Brooks Running Lifestyle Imagery

You might’ve seen it before, just off the Burke-Gilman Trail in Fremont: The statue of a triumphant girl and a painted rainbow mark the headquarters of Brooks Sports Inc., a national sports wholesaler. Brooks recently took a lead role in funding the establishment of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC), officially launched in October.

The RIDC, a group of brands, retailers, and individual runners, coalesced over the summer to help increase the running industry’s equity and inclusion with regard to race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, immigration status, and socioeconomic status. With grants from Brooks and shoe and apparel brand Hoka One One, the RIDC aims to make industry gains in diverse representation, employment, ownership, and access, as well as education on anti-Blackness and historical injustice.

The coalition was born as runners across the country grappled with racial injustice following the death of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was running near his home in Satilla Shores, Georgia, when he was fatally shot after being pursued by two white men. His death forced many industry leaders to reckon with the reality of racial injustice. They all faced the same question: How do you translate all this awareness into systemic change?

Shannon Woods, senior manager for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Brooks, has ideas for how to answer that query. Woods is a native Seattleite; she loves the Southern restaurant Junebaby and running in Seward Park, though her favorite trail circles Mountain Lake on Orcas Island. She now sits on the leadership team at the RIDC, and while the coalition remains in its early stages, she spoke to Seattle Met about its initial efforts. The following conversation, held over Zoom, has been edited for clarity.  

How did the leadership team at the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) come to found the organization?

It was really sparked by the [co-]owner of Gazelle Sports in Michigan, Chris Lampen-Crowell. He was very personally affected by the death of Ahmaud Arbery. At that time, he started having conversations with his industry friends—just reflective conversations [of] like, “What can we do as an industry?” After the death of George Floyd is when he took that next step from having conversation [to] putting it into action. So he reached out to Alison Désir, and there was a chain reaction of people being reached out to and [they] came up with wanting to start this coalition to really address racism within the running industry and really wanting to make change. As a white man, he felt a responsibility to help create that change.

In that collaboration, they reached out to Jim Weber, the CEO of Brooks Running, and Jim sat in on the first couple of meetings of that coalition, then graciously handed the seat to me. 

How did he decide to reach out to Jim [of Brooks Running] specifically?

As much as I can speak to that via Chris, Brooks has a really strong reputation for years of customer service. We’re primarily a wholesaler; we only have two stores. We have our trailhead in Fremont, Seattle, and we have an outlet store in Bothell. So we're mostly a wholesaler and we sell to specialty retail stores. We've always put people first and runners first, so we’ve had these really, really strong relationships. And Brooks was a smaller company for a while. We've gotten fairly bigger; over the last 10 years or so, we've grown quite a bit. But really, relationships have always been at the heart of our business. So Jim and some members of our leadership team and our sales team are very close with a lot of the specialty run[ning] retail owners.

And this conversation was taking place over the summer?

Yeah, I jumped in on the coalition in the beginning of August. There were a couple meetings that happened in July, so June/July is really when the coalition formed.

Shannon Woods, senior manager of DEI at Brooks Running.

Shannon Woods, senior manager of DEI at Brooks Running.

The goals of the coalition right now are targeting so many different areas. Which ones stand out to you [and others across the industry]?

I think that one thing that is very unique about this coalition is that it brings together brands and retailers and individual runners. The coalition itself is very diverse. And it may be the most diverse team in the running industry right now, with majority women and majority BIPOC on the team. It’s unique in the way that we’ve got two brands [Brooks Running and Hoka One One] coming together. Typically, we are so competitive.  Typically, we [don’t] share information or come together on something. The idea that we’ve got brands coming together to work collectively towards a goal for the greater good I think is unique in this space.

When we look at the running community, the running community itself…could be more diverse, but it is somewhat diverse to begin with. Where we see the biggest disparity is when we look at the running industry and those businesses that are making money off of runners. That is where you see that it’s mostly white.

