A quick look around most places that sell athletic wear would reveal that although styles and sizes are changing; there can still be great limitations in what retailers have to offer- especially with regards to sizing options for women. With clothing typically only sold between sizes 0-12 for most retailers, there is a market of nearly 100 million women in the United States who are often ignored when it comes to clothing offered in larger sizes.
I was fortunate enough to meet with CJ Riggins, the CEO and Founder of Roar Sport; an Athena performance apparel company for athletes of all levels. Founded earlier this year, Rsport’s mission is to outfit and support plus size athletes so they can focus on achieving their running, cycling, triathlon and other athletic goals with the perfect balance between science, technology, and style reflected in each of their products. Rsport is starting a new conversation about how plus sized women are seen and allowing more Athena athletes to participate in activities they love while looking and feeling great.
Below is my interview that CJ shared about her journey venturing into this new market for plus sized athletic apparel products. Her passion and love for Rsport is evident in her brand and mission, and clearly reflected in the culture of her company.
M: You mention how you want to reinvent the athletic wear industry for plus-sized athletes. When did you first notice the need for plus-sized athletic wear clothing and why do you think more brands are not embracing or also focusing on this market?
CJ: I noticed the need for more plus size options early in my career while at Abercrombie & Fitch. We had customers who would ask for larger sizes that we didn’t carry, and not having it, I wanted to help them locate another similar option. Sadly, there weren’t any! As I continued in my career and moved into technical outdoor apparel, I noticed the same issue. There were women who wanted to participate actively in outdoor endeavors, but couldn’t. We know, from CDC (Centers for Disease Control) that the national average size has been a size 16-18 for some time. We are growing larger as a population and very few brands are offering something to this consumer… friends, families, sisters, colleagues and ourselves!
M: You said that you worked in the design/ garment industry before starting this business; what ignited the spark in you to leave someone else’s corporate arena and start your own company?
CJ: In college and since, I’ve grappled with the question, “What am I doing to improve the world, the people, their experience, etc.”. This is an easy question to answer if you’re a doctor or a veterinarian, but as a designer and businesswoman, it only started to become clear when I came to outdoor apparel. I felt as if I was providing a product that allowed consumers to pursue their active endeavors which made them happy and kept them healthy. And oddly, I felt the Hippocratic oath really applied to all of us – First, do no harm. But we were, by isolating and alienating this consumer. We’re taught throughout our lives to be inclusive, but so many businesses had been built on the basis of exclusiveness. This was so contradictory to me. And if you’ve ever gathered a room full of women with a purpose you realize just how much energy and drive there can be in a community of like minded individuals. This was a fierce community that deserved more than she’d been given to date. I realized I couldn’t wait for someone else to do it, or it wouldn’t happen at the speed with which it needed to. So, I launched Rsport, The Athena Performance Apparel Brand dedicated to a fierce community of women from neophytes to professional athletes.
M: What has your greatest challenge been in starting Rsport? What about the greatest reward so far? Lastly, what motivates you and who has been your greatest inspiration?
CJ: Great question. I’m going to answer this backwards, as each leads to the next. My greatest inspiration isn’t just one person, but a string of amazing and talented people who have influenced me greatly. All the strong women in my family who crafted who I am and taught me how to sew, knit, tat and quilt. I spent countless summers with incredibly patient aunts and grandmothers sharing their gifts. Professors and mentors continued to nurture that drive through college and beyond by supporting my ideas and endeavors. Lastly, reading and learning about those who created businesses because they saw a void. Eileen Fisher is one of my primary influences for three reasons. One, she saw a void and started a business. Two, she created her line off her own dime very slowly and realized the absolute significance of her team by giving equity stake to all. And third, her modular concept of separates lines up perfectly with Rsport’s design/build plan to build modularity in our product. If we can a offer more impactful product that allows consumers to run “double duty” with it, it’s a green and sustainable statement in and of itself.
The greatest challenge was taking the leap to leave a steady, grounded position and company, putting, what I perceived as pressure, on my husband to carry the weight of the financial burden while I took on this venture on top of knowing we have two children who will attend college starting in 6 years. This was the truest test of a partner and I breathed so much easier when he shared one night at dinner that he had no desire to become CEO of his own company and was perfectly content doing what he loved where he was. If anyone had to take this risk, it was me, and he fully supported me. In addition, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked and networked with some truly brilliant industry professionals who have graciously shared their knowledge where I lack and some of them have joined the Rsport team!
My motivation is this consumer. When pitching the business, defending my thesis or talking with friends and vendors, I’ve been told I’m “clearly passionate” about this consumer and her needs. She drives me everyday to give her something she hasn’t seen yet.
M: What sets your designs apart from other (though limited) plus-sized athletic wear clothing?
