Meghan Klingenberg should have been on top of the world. As a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team that won the Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015, she had just reached the pinnacle of her sport. There was a ticker-tape parade in New York. A rally in Los Angeles in front of 30,000 people. Her country cheering as she stood on the podium.
Yet “as cool as it was, as amazing as it was,” she said, “something felt off.” She wondered: “What is this nagging feeling that I’m having? And I realized that it’s because Nike and U.S. Soccer and Fox [Sports] were all gaining value creation from our win, and we weren’t able to capture any of that value,” she said, other than their team’s prize money, which was much less than what men’s teams win — an example of the issues in the pay equity dispute that’s been playing out in women’s soccer.
Four years later, the same week the Women’s World Cup starts in France, she and three other star players are launching a business that will play off the success and popularity of that 2015 team, creating an edgy lifestyle brand that will start with gender-neutral streetwear and clothing but could eventually branch into products like wearable technology or wellness items such as sunscreen.
Called Re-Inc, the brand founded by Klingenberg, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Tobin Heath (the latter three are all members of this year’s U.S. Women’s National Team; Klingenberg is not) is designed to be gender-neutral and will highlight issues like equality and inclusivity.
There will be only one size chart — ranging from extra extra small to extra extra large, rather than separate sizing for men and women — and the first products will be beige T-shirts that are either cropped or oversized and read “liberté, égalité, defendez,” a play on the French motto. More clothing items are expected over the summer.
Streetwear, said Klingenberg, a defender for the Portland Thorns who is 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds, “is a category where men design the clothes for men with men’s sizing in mind. That works, but we feel like it could be better. We think we could do it different, and think we could do it in a way that’s more inclusive.” On the website, they intend to show male and female models in crop tops, say, or both genders in oversized tees, as well as presenting other clothing options in non-binary ways.
The concept is being launched at a time when young consumers are more likely than ever to be aware of gender fluidity and less likely to categorize products as just for men or just for women. Cosmetics companies have been showcasing gender fluidity in ad campaigns. A poll of millennials found that 50 percent believe the concept of gender is a spectrum. Millennial and Gen Z consumers increasingly expect gender-neutral advertising in the toy and fashion industries.
“As women’s soccer players, we’re always qualified — as I just did — as ‘female athletes,’ and we wanted to be able to change that narrative,” Klingenberg said. “Whenever we’re talking with the crest on the jersey, we have to keep in mind what our teams would like us to represent, what our country wants us to represent. We have to keep in mind what our sponsors want us to represent. . . . We wanted the freedom to fight for something instead of against all these things, and we wanted to create our own value.”
The company name is also a hint that the four say they plan to do business differently, seeking out female and minority vendors and business partners, hiring for diversity, and possibly giving future employees an ownership stake. They have been funded so far by early-stage angel investors but expect to announce an investment by a top venture-capital firm soon, Klingenberg said.
The four women share decision-making responsibilities, with each specializing in her area of strength — a different approach than many businesses’ hierarchies. Steve Nelson, co-founder of 3-D printing company Carbon, and Rocky Collis, a California lawyer who serves as outside general counsel to the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association, are also co-founders.
“We have four main co-founders who are women who all have the same amount of equity, and we have two dudes whose sole purpose — which, by the way, I think this is really cool — is to help us realize our dreams and goals,” Klingenberg said. “I don’t think there’s many companies that start out that way.”
For now, they plan to continue running the business that way. Jessica Tillyer, managing creative director at the consulting and design firm SYPartners who is advising Re-Inc, said: “We have no plans right now to put just one CEO in place, although that may happen. They’re taking this circular leadership model, and I think it’s actually working.”
Klingenberg met Nelson when she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he learned she was interested in entrepreneurship. He took her to visit local companies he invested in — he was a venture capitalist at the time — giving her a chance to chat up the CEOs. “It was such a cool experience for an 18-year-old kid.”
While this is her first side project, she and Press have experience working as representatives for the players union and negotiated the collective-bargaining agreement that earned the team’s group licensing rights back from the U.S. Soccer Federation. Rapinoe also leads her own training and lifestyle apparel business with her twin sister.
Klingenberg said the four women have an advantage over other teams of co-founders in that they already know each other well. She and Heath have been teammates since they were 13 years old; she’s also spent at least 10 years playing with Press and more than five years with Rapinoe.
“I think we kind of take it for granted that we know each other so well,” she said. “We don’t need to take the time to get to know each other, or take the time to know what is going to make this person great. . . . We’re able to work through things in a way that a lot of new teams maybe can’t.”