While pregnant with her daughter, Allyson Felix, the most decorated Track & Field Olympian in history, faced a gender injustice she couldn’t run from. Felix’s then sponsor, a top-tier sports apparel brand, did not support her journey into motherhood.
In an industry ruled by men, Felix was faced with a hard truth. If she decided to have children, she risked a pay cut and even losing her endorsement deal during or after her pregnancy. Felix explains, “It was a terrifying time for me because I was negotiating a renewal of my current sponsorship contract. It was scary in so many ways, but I also knew it was the right thing to do. I have always wanted to be a mom and spent my life putting my career ahead of those personal decisions. I knew what I wanted and it was time to put ‘me’ first.”
After the birth of her daughter Camryn, Felix felt the weight of needing to ‘snap back’ immediately or endure a pay cut of 70% less than her original contract. “I felt pressure to return to form as soon as possible after the birth of my daughter in November 2018, even though I ultimately had to undergo an emergency C-section at 32 weeks because of severe pre-eclampsia that threatened the lives of me and my baby.” She shares, “Experiencing complications with my birth opened my eyes to the fact that no one is immune from this reality. Now, as an advocate for maternal protection, I realize that Black women face significantly higher risks — ones I wasn’t really aware of and looking for. I learned that Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes regardless of their socioeconomic status.”
Following her pregnancy, Felix began to speak out publicly about the sexist policy and her bravery inspired other athletes to come forward with their stories. The industry’s reaction was swift. Not only did her then sponsor introduce an upgraded maternal policy, other sports apparel brands began following suit. Reflecting on this shift she reflects, “I’m continuing to learn about how severe of a problem this crisis is, and because of my experience, I am committed to using my platform to raise awareness around this issue. I am extremely proud to be an elite athlete and to have this legacy on the track, but it doesn’t stop there.”
Since coming forward, Felix decided to start her own brand with the mission of putting women first. She co-founded Saysh, with her brother Wes, offering innovative cushioned sneakers specifically designed to fit the shape and form of a female foot. The brand recently introduced a Maternity Returns Policy, an innovative retail solution for expectant mothers, who shouldn’t have to choose between pregnancy and comfort. Understanding that women’s feet can change a half or even full-size during pregnancy (a change which tends to be permanent), Saysh will offer a no-string attached exchange policy. Customers who have previously purchased a pair of Saysh Ones will receive a complimentary pair of fresh sneakers, in their new size, should the customer experience a change in foot size upon becoming an expectant mother.
In detailing the policy she shares, “As a runner, I have to pay attention to every little change in my body, and I went through a lot of change during pregnancy. I didn’t even realize that my feet could grow that much. I was tired of begging brands to meet me where I was, as both an athlete and a mother, and I was tired of sacrificing comfort and style so I decided to make my own rules. At Saysh, we hope this policy sets an expectation that women should never have to sacrifice being a mother for anything.”
While the Maternity Returns Policy is a product-focused initiative, Saysh also has established a parental leave policy for their employees, which includes four months of full pay, followed by a two-month transition period at part-time status, partner flex time, a new parent stipend, and access to emotional and mental health resources and support throughout and post-pregnancy. Additionally, to ensure a gentle transition to and from leave, Saysh plans for overlap of the replacement hire and the parent leaving/returning.
With plans to retire after the 2022 season, Felix is dedicated to leading the race for maternity protections and creating a future in which inequality is undermined by female creativity and athleticism. Most recently, she met with Vice President Kamala Harris calling on both the public and private sector to address pregnant women’s health, safe childbirth and postpartum care. She says, “I am more than a sprinter. More than an Olympian. I am a mom. If I can use my voice and platform to speak on the inequalities facing Black pregnant women and the Black maternal mortality rate, I absolutely will.”