethos is.

Now, the sneakers themselves — what differentiates them from the sneakers that women’s basketball players usually wear?

So right now, all women’s basketball players are wearing sneakers for men that are either labeled men’s or unisex. The difference is actually on the inside of the sneaker. So the inside of sneakers are made on things called lasts — basically, the materials on a production line are pulled over the top and then the bottom is glued on. Women’s feet are different [from] men’s in five places, and when women are wearing men’s basketball sneakers they’re wearing sneakers that have a men’s foot shape on the inside. And so what I always say is that for one game it doesn’t really make a difference; to walk to TJ Maxx it doesn’t make a difference. But to play a whole season in equipment that’s not fit for your body ends up actually changing the way you run and changing the way your feet and your mechanics are supported. So that’s what we see leading to and contributing to knee, ankle, and leg injuries so frequently.

Brands have tried [to make women’s basketball sneakers], and [they] have definitely dipped a toe in the water, but going back to that fact that no one prioritizes it. Nike had the Sheryl Swoopes in 1998, adidas came out with a couple of women’s models and so did Under Armour, but nothing consistent year over year focused on women’s basketball. And also those brands are generalist as well — they’re for all sports, all genders, all abilities and they are not laser focused on any particular segment, when women’s basketball needs that laser focus since it’s such a specific need on the foot and on the court.

Moolah Kicks Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

What has the support been like from the women’s basketball community? And from the BC community?

It’s been terrific. It is what keeps me really motivated day in and day out because I bring these to the courts in New York, people are excited; we had a great presale showing, people are excited to try them on, they put them on and they say, “wow, I can’t believe the difference in feeling.” And players have gotten really behind it, people from BC have shown me tremendous support; I feel like the entire BC community has been terrific in terms of sharing our story, doing interviews, doing anything they can do, and it’s been beyond encouraging.

You did a feature earlier this summer about being a queer business owner, and women’s basketball stands out as a sport that is accepting of different sexualities and gender identities — how does that play into your goals as a young queer basketball business owner?

I think it fits well! It’s so important that we represent the community that we serve, and women’s basketball is really the intersection of so many identities — gender, racial, and LGBTQ+ identities and issues and social causes that we can kind of push for as a group. So I feel — I’m glad that I get to represent two out of those three intersections and of course lean on my counterparts and everyone else on my team to make sure our messaging is inclusive and doing nothing but continuing to uplift this women’s basketball community that we’re so excited about.

But I think it’s also just a testament to being an authentic by-and-for women’s basketball brand, because for a while women’s basketball players — even WNBA players — had to act straight or act a certain way and we’re an example of saying, “hey, that time is over.” We’re not going to pretend to be anybody that we’re not. And so for me, it means a lot to be able to be authentically myself and say yeah, I’m out, I’m gay, and be someone that serves as an example for the younger generation who’s buying the shoes, who wants to see a woman like them create positive impact and just be themselves.

Pivoting a bit, what advice do you have for other college students looking to start their own businesses?

To study as much as they can. Just to really pay attention in all of your classes and put 100% into everything you do because so much of what I learned at BC really stuck with me, and I took BC as a time to just learn and soak in as much as I could. I think that has really paid off as I was starting my own business.

And now, for something fun: if you could design a signature shoe with any player, who would it be?

We have a lot of signature sneakers that are in the pipeline for the future, so we’re not dropping any names yet, but we have some good players in the mix!

What about as a complete hypothetical — if you, as just Natalie, could design a shoe with any player?

As Natalie? I feel that Skylar Diggins, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, one of the greats for sure. There’s so many players in the W right now, it’s going to be hard to pick the first, that’s for sure.

So, what’s next for Moolah Kicks?

Next for Moolah Kicks is — we just entered into an exclusive partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods, and we’re going to be in 150 stores this upcoming season, including in Massachusetts at the Natick Mall! So that’s really exciting and we have a very large opening order and we’re excited to partner with Dick’s Sporting Goods to make it happen. We will be on shelves this fall!

A HUGE thank you to Natalie for sitting down with us! We are so excited to see Moolah Kicks on shelves at Dick’s Sporting Goods this fall and have the opportunity to buy a pair and some incredible merch! To our readers, we’ll keep you posted on when and where you can buy Moolah Kicks as they become available.