There’s still a lot of research that needs to be done looking at those numbers and those metrics. One study that we found looked at the top 15 running brands and their leadership was less than 1 percent. Like, 0.5 percent of leaders are BIPOC. So that is where we see the biggest disparity.

So we have a leader like Chris [Lampen-Crowell], who is affected by the events of this year and was thinking about what he could do and wrestling with the industry’s complicity. Beyond the coalition, I wonder what that conversation looks like. Outside of Chris and outside of the coalition founders, were there other opportunities to examine those disparities in leadership, and did we see that across the industry?

I think that you see it across the industry. The events of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered—I know for the leaders at Brooks, it really was shocking to them. And then as the months went on, Breonna Taylor was murdered, then we all witnessed George Floyd being murdered. I think it was shocking to some people. All of a sudden, there’s all this attention coming to light even though it was not a new issue. I think for runners, Ahmaud was like, wow, he’s just like me. There was a bit of being able to relate to him that really affected people.

The conversations in the industry have been challenging, but I think those events allowed those conversations to happen in a different way than they’ve happened before. There have been people working on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a very long time. There’s been people who have been working individually in different companies on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a long time. But I think it just allowed more people to [come] into that conversation. 

Were there flash points or memories from that period of time that changed the way you personally were experiencing all of the news?

Yeah, it was such an emotional time. I mean, it still is. It was a little bit different for me. When I think about the question of flash points, it’s hard for me to think about what…that moment [was]. I’m mixed. I’m African American and white. So none of this is new to me. When I think of a flashpoint I think maybe for me, it was Trayvon Martin and he was murdered. I have three boys and one of them is the same age as Tamir Rice. So that was so heartbreaking. For me to, at that time, look at my own son, who was 12 years old, who’s brown, it’s just devastating. I also have another son who’s the same age as Ahmaud Arbery. My heart breaks for his mother, being able to relate as a mom.

You know, I’ve been working on DEI for many years and I’ve been working with Brooks on DEI for many years. Over the summer, after George Floyd, one of those flash points for me was trying to understand why everyone is paying attention now. I’ve been out there protesting for Black lives for many years. I’ve been telling leadership and companies; I’ve also worked in DEI in education in Seattle. I’ve been saying—or I shouldn’t say I—but the group of people that I work with, we've been saying our company needs to be more diverse, we need to hire more people, we need more people in leadership. We’ve been saying all these things, and we’ve been working towards that. Why are you all of the sudden listening? For me, it was hard to understand, because this was the first time it’s happened. It’s not the first time it was caught on video. So trying to unpack like, why is everyone here now? You haven’t cared this much over decades. That was my struggle.

In my frustration, I have to credit my mother for helping me move along from that. She said to me, “Well, now you have their attention. What are you going to do with it?” I was like, “Okay, yeah. I hear you. Let’s figure out how to move forward." 

When you sit with that question, how is that shaping your thinking now, both at Brooks and in the broader coalition? What is your vision as senior manager of DEI at Brooks, and what are you looking to focus on in the coming year?

I think my vision for Brooks, as the senior manager of DEI, is that Brooks can be a leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion. In our workplace, with runners, and in our community. 

How do those two look different? What would be the specifics within the workplace? Do you have quantifiable goals or are their [qualitative] learning objectives that you want to communicate? 

We are looking at some bold goals around hiring, around education within our company, and expanding on what the workplace looks like. Does the workplace just mean within our four walls? Or does it also mean who we’re doing business with, who we’re partnering with outside of our walls?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are three very different things. So [first] realizing that if we can hire people to the extent that we want to create a really innovative, creative company. But how do we keep people at our company? [Then] looking at our equitable policies and practices, and then also inclusion. Inclusion is hard because that is how people feel. It’s a hard one to tackle. You could hire, hire, hire, but if you don’t have a great, inclusive culture, people aren’t going to stick around.

Right. Do you see that as the major challenge? I’m understanding [that] it’s such a massive issue and even tackling it, doing the work itself is the major challenge. But in terms of roadblocks, things that are difficult, would you say that inclusion is the major one? Are there other challenges you anticipate ahead?

