Esther Wallace started out carrying a sketch pad to scribble fashion designs, but at age 15 she swapped it out for a basketball and fell in love with the sport. In 2017, the athlete-turned-entrepreneur combined her love of style and sports and put eight words that speak volumes on a t-shirt:
Female Athlete, Judged By Achievements, Not By Gender. We caught up with Wallace on the inspiration behind her iconic t-shirt design and her take on the "female athlete" versus "athlete" label.
Q: How did your journey as an athlete inspire your brand?
A: I actually was very late to starting my career in basketball. I didn't start playing until I was 15. I was very tall, I’m 6'1, and people were always urging me to play basketball, but I was obsessed with fashion. All I did was sketch. So I didn't want to play basketball, but I think it was mostly because I didn't know anything about basketball. I didn’t know anything about women who played basketball.
But I started when I was 15 and then everything changed. I immediately fell in love with basketball. Instead of carrying a sketch book, I was carrying a basketball to class. From there, I was able to get a Division 1 scholarship, and then I went overseas to England and I played and coached there. Up until that point, I had decided I was probably just going to coach basketball. It was something I was very passionate about. And in England I was studying marketing management, I was in business school getting my master's degree. And I had done a lot of research on social responsibility and I became obsessed with that entrepreneurship side of things and that brought me back to where I was before basketball and wanting to design clothing and fashion and all of that.
I knew as early as 2014 that I wanted to start a brand, but I had no idea really what that brand was going to look like. I just knew the message behind it was going to relate to my experience as a female athlete and as a woman in sports. Then, by 2017, I designed the female athlete t-shirt.
Q: How long did it take you to come up with the message on the t-shirt?
A: It definitely took awhile, it probably took more than a month. I was second-guessing things a lot. But I had a small focus-group of friends, some were former athletes and some were just friends whose opinions I valued, and they were like, "Go ahead, do it, just be confident." So that's what I did and I was surprised by the response.
Q: Where did the name Playa Society come from?
A: Honestly, when I was coming up with the brand, and it's so cliche but I think every athlete's favorite movie is "Love and Basketball" and the greatest scene in that movie is when she says, "Because I'm a female I get told to calm down and act like a lady." And then she says, "I'm a ball playa." And I guess I took a little bit of inspiration from that. And then the whole idea was to create a community around the brand — so "society" is where that comes into play.
Q: What is your take on the "athlete" versus "female athlete" label?
A: The number one thing that I always think of is that it's not about being afraid to be called a female or woman. We love being women and we embrace our femininity. It’s part of who we are. But, as athletes, when we step on the court, we don't want to be defined by that. Because men aren’t necessarily defined by their gender. We just want the equal opportunity to play whatever it is that we play and just be seen as athletes in that moment, because that's who we are in that moment. A lot of times, for women, when gender is a part of the conversation, then it's, "Oh, for a girl you're okay," or "You're good for a girl." The standard is lowered and we don’t want that standard to be lowered.
Q: What were some life lessons you learned as an athlete that you've applied to being a businesswoman?
A: The first was from the first coach that I had. He's the one that told me that the sky's the limit and he would use that phrase a lot with me. And I think that's really the first time where I started to believe in myself. So I'm super grateful for basketball, because I'm not sure if, had I just went the fashion route, I would have developed the same amount of confidence. I had the comfort from behind the sketchbook, because I was kind of an introvert. But basketball forced me to come out of my shell. And then I developed the confidence, that belief in myself.
But also, figuring things out. Basketball moves really fast and business does, too. Honestly, I think, once my basketball career was over, business kind of took its place as far as being that fast-paced, challenging type of endeavor.
Q: You address equality with your brand. What are some of the biggest barriers to equality for women athletes right now and what can be done to combat that?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is, sometimes the idea of tradition, or what we traditionally do, can be the thing that holds us back. So I know, for me since I work in marketing, a lot of times it's the marketing side of things with women's sports. And people say things like, oh we just haven't figured out how to market or promote female athletes or women's sports yet. And when I hear that, I always wonder who is sitting at that table doing the marketing. Because it's possible to do. I think that’s something that's missing — that authenticity and that voice and that perspective behind the marketing. I would start there and question who’s sitting there and who's doubting that there isn’t an audience for women's sports. I hear that way too often.
Q: What is your biggest message to young girls looking up to you for inspiration?
A: I'm fully aware because of my experience that you can't necessarily become what you can't see. And so, I would just say that same takeaway that I had from being 15 years old and not having confidence and being told that the sky's the limit — it truly is. Once you develop the ability to believe in yourself and your own goals, you can accomplish virtually anything that you put your mind to. It starts there, it starts with you. It starts with believing in what you want to achieve and then after that it’s just putting each foot forward towards those goals.