‘You give everything to the things that matter.’

Lynn Le, founder of Society Nine, a modern women’s boxing brand based in Portland, Oregon, on role models, boundaries and the key lessons she’s learned running a business.
Q.
How did you end up starting a company around boxing?

‘I was a recreational runner, but I needed something new. On a school trip to Israel, I discovered Krav Maga and thought it was interesting, so I started training in it back in Portland. I ended up getting my brown belt. Then I started teaching kick-boxing and that’s where my ‘aha!’ moment came. The classes were pretty large – 30 to 40 people – and at least half were women. They’d always ask me where to find good boxing gloves, as the existing stuff was just really cheap, bubblegum pink gloves that weren’t designed to fit women correctly – they were either men’s gloves turned pink or kids’ gloves, which weren’t strong or stable enough for an adult athlete. I reached out to product designer friends and we developed our first product, a boxing glove designed for women. That was in 2015.’

Q.
Do you think that boxing is egalitarian? Can anybody just pop on gloves and do it?

‘From a fitness standpoint, absolutely. Anyone could pick it up. I mean, we have a brand ambassador who is in a wheelchair, so, from an accessibility standpoint, yes. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend just beating the crap out of a bag because there’s technique that helps prevent you from getting injured. These days there are so many decent YouTube tutorials of ways to stand right, how to punch, the speed and the recoil, all that kind of stuff. With gym closures right now, though, it sucks not to have corrections, which are really valuable.’

Q.
How have recent months been for you and the brand?

‘I like to say we’re optimistic cynics. You have to have both right now – if you get a win, celebrate that win. But then, also, enter every week a little cynically just because it gives you a healthy sense of perspective. It’s unpredictable. In the US right now, gym closures are very real – not just temporary closures, but permanent ones. 

‘Some of the biggest chains are declaring bankruptcy. I feel very grateful that our customer base and community are so loyal. They’re also very self-sufficient. When Covid-19 first hit and everything was closed, people adapted at-home workout situations. We had a customer who posted an Instagram story of them taping kick pads and punch pads to a tree in the middle of a Brooklyn neighbourhood. The tree was essentially fully padded and it became their heavy bag.’

Q.
What are some of your top lessons learned about running a business?

‘First, it’s truly a marathon, not a sprint, which is so cliché, but I can’t emphasise it enough. I’ve felt the physical manifestation of that before – of pacing yourself. I know what it’s like to be training in a ring and to spar for an hour or more, testing your endurance throughout that whole process. Ten per cent of the entrepreneurship game is skill, speed and power – but 90% of the game is mental. 

‘Second, you are who you keep around. Throughout the journey, you’ll find yourself in lonely places, but once you unearth powerful and valuable friendships and connections, you realise their power and value and you don’t take them for granted. You give everything to the things that matter. All the frivolous stuff just goes away. 

‘Finally, boundaries are incredibly important. There’s a proliferation of hustle porn. Don’t get me wrong, I dump my all into the business – but there are degrees. Am I Elon Musk? No. He dedicates every ounce of energy to his businesses – but that’s a choice he makes. I believe I can build a successful business without needing to do that. You have to ask yourself the question: do I want Elon Musk’s or Jeff Bezos’ level of fame or wealth? If so, what would I do with it? What are my values and morals? Because you’ll have to sacrifice many of those things to get there. And that’s the theme of restorative justice that’s happening right now, right? 

‘Win-at-all-costs capitalism is ultimately on the backs of the most disenfranchised and marginalised people. And so I think that’s why the boundaries are really important. What gives you joy? If it’s money, then OK, I guess that route works. But I give my all to the things that matter, whether that’s work or personal life – and then I disconnect and give to the other thing that matters, which is me. I’m in the middle of all of this; I’m the nucleus. For a lot of people that might feel really selfish, which is why it’s not innate. But that’s also why I encourage it.’

Q.
How do you personally set boundaries?

‘On weekends especially, I’m pretty militant about not checking my email. I might do light work, but even so, I’ll set a boundary. I know my anxiety will feel better if I catch up on something for three hours – say, Saturday from 9am to 12pm – and only focus on that one thing, meaning nobody else can talk to me. But then after 12 comes around... I’m done.’

Q.
Who are your role models?

‘My mom and my grandma, who’s 88. My mom is a two-time cancer survivor and a war refugee who’s paid off three houses and three cars. They were entrepreneurial in survival, but they thrived. My mom taught herself the stock market to earn money for travel and fun. The pressure I put on myself when I first started the company was to fund my mom’s retirement and support the family. And now I’m like, she doesn’t need me! There’s also Melanie Strong, the former GM of Nike Skateboarding. My relationship with her has fundamentally changed how I carry myself in my personal and professional life. Having a female executive mentor like that is so powerful and so needed.’

Q.
And who are your most admired brands?

‘Chobani, the yoghurt company. The immigrant story of founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya – how he’s addressed systemic inequality in Idaho, how he’s creating passive mobility within his company in terms of roles and leadership for women, people of colour, the disenfranchised, and also his philosophy around food waste. His form of capitalism is the kind I believe in: you can create a massive conglomerate and not completely destroy people.’

This article was first published in Courier Issue 37, October/November 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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