Well, I have this philosophy about everything: We’re a company of very smart, creative people, so a lot of times I feel like our biggest obstacle is ourselves. We just have to say "yes" and prioritize it and then we can figure out how to do it.

I think [for] a lot of companies, their first initial reaction is to start with representation. That’s how we’re going to be diverse is putting BIPOC people in our ads, on our social media, and representation is so important. It’s really important for runners to be able to see themselves in the sport and [for] young people to have role models in the sport. One of the challenges is recognizing that we are more than runners and models. We are also photographers and cinematographers and stylists and engineers and leaders. Representation is important, but if you don’t hire people to run your business, then you’re not actually creating systemic change.

That’s the piece of just opening up and influencing people to expand their own networks. I think that where we see hiring challenges, it’s not that there aren’t BIPOC people out there [who are] skilled in different areas. But traditionally, how corporations and businesses hire is through who you know, and if your own network is very homogenous, it just perpetuates into your business. So getting people to stretch themselves and reach out to broader networks of people and meet new people, there’s a bit of that that has to be done on a business level. Your business can do strategic outreach, but then every individual person within that business also has to broaden their own network.

That makes sense, and also really gets to what you said about inclusion. I’m wondering what the concrete goals are for creating that inclusive environment. It seems like with more and more hiring, you can reach a tipping point to where there is enough community there [for people to] really feel at home. Are there other concrete goals you would look to in the inclusivity [of] a company’s culture? Would that look like creating spaces for conversations or BIPOC-specific spaces?

For sure. We do have an employee resource group right now that’s called the Diversity Working Group. That’s a group of employees that tackle DEI topics within Brooks. We are also looking to formalize and support affinity groups within our organization. We do have forums and speaker forums: We currently have a Women at Brooks speaker forum and a DEI conversation forum. So that is internally and for employees.

That women’s speaker series has been going on for four years. That brings sometimes internal, but also external people into Brooks to speak about their experiences. We’ve made a lot of progress with women in leadership over the years. We have a mentorship program within our organization.

In 2017, we joined the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. That is an index that rates companies from zero to 100 on policies and practices around LGBTQ equality. We are now rated one of the best companies to work for for LGBTQ equality. We flew a pride flag, the progress pride flag, on our building this year; we participated in Seattle Pride. All of those things help for inclusion for sure.

We also supported our employees to have flexible work schedules to celebrate Juneteenth and also participate in the Black Lives Matter protests… When Black Lives Matter King County had a day of strike, Brooks Leadership came out and said, “Anybody who wants to participate in this, we fully support you.”

Shifting the conversation to the Seattle-specific events of this year, is the conversation in Seattle different than the national conversation in any way?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. The RIDC hasn’t tackled by region, but that’s a really interesting question to think about. We are embarking on a research project around diversity in the running industry which I think could include some differences by region. It’s a little hard for me to say. The conversations I have within the RIDC and with the RIDC network of people—so it’s people from all over the country—I definitely find that there are similarities in the conversations. People want to know, what can I do? What can I do now? How are we going to change this?

I grew up in Seattle, so I’m a native of Seattle. I’ve traveled a lot, but I think that Seattle has a progressive label that sometimes people hide behind. I think that Seattle definitely needs to recognize the racism that happens within our city. There’s probably a lot of really good conversation that could happen with that; I think that we are progressive in the sense of our public governance, but when it comes to private businesses and corporations and the day-to-day experiences of BIPOC within our city… We have a history. We have racist history, we have a history of redlining, which you can certainly see in the segregation of neighborhoods within the city. I think there’s a lot of conversation to be had around that in the city of Seattle… I often hear from people, after Ahmaud Arbery, “Oh that stuff only happens in the South, that wouldn’t happen here.” And it’s interesting to me, because we all walk through our own worlds, right? We experience things, but I do think there’s a lot of people that don’t know the things that BIPOC people experience on a day-to-day basis, even here in Seattle.