I had the incredible opportunity to speak with the man behind Nike’s N7, a brand that promotes athletic commitment in Native communities. Sam grew up on the Fort Peck Assiniboine/Sioux Reservation in Montana. He started his career coaching high school basketball in Oregon and California for 20 years and then in 1997 he started working at a Nike warehouse. This is where he developed the N7 business plan. He pitched the idea to Nike executives and they let him run with it. Kudos to Nike for innovating and giving employees opportunities to create.
Mac: Who is N7’s customer?
Sam: Native athletes and those inspired by them. Because we really want to hit a broader platform of people so that we allow consumers to experience not only our products, but have an opportunity to philanthropically provide access to sport. I like to use the phrase ‘to unleash the human potential of the next generation of Native American leaders and Aboriginal leaders in Canada. We really want to affect those kids through our N7 Foundation – our N7 Fund.
Mac: So with N7, Nike is looking at this as a way to progress their vision of inspiring athletes around the world. How does Nike as a profit-generating corporation look at N7?
Sam: The language we use here internally is what can we do from a Nike N7 perspective to unleash the imminent potential of that next generation of leaders, doctors, sports figures, college graduates. All those things we’re trying to affect by activating youth.
And the good news is that we’re approaching self-sustainability. Nike N7’s has contributed $1.4 million to community based programs to activate youth in our communities.
Mac: Got it. So the target consumer isn’t necessarily Native American, it’s just the Native America aesthetic and ideals that inspire this line. So the target is everyone?
Sam: Yeah, and I think it’s very important that folks understand that. We call it here internally kind of the badge and borrow model, right? So we’re taking the existing Nike products that resonate with the market place. So, for instance, our last collection had an Airforce 1 and we did our version – the N7 version of the Airforce 1. That shoe turned out to be pretty hot – it got blogged all over – all the sneakerheads were all over it. It became a collector’s item, people coveted that product. All of that excitement around that product helps us as we try to activate youth in this community and use sport as a catalyst to create social change in communities – Native and Aboriginal communities.
Mac: That’s awesome, so who designs the product? Is it Nike’s design team?
Sam: Yeah, working closely with me and the team, nothing goes out beyond campus here without my eyes seeing it. The design team works very closely in the community – they have their contacts where they go out and get inspired. One of the lines that came out in the summer that was really popular was our partnership with an artist by the name of Bunky Echo-Hawk.
We did the Bunky Tee and that was basically Bunky’s interpretation of Nike N7 and what it meant to communities and people and him. That was his interpretation and he called it the Sport Warrior and that stemmed from one of his art pieces that we were able to put on a graphic Tee. He worked very closely in collaboration with our design team. They had tons of conference calls – he came and worked directly with them to create that. It’s still a very coveted T-shirt because they sold out.
Mac: Yeah, I saw that online. Missed out on buying one tho. So do you have more plans to work with other native artists?
Sam: I think it’s always to our benefit to reach into those pockets of inspiration so that we can create not only compelling and great products that tell a story, but that it resonates with consumers. I think that’s what Nike does – that’s the Nike piece of it, is we make sure that it’s relevant to consumers because we know our consumer, obviously, better than anybody else, because that’s our consumer, right?
Mac: My buddy Shalaya Williams from the Umatilla County area was talking about how N7 would be the perfect brand to work on. I imagine you have a lot of recent high school graduates, college graduates from the native community looking for jobs with N7 – is that the case?
Sam: We usually work through our collegiate internship program and every year since the fruition of N7 I’ve had a college intern every year. Some of them have transformed and went out and worked in different areas of the field. I have an intern who worked for me who’s now back in medical school getting his degree in Public Health because he was inspired by the work that we do. He wanted to go back and get his Masters in Public Health to be able to actively work in his community.
My current staff is all native. I have a Project Manager in Canada, I have a Project Manager in the US and I have a Community Manager who does all of our social media stuff that is here in Beaverton. Then there is myself. Then there’s a very large external team of people that help us – you know you don’t do this alone. So you need that external N7 team– (when I use the word “external”, internal to Nike, but external to N7 full time team) that believes and supports the mission and vision of what we’re trying to get done. There are always catalysts to help us activate any project that we’re working on. So our next collection will come out in July – or in mid-June and they were very instrumental in creating that. Then there’s always this platform of ambassadors – so I have 11 athlete ambassadors that are supportive of the mission and vision. Then we’re starting this second tier of messengers or people who believe in our mission.
Mac: So like OSU Coach Craig Robinson?
Mac: They have a dedicated N7 basketball game, right?
Sam: Yeah, they’ve done it every year. It’s Craig’s commitment to really elevate it and get the story out, right, because people wouldn’t know about N7 and I don’t have a huge marketing budget. So partnerships like that and collaborations like that. Then there’s one of his players on his team, Joe Burton, who just on his own wears the turquoise Air Max Destinys – he wears them every game. In honor of N7 and what it means to him as a Native athlete – he wears turquoise basketball shoes every game. You go onto his blog and people are asking him all the time – it’s his personal choice to do that, I had nothing to do with it.
Mac: Last question I want to ask you about – I know you’re a busy guy.
Sam: Keep going.
Mac: As an entrepreneur what advice would you give out to me or those in the native community? That earlier question about high school and college graduates calling you to ask for jobs – obviously there’s not space for every native youth to work on N7, but what kind of advice do you have for those looking to go out and do something creative with their life and explore an opportunity?
Sam: I think for me the most important thing would be to follow your passion and follow your dream – that’s all I did. In being an entrepreneur I was selected in 2008 as one of the 20 most influential entrepreneurs in the world by http://www.sustainability.com. The reason they included me in that group of entrepreneurs is my passion and the focus and the change I’ve influenced in my community where I grew up. I would encourage everybody, whatever that is, that your focus is to follow your passion. There’s nothing better than waking up every day and knowing you’re coming to work to do something you actually want to do.
I think a lot of people can’t say that. So finding that, whatever it is, no matter how much – what your salary is or whatever it is, is if you love getting up in the morning and going to do what you do – I mean everybody has financial restraints, but it makes it that much easier to get up and do that.
So that’s the advice I would give them is just find where that passion is and just really stay focused on it.