CJ: What makes Rsport special are a few things. First, we are building for Athena’s, size 10-6x. We are focused here, and only here, because we never want to lose sight of who we’re building for. Our croquis and fit models are 2x as our mid point and we build from there. We fit on the full size range and wear test on that full size range to garner feedback to alter product before it ever reaches our consumers hands. Second, we use permanent technology in our product. We’ve partnered with Boulder, Colorado technology brand, 37.5, which developed a particle technology that helps to maintain the body’s homeostasis. Maintaining an optimal core temperature allows the athlete, regardless of athleticism, to perform longer if they so choose, but absolutely more comfortably by managing moisture vapor transfer. Third, we’re building product for her body. We’re focused on this consumers needs that are different in many ways from her straight sized counterpart – how she sweats, chafes, how she gets into and out of apparel with ease before and after a workout and how we build product with more bang for her investment buck. When we say multisport, that is our intention. Fourth, we’re not just a product, we’re a community. This is about creating an inclusive environment, whether through Facebook, blog, Instagram or events. She will feel supported physically and emotionally by us and others and she in turn will be supporting her fellow Athena’s.
M: Do you plan to sell your products online only, and if so why? If not, where else would you like your products to be sold?
CJ: We are selling via e-commerce (online) and at events. So much of our Spring, Summer and early Autumn will be spent at expo’s meeting and sharing what Rsport is doing. We’ll also be listening to our Athena’s who will share their own experiences, desires from product and goals. We’re focused on selling directly because this allows us to put dollars back into the technology and build of the product, where it should be. Selling wholesale certainly has it’s advantages, but until we grow large enough where our volume can offset costs, we need to ensure our vision and mission is realized by building the best quality and performance product available. Then we can consider other ways to reach our consumer where she is. Right now, we know we’ll find her at events because she’s telling us where she is and we’re doing the same. The excitement about our brand with her is tangible.
M: How are you planning to reach your target market? Are you going to rely heavily on social media platforms to boost your brand’s name and to reach your market base?
CJ: We will utilize social media and brand ambassadors year round, and face to face events around the U.S from March through October (racing season!) each year. Some of our consumers are running their first 5K and others are working on their 10th Ironman race. Our consumers run the gamut and the thing we really love is that these athletes don’t care where you are in your athletic/personal journey, they are just so incredibly supportive of other like minded women. There is no elitism, just inclusion. And all of those women are showing such incredible love and support for Rsport, we are thrilled to give them something they have long deserved.
M: What kind of culture exists (or would you like to exist) in your organization? How did you establish this tone and why will/did you institute this particular type of culture?
CJ: I’ve always felt transparency is necessary in a company culture. If everyone is aware of goals, visions, hazards then we all move together. It allows for everyone to feel they have an open place at the table to ask questions, share and learn from others. None of us knows it all, and when you open a circle to be inclusive of everyone, you get the best from all of them and increase the knowledge of the whole team as a result. A rising tide lifts all boats – (attributed to JFK, but really crafted by the New England Council). If you have transparency you have automatically created two other positive cultural elements in your company: advancement opportunity and mentoring. We gravitate to those that we want to learn from and the more well versed and educated you are on a subject the more confident you’ll be to go after those areas when advancement opportunities arise. This falls right in line with the vision of the company in relation to inclusiveness.
M: What advice would you give to college students who want to become entrepreneurs?
CJ: Intern and co-op as much as you can to learn from others and to help you discover and shape your true career path – which may not necessarily be the one you started college with. Note the size of the companies you’re working for and find what size works well for you to learn the most if that’s your goal. Find and connect with other entrepreneurs through Linkedin groups, Meetups, webinars, work, university, alumni groups, etc. Some will be within the organizations you already work for or intern with, some outside of this country, and their insight and experience can be incredibly valuable. Within this group, make sure you are seeking out mentorship from those willing to give you constructive criticism and learn to take it without defensiveness. It will make you stronger and more professional in the long run. Seek out and read about other entrepreneurs experiences in and out of your field. Read, read and read some more and then watch some Ted Talks. There are so many publications, blogs, books that speak to entrepreneurship, and listening to others experiences helps you to sometimes avoid their pitfalls. You will have your own, but if even a few can be avoided, you’re that much closer to your goal. And lastly, start. You’ll never finish or achieve your dream, if you never start. Failure is okay and once you’re willing to fail and keep moving, you’ll realize it’s not really failure. It’s called learning from experience. Enjoy the ride.
We cannot wait to watch Rsport’s success in the apparel industry continue to grow as CJ’s designs start to hit the market!
Check Rsport’s site to sign up online to stay up-to-date on their launch and products here: RoarSport- Rsport