Natalie White had tried everything. She’d gone from bank to bank, from startup accelerator to start-up accelerator, hoping to sell her idea to someone who would listen.
Over decades of playing basketball, including time spent as the student manager of the women’s team at Boston College, she discovered that the shoes she and her teammates were wearing often weren’t designed with their needs in mind. While larger brands such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas had labeled some of their basketball shoes as women’s, White’s research showed that many of those models were based on the mold of a male foot and disguised with a traditionally feminine colorway.
The byproduct, White found, was a higher injury risk for female athletes because men’s basketball shoes weren’t built for women’s feet, which are typically more narrow and have higher arches. White’s solution was to found a new basketball shoe brand, which she called Moolah Kicks, built by and for women.
But her early pitches were greeted by a mixture of doubt and disbelief. Some potential investors said her projections were too ambitious and the cost was too high. Others said they didn’t believe a viable market existed for a woman-specific basketball shoe.
White stayed optimistic, telling herself: “It’s okay. The people that don’t get it don’t have to.”
So White turned to her inner circle for support. In 2020, she rallied “almost every teammate that I had played with” — some 40 people — to gather in a Brooklyn park for a last-minute crowdfunding video campaign.
Within weeks of the video’s release, Moolah Kicks had netted more than $30,000 in presales. The company would eventually catch the attention of billionaire investor Mark Cuban as well as Dick’s Sporting Goods, which now carries the shoe in roughly 500 stores nationwide.
Moolah Kicks has penetrated the market at nearly every level of play, securing an endorsement deal with Chicago Sky guard Courtney Williams and numerous NIL deals with Division I athletes, including Connecticut’s Caroline Ducharme. It partnered with Microsoft Surface to produce a commercial that appeared during the NCAA tournament.
“It’s kind of crazy that for so many years we’ve been expected to utilize and thrive in shoes that aren’t even built for us,” Williams said. “So with Moolah being for women, like, why wouldn’t I want to rock with people that are rocking with me and my comfort.”
For White — and the women who have supported her and her company — Moolah Kicks isn’t just about building an attractive shoe, but also about giving female athletes the fairness and representation they are so often denied. Over the years, female athletes have advocated for paid parental leave, an end to gender pay disparities, greater representation in the coaching ranks and a deeper investment in the overall packaging of women’s athletics. The actual sporting equipment was another issue.
It wasn’t until White started in her role as team manager at Boston College that she came to realize that women’s basketball players’ relationships with their shoes were often vastly different from that of their male counterparts.
Most shoes require a brief break-in process, but for women wearing shoes built for men, that process took longer. Even after the shoes were broken in, female players often reported their feet would slide around in the shoe and they would feel burning sensations on the tops and sides of their feet — something men did not regularly experience.
“That’s something that, candidly, I didn’t even know when I started. I thought that was normal,” White said. “That’s been the craziest part of the process. … We accept bad-performing sneakers as quote, unquote normal … and it’s not. It’s just the product of us wearing misfitting equipment.”
With that newfound realization, White set out to build the best shoe possible. She consulted orthopedists, athletic trainers, physical therapists and players at the high school, collegiate and professional level.
“If you talk to college trainers, Boston College for example, they’re gutting out the entire inside of those men’s sneakers and they’re creating inserts that are custom to the players’ feet,” White said. “They’re adding things into the shoe to try to manipulate a men’s shoe to fit the female foot form. … They had years of inserts that they’ve had to make and different alterations they had to make to those shoes. Every one of those people helped us put together what is now the DNA of the brand.”
Using female-specific running shoes as a guide, White and her team were able to study the subtle differences in shape and build and then add the necessary intricacies of a good basketball shoe.
They looked at traction, the fit of the shoe’s sole, how dense or light the materials should be, breathability, stability and ankle support. An early version of the shoe left little room for ankle braces, which players asked for after wearing Moolah Kicks, so White’s team adjusted.
After 18 months of work, the end product was a women’s basketball shoe with a higher arch, a slimmer width and shallower spacing between the top of the foot and the top of the shoe.
“We put women’s basketball first,” White said. “That’s all we do. That’s all we care about.”
According to Ray Solano, the chiropractic sports physician for Georgetown and Howard basketball, addressing women’s needs within the basketball shoe industry is long overdue.
“I think it’s a great development, because as it stands women lack that specificity that they need in supporting their feet,” Solano said. “A lot of them just wear the men’s shoe, and that just isn’t enough. … With a male shoe typically being built a bit wider, it allows the typical woman’s foot to spread out a bit too much, and that can cause blisters on the inside of the foot as well as instability when they jump or plant.
“Like, just forget about the men and women aspect for a second,” he added. “Any time something can be tailored more to a foot that more closely resembles its owner, it’s going to be advantageous.”
For White, the details matter when it comes to gender equality, too, so even the Moolah Kicks shoebox reflects the disparities between men’s and women’s basketball. The outside of the box is divided into blue and yellow sections, with the blue — which covers the majority of the box — representing the average attendance of NCAA men’s basketball games, and the yellow representing attendance at women’s games. Inside the box’s lid is an inspirational message from White about her hope for women’s basketball, and around the base is a cartoon depiction of a full and raucous crowd, her vision for more regular future attendance of women’s basketball.
“Unlike I did when I grew up and went straight to the boys’, straight to the men’s section, now girls can actually go into an entire women’s section that has a ton of options for them,” White said. “They have shoes that fit their feet, they have a section named just for them, and they have a brand who’s solely dedicated to women’s basketball. I think that in and of itself is changing how young players see this game and see their future and opportunity in this game.”
While Moolah Kicks has experienced an impressive rise in its first few years, having a consistent seat at the basketball shoe table remains a work in progress. Despite its NIL deals with college players, finding a way to consistently showcase the shoes on the court is nearly impossible because every Division I program has on-court merchandising deals with one of the big brands. As a part of those deals, players are usually required to wear whichever brand their school is affiliated with during games.
So in the case of Connecticut’s Ducharme, for example, she must wear Nike shoes during games according to the school’s contract — and she can only market Moolah Kicks via posts on her personal social media accounts.
“We have a handful of Division III and Division II teams who their schools don’t have those deals, and so when the schools don’t have those deals, we get a lot of outreach from the team,” White said. “They outright purchase the sneakers to wear them.”
Theoretically, outfitting members of the WNBA is a slightly easier route because players have free reign to wear what they please. Last season, Williams and Indiana Fever guard Destanni Henderson exclusively wore Moolah Kicks. Headed into the 2023 season that began last month, White anticipated that number doubling but instead saw it decrease as three of the players, including Henderson, were cut from the ultra-competitive WNBA ranks.
Because White has no desire to create basketball apparel for men, she is not overly concerned with trying to outdo or go head-to-head with brands such as Nike and Adidas. Instead, she hopes Moolah Kicks can simply be the best women’s basketball brand on the market.