A LEAP OF FAITH: After an incredible career that saw her compete in five successive Olympic Games, Bahamian long jumper Jackie Edwards discusses how she is now focusing on her fledgling maternity business…
Athletics has never been a sport for the fainthearted. The physical wear and tear on the body of a competitive athlete is relentless and, with injury an occupational hazard, careers can be precarious. Yet, Jackie Edwards defied these challenges to enjoy huge longevity as a world-class long jumper.
A debutant at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992, the Bahamian competed at the next four Games to join a select group of five-time Olympians, making her final appearance in Beijing in 2008.
As with most athletes, Edwards had to fight the potential ravages of injury and fatigue in order to keep jumping throughout her 17-year international career, battling a knee injury in the lead-up to the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 before an Achilles tendon tear forced her into retirement in 2009.
Nine years after her last Olympic experience, she is now forging ahead with a new career that draws heavily on her sometimes-painful experiences as an athlete, having launched Tootsies – a range of maternity compression socks for women to help them with the swollen legs and feet, and the varicose veins that are often associated with pregnancy.
“I used compression socks regularly throughout my athletics career to increase blood circulation, reduce soreness in my legs after training and speed up recovery, so I know all about their benefits,” she explains. “The idea for Tootsies came nearly two years ago after a conversation with a pregnant friend. She was complaining her legs were swollen, so I gave her a pair of compression socks. The next day she rang me and said they had really helped with the swelling, and that was the germ of my business idea.
“I did a bit of research and realised there was nothing on the market that was specifically for expectant mothers. There were lots of products for athletes, sports-branded socks, but nothing more feminine and specifically designed for pregnant women.”
The launch of the Tootsies retail website was the first step in Edwards’ business plan, followed by numerous trips to maternity trade shows across the United States to increase the company’s profile and garner feedback on the product. The key to real success, however, was always going to be placing the brand with a larger retailer, and Edwards has recently made just such a breakthrough.
“We have just agreed a deal with a well-known maternity clothes company in the US called ‘A Pea in a Pod’,” she says. “They have agreed to sell Tootsies on their website initially and, if they prove popular, they will roll them out in their stores. They have over 1,000 outlets, so it’s a big step forward for the company.”
Edwards is a psychology graduate from Stanford University and also has a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology; and she admits her qualifications, combined with her long-lived Olympic experiences, have helped as she makes the transition from athlete to entrepreneur.
“My academic background taught me all about focus, motivation and setting goals,” she says. “You need all three to be a successful athlete, and the same applies when you are setting up a business. You have to have a clear vision of where you want to get and exactly how you are going to get there.
“Athletes are no strangers to hard work and sacrifice, and that also helps in the world of business. The big difference as an athlete is that you’re only reliant on yourself, while in business you have to deal with third parties, suppliers and printers, and they’re not always as passionate about what you’re doing as you are. I’ve found that hard to come to terms with.”
With no previous business experience of her own, Edwards takes advice and guidance from wherever she can get it. She cites US TV show Shark Tank – which sees budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to millionaire investors – as her “weekly business tutorial”, and draws inspiration from Sara Blakely, the woman who set up the hugely successful Spanx company in the United States, selling shaping underwear and leggings.
By her own admission, Edwards’ learning curve with Tootsies has been a steep one over the last two years, but her advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is reassuringly simple.
“I am a great believer that you should sell the problem you solve rather than the product,” she says. “It is a simple but very effective strategy. Pregnant women suffer from swollen and painful legs and feet, and Tootsies helps solve that. That is my mantra.
“It’s crucial to never stop learning. I think I’ve come a long way since I first got the idea for Tootsies, but that doesn’t mean I or the business are the finished article. Keep talking to as many entrepreneurs and business people as you can, because you will be amazed at how much incredible insight you can get into things like branding, marketing and advertising.
“Finally, I’d stress how important it is to embrace social media, even if it’s not initially your thing. The opportunities social media presents are almost unlimited, and if no-one knows about your business, it doesn’t matter how good your product is.”
For more information on how to make your entrepreneurial dreams a reality, visit the IOC Athlete Career Programme’s online resources on Education, Life Skills and Employment at https://www.olympic.org/athlete-career-programme.