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Allyson Felix turned to Athleta for advice when she founded her own brand. Then she won an Olympic medal wearing her brand’s shoes

November 16, 2022, 12:54 PM UTC
Olympic track and field star Allyson Felix with Athleta CEO Mary Beth Laughton at Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit.
Stuart Isett/Fortune

Go for Gold. Allyson Felix is the most decorated track & field Olympian in history, boasting 11 medals. Since retiring this year, she’s launched additional collections with Gap Inc.’s athleisure brand Athleta and thrown herself into maternal health activism, particularly for Black women and athletes.

“I’ve been so empowered. They’re like my big sister,” Felix said of Athleta on Tuesday at Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in San Diego.

She hasn’t always felt this way about her partnerships. In 2019, Felix penned a bombshell article for the New York Times, recounting her “heartbreaking” experience negotiating her contract with longtime sponsor Nike while pregnant. Nike had proposed a 70% pay cut and refused to honor the maternity protections she requested.

Following the publication of Felix’s piece—and facing widespread outcry and a congressional inquiry to boot—Nike relented, adjusting its maternal policy and vowing not to reduce sponsor contracts for nearly a year after athletes give birth.

For Felix, the reversal was too late. She left Nike that year for the women-focused athletic wear brand Athleta, helmed by CEO Mary Beth Laughton.

Olympic track and field star Allyson Felix with Athleta CEO Mary Beth Laughton at Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit.
Stuart Isett/Fortune

Felix contrasts her former and current sponsorships. At Nike, she interacted solely with male executives. “If a woman was at that table, we probably wouldn’t have had the same outcome,” she said.

The brand also focused squarely on “the pure dollars of it all,” she said, as opposed to her Athleta partnership. “We’re focused on impact and change, and that doesn’t always come through on paper.”

Laughton said that Athleta set out to flip the script on traditional sponsorship from the outset. “We really want to partner with people who share our values and passion for our mission [and] ignite the limitless potential of women and girls,” she said.

In the three-plus years since Felix partnered with Athleta, she’s launched five collections and created the shoe and lifestyle brand Saysh, which Athleta invested in.

“I learned that sneakers have been made off the mold of a man’s foot, and I was just appalled by that,” Felix said. “This has got to stop.”

Felix won her 10th Olympic medal in Tokyo wearing Saysh shoes, which she called the high point of her career. “I was able to show women we can bet on ourselves and do things outside the box in a nontraditional way,” she said. “It was the physical embodiment of that.”

Jane Thier
jane.thier@fortune.com

@thier_jane

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