How A Broken Heart Helped Abby Wambach Find Her Passion

Hannah Jones, Nike’s chief sustainability officer, and Abby Wambach, a two-time Olympic gold-medal soccer player, explain how individuals and businesses can change the world.


As the chief sustainability officer at Nike, Hannah Jones is rethinking how the athletic brand produces its products. As an activist, retired soccer player Abby Wambach, who holds the record for most goals scored by any American National Team player (male or female), is fighting for equality for people of all genders, identities, and sexual orientations. In their own ways, both these women are making the world a better place.


At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Jones and Wambach joined editorial director Jill Bernstein to discuss how individuals and corporations can begin to effect positive change. Here are three rules these inspiring women live by.

1. Break Your Heart

Abby Wambach retired from professional sports in 2015, but her work isn’t done. The self-described “recovering soccer player” has a new opponent: inequality. She’s working to close the gender pay gap and make sports a level playing field for all athletes. Wambach’s experience as a gay woman led her to her second act–fighting for people who experience inequality every day, something her own life story made her familiar with.

“The thing that fed the activism part of my life is that I’m different,” Wambach said during the panel. “I’m not the status quo. I want to always fight for the little guy or the voiceless because certain parts of my life are the minority because I’m gay or I’m a woman.”

“We have a lot of room to grow,” Wambach added, “but the way I started out in [the activist] world is because I’ve become myself. I am who I am. I think that’s where any true activism is born from. My heart breaks. The way to truly figure out what you’re passionate about is to find out what breaks your heart and fix it.”

2. Reframe The Conversation–And Embrace Friction

At Nike, Jones has been working to make the brand’s supply chain more sustainable, from materials to labor. One of her recent achievements is Flyleather, a new composite material made from recycled leather. Shoes made from Flyleather are four times stronger than traditional leather sneakers, and reduce the carbon footprint by 80% and water consumption by 90%.


“The way I think about disrupting the status quo is it’s a huge reframe and innovation conversation,” Jones says. “We’re about making the impossible possible and the possible the new normal.”

Early in her life, Jones received inspiring words of advice from a mentor. He told her that at some point she would have to decide for herself if she would be more effective shouting at the system from the outside or working from the inside to change it. Nike wasn’t always interested in progressive manufacturing values and famously came under fire for using sweatshop labor–a problem that still persists today. But by reframing the conversation, Jones has been able to make change happen–slowly, but surely.

[Photo: Daniel Salo]
“So much of this starts by reframing,” Jones says. “When we thought about sustainability [in the past], it was framed as something counter to luxury or counter to business success. If it was sustainable, it was more expensive or less good. The reframe happened in the company when we stopped seeing sustainability and labor rights as a risk and a burden but as an innovation opportunity. That’s a powerful reframe . . . Every friction is an innovation or growth opportunity.”

In the past, activism was thought of as a threat to the bottom line, but Jones says not adopting stronger values and ethics is more of a threat for 21st-century businesses.

“[My 14-year-old daughter’s generation] sees the world through a different lens,” Jones says. “They see a world of injustice and a world that’s severely injured. There’s an emergent wave of activism we haven’t seen in years. This generation is hyper-focused on values and are activists. They expect brands to redefine ‘premium’ to include sustainability, to include fighting for equality, to include gender fluidity. Embracing belonging is the way to go.”


3. Stay Optimistic

In this day and age, the challenges–racism, women’s rights, climate change, income inequality–seem insurmountable. But Wambach emphasizes that we need optimism to persevere and move forward.

“You have to have two focal points,” Wambach says. “You have to have the nearsightedness of what’s happening now to try to fix things you see on the daily. For me it’s equal pay and LGBTQIA rights. It’s Black Lives Matter. But you also have to have a big-picture point of view.”

She points out that while today it seems like we’re stagnating–and even slipping backward–taking a longer view reveals that we have come a long way in the past century. It’s essential to have both of those perspectives, she says.

“From a human evolution perspective, we are doing really good things,” she says. “When you’re in the nearsighted focus of the day-to-day, it can be daunting. If you feel hopeless, take yourself out of the day-to-day. Get off social media. Be with the people you love. Look at it from a different lens so you can be more present and courageous in your day-to-day life. Obviously, optimism is important. But for me, optimism isn’t as important as doing the day-to-day stuff.”

Both Wambach and Jones see urgency in the day-to-day work, even if the returns will take time.


“Things are going to change; that is the certainty of life,” Wambach says. “During my lifetime, people might not become equal and it might not be perfect, but I’m going to do my best to make sure my kids have a chance at it.”

To conclude the panel, Jones repeated one of her favorite quotes, which is attributed to the sci-fi author William Gibson: “The future is here; it’s just not distributed equally.”

But perhaps if we all follow these three rules, the future will change for the better.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.