Interview with Oiselle Founder and CEO, Sally Bergesen
By: Cait Chock
We're witnessing an entire shift in how companies sponsor and market their athletes. Among those spearheading this change is Oiselle, a women's clothing line, founded by Sally Bergesen. Bergesen recently was awarded Top 40 Women Over 40 honors for how masterfully she's both turned her brand into a mainstay in the running market but also for how she's doing it. Driven by the desire to create a community of female athletes and empowering them, what makes Oiselle so unique is just HOW connected they aim to make that community. Thanks to social media, retreats, and training camps, it's on a near person-to-person level. Their new breed of sponsorship contracts see their athletes as participating presences in the creative process, personality exuding through that typical running advertisement.
Oiselle hinges upon flight; that of the spirit and passion. Bergesen's own passion, or run love, bred the inception of her brand. Connecting elites with runners of all paces, what ties these birds together is purely and simply a shared passion and a spirit which must run free.
I interviewed Sally Bergesen about the fervent success of Oiselle, how she's working to reshape our sport, and what the future holds for herself, her brand, and women runners alike.
1) I've read some numbers saying that since the 2007 launch, Oiselle has had 100% growth every year, but I have to say it feels like the last few years it's been by 500%! What has it been like riding this epic rise?
It's fun and terrifying all at the same time. For me personally, it's satisfying, but it also feels like more and more people are counting on me, so I don't want to F it up.
2) Oiselle really works to bridge the gap between the pros, the competitive racers, and anyone out there running for the passion of it. What do you feel are some of the key ways you've been able to unify the community of female runners so effectively?
I think those groups aren't as far apart as we might think. Even pros like to do races for fun, and fun-runners get competitive. The more we talk and connect, the fewer differences there are. The great thing about following the pros, is that they will run on the biggest stages, among the steepest competition. But that's exactly where the rest of us come in...as fans and supporters. Often I think women aren't used to fan-girling other women. We want to change that.
3) How do you take that goal of connection and unity with you into every business and marketing strategy meeting? I will say it sure looks like those meetings are a lot of fun!
Don't worry, we have boring meetings too! But we try to stay focused and lively. I'm an anti-meeting person, and an anti-PowerPoint person, which I believe gives people a better opportunity to articulate ideas and be proactive. Honestly, I'd rather our staff be out on a run hatching a great idea than sitting in a meeting, crumpled and listless. At least that's where I get MY ideas.
4) Oiselle has acted as a catalyst for an entire shift in how elite runners are now earning sponsorships and how they're able to make a living doing what they love. Can you speak a bit on when you started thinking about integrating sponsorships into your brand, how you were able to progress that sector, and what you're doing to break new ground?
Pro runners are the best at what they do. The heroes of our sport! But our industry often treats them like disposable pawn pieces. And then for women, it's even more problematic, as they attempt to become moms and still continue their careers. Most contracts are not written to enable the athlete to thrive and succeed. There's plenty of reward if you're a machine or a monk, but less if you're human. We believe and invest in runners who also want to be human...as in committed and fierce but also culpable to injury - or simply a change in life direction. This shouldn't be a revolutionary approach, but sadly, it's not common to have that approach via the typical contract. I want to get bigger so we can do more.
5) Kate Grace and Lauren Fleshman were two big Oiselle pioneers for the elite level, today that's blossomed into the Little Wing training group, many more emerging athletes, and Kara Goucher recently joined you. What's it like now with so many elite Birds and what role are they playing in inspiring new fashions and designs?
A dream come true, pure and simple. These women are not only my heroes and inspirations, for how I want to live, and the clothes I want to design, but also friends. The friendships are what I didn't quite anticipate, and which I value the most. Their intelligence, humor, talent, and kindness are truly remarkable. What's it like? A product development utopia.
6) Keeping with the community, you've just introduced the Oiselle Flock. Tell us a little more about this new team and what are your goals are in terms of expansion there?
The Flock is simply a way for more women to come into our community. It's been a joy to expand the circles, and also to find ways for our previous team members to step into leadership roles. We just got back from Bird Camp where team members came together to discuss how we can engage further with the Flock, and keep inspiring, inviting, and connecting with women runners. Of course, no solution on how to do that -- while not going under financially -- will have its pros and cons. But we're happy with how things have gone so far.
7) How have the other women inspired and had an impact on you?
Too many ways to say here, but it's everything from in person friendships, emails, the range of social media, notes, letters...sometimes the random bird themed gift that arrives at the office. Or the out of towner who stops by to say hello. Events we do with stores are great too - as we are fortunate to work with so many great retailers. Everything we do, we do for women who love to run and race. There's very little difference between the inside of our company - and the outside - in terms of our community.
8) You were awarded Top 40 Women Over 40, congratulations! What does that distinction mean to you and what have you yet to accomplish? In five years from now where do you see yourself and Oiselle? Ten years?
It's a huge honor. And of course everyone likes to be noticed for hard work. But really, it's never about the accolades or media. Most of the time, we keep our heads down and focus on what we do best, which is innovate on design and keep looking for ways to connect great product with awesome people.
9) What message do you have for any runner, one who would be considered an emerging athlete, and perhaps struggling with the decision of what role their running should play in their life and weighing the practicalities?
Wow, that's such a tough call. And I haven't myself faced it. For me, running has always been 100% personal - even when I was at my most competitive. If you're super talented and you're doing what you love, then I say go for it. But if it's to fulfill someone else's dream or goal, then it's not worth it. Run from the heart, no matter what your level, and the rest will follow.
Thank you very much for your time, Sally, as a female runner myself I especially look forward to what Oiselle has in store for us!
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.