Allyson Felix and Montse Suarez discuss the future of female investors and entrepreneurship

Olympic track star Allyson Felix and Iris Ventures founder and managing partner Montse Suarez have a story.

Earlier this year, Felix’s community-centric footwear brand Saysh secured an $8 million Series A funding round led by specialty consumer fund Iris and Athleta from Gap Inc.

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The financial boost goes towards developing e-commerce, wholesale distribution, Saysh’s product line and retail prospects, among other initiatives. Iris Ventures is the advisor to Iris Fund I FCRE, a growth equity fund for European and American consumer brands and technology solutions that strive for healthier, happier and more convenient lives.

Felix, 11 times Olympic medalist, started Saysh with her brother and business partner, Wes, after a lack of maternal health support from her former sponsor, NikeA few years ago.

At the time, during the renegotiation of his contract with Nike, she asked for a clause in the contract that the company would not reduce her salary within 12 months of giving birth, but at that time the company was not ready to offer the same protection to others female athletes. In 2019, Felix wrote an op-ed for The New York Times calling out Nike for its maternity policy.

Felix finished the competition in July, as the most decorated female Olympian in track and field.

She and Suarez discussed women’s entrepreneurship and brand building during a conversation on “Building a New Paradigm: Women Investors and Entrepreneurship” with WWD London Bureau Chief Samantha Conti at the WWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit in October.

Felix said she created Saysh out of necessity after going through “a very difficult time, when she was not supported by her sponsor as she had hoped after becoming pregnant. Felix recalled how, after a career a 14-year-old runner and competing in four Olympics, she found herself fighting for maternity protections for female athletes.While she was still determined to compete, she parted ways with her sponsor of at the time, Nike, “which then changed its policy”, and created its own company.

No matter how big that endeavor was, Felix said “the more she sat in it,” the more she realized it was an opportunity to create change instead of asking someone else. The original plan was to create shoes that Felix would wear to the Olympics. After learning that men’s lasts are often used to make women’s shoes, the focus widened to create shoes designed for women and a company that “makes them realize they are seen and valued”, said Felix.

Suarez, whose company has invested in nutraceuticals Olistic Science, Italian artisanal luxury platform Artemest, virtual fertility Apricity among other ventures, said genuine connection and worthwhile purpose are always needed when making an investment. . Felix’s commitment to using the Saysh platform to raise her voice and be part of the fight for women’s rights was evident, according to the founder of Iris Ventures.

Knowing the challenges women face in some male-dominated sectors, Suarez noted that women make up only 10% of the venture capital field and that only about 2% of venture capital funding goes to corporate-owned companies. women. She said Iris started trying to change that by focusing on women-founded businesses — something she didn’t think would happen in her previous jobs, where men dominated decision-making. Felix’s personal story resonated with Suarez, who said she was the first female executive to become pregnant at a previous company.

The two women discussed the challenges of entrepreneurship and those faced by other women-led businesses when trying to access financial capital. The former Olympian noted how even more difficult it is for women entrepreneurs of color to access the minimum venture capital funding reserved for women-led businesses.

Mentoring other women is another priority. “It’s so important for all of us to have those relationships that help the next person. When you’re sitting at the table, you don’t want to close that door behind you. You really want to help the next person. I’m so grateful that so many women have done this for me and given me the opportunity to be better, learning from their own experiences,” Felix said.

Suarez said she, too, benefited from having mentors who provided guidance on getting started, fundraising and ongoing motivation to keep reaching the goal.

Suarez also spoke about the value of knowing what not to do and how his job as an investor includes sharing such information, when needed. From his perspective, Felix said having an investor who understands the purpose and meaning of a business is key. “If you’re aligned with core values, that’s what it’s all about,” Felix said.

With Saysh’s own fund, the focus is on underserved women founders of consumer businesses. Overall, “it’s about investing in people, their mission and what they’re trying to do and if we believe in that and if we believe in them,” Felix said.

As an investor, Suarez said she, too, felt socially responsible for supporting founders with a social mission, like a female executive who launched a Farfetch-like platform to give people access to artisans in Italy whose work was diminishing and to protect their heritage and their know-how.

Suarez and Felix agreed on the importance of having role models and being one for others, including their children. Enthusiastic about how his young daughter sees her going to work and working hard, Felix said: “I hope to raise her to be confident, to be able to do whatever she wants and [understand] There are no limits. There’s a long way to go for us and a lot of work to do, but she definitely keeps me motivated to keep working hard.

Suarez explained that she encourages her three children to follow their passions and dreams. As for how the pandemic has altered work-life balance, Felix noted how Saysh was built during the pandemic, “which was extremely difficult.” Nonetheless, the company’s team was built on offering employees the ability to work remotely and do things differently. Saysh instituted a maternity return policy last spring so that consumers who purchased a pair of Saysh sneakers could exchange them for a new pair, if their foot sizes changed during pregnancy. Making sure women don’t have to choose between the careers they love and their families is one of Felix’s passions. “Seeing how we can do things differently and build from scratch has really been a great opportunity,” she said.

Suarez also spoke about some of the burdens brought by the pandemic and noted that she has surrounded herself with a good team that has become more resourceful and closer as she has gone through the various changes taking place. While professional skills are undoubtedly important, “your team’s attitude is even more important,” she said, adding that’s how she managed to engender a culture for more good. collectively and to create more opportunities for all.

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Robert D. Coleman