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6 Nike designers share how Serena Williams changed their lives

Three years, ago, the tennis superstar launched Serena Williams Design Crew with Nike, an apprenticeship program for designers of color. It’s already having a huge impact.

Serena Williams may be a tennis legend, but she’s also obsessed with design. As a Nike-sponsored athlete since 2003, she has collaborated with the brand to design clothes and sneakers for two decades. And this has shown her just how underrepresented Black designers are in fashion. Three years ago, she came to Nike with a new concept: She wanted to launch an apprenticeship program for designers of color. In 2020, the Serena Williams Design Crew was born.

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Every year, Williams handpicks at least 10 designers from across many disciplines, inviting them to Nike’s headquarters to work alongside her on her collection throughout the year, with the possibility of landing a full-time job at the company afterwards. Each cohort comes from a single city—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, so far—allowing Nike to delve deep into the local talent pool. Williams is keen to hire designers who may not have a traditional background, and to build relationships with organizations like Harlem Fashion Week that could lead to more diverse hiring going forward.

“Throughout my years at Nike, I’ve always tried to figure out why the pipeline into design is so, so hard for people of color, ” says Jonathan Johnsongriffin, VP, global creative director of innovation, who helped launch the program at Nike. “But not all designers have the privilege to go to a design program. It’s a huge learning for us that bringing in diverse talent from different places allows us to stimulate creativity.”

We spoke to six designers who went through the Serena Williams Design Crew program and went on to get full-time jobs at Nike afterwards, to hear about how the experience influenced their career.

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Emiko McCoy, Nike Women’s Apparel Designer

For me, it has always been significant that Serena Williams championed this project because she looks like me. To have an icon, GOAT, someone that I consider the greatest athlete ever, to commit her time and energy to bring a diverse team of designers together, speaks to the impact of change through sport and design, that Serena and Nike are creating.

[Illustration: Cat Sims]

Mika Osoro, Nike Footwear Materials Designer

Having worked in the fashion industry for over a decade, I initially started working with the Crew’s design process in the same manner I was “trained” in the industry. But, as the process evolved, I was able to pivot outside of the box and use unconventional ways of thinking, telling a stronger story, and approaching design differently. This was such a beautiful and refreshing process. Changing my mindset allowed me to challenge myself and contribute in a unique way.

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[Illustration: Cat Sims]

Chantel Sanchez, Nike Global Brand Designer

As a designer from a small town with no connections, where design was not encouraged as a possible career, it was incredible connecting with all kinds of talented creatives at Nike. I enjoyed learning how they all work independently yet cohesively together to create a compelling story and are expanding the look and feel of sport for a new generation.

[Illustration: Cat Sims]

Toussaint King, Jordan Kids Footwear Designer

As a person who does not come from a traditional design background, Serena and Nike building this platform was my way into the design industry. My favorite experience during my apprenticeship with the Serena Williams Design Crew was designing a special version of the Air Force 1 for Serena herself. Having the opportunity to design a pair of shoes for such a powerful and inspirational woman in the Black community who is helping to uplift new voices and forge the future of design is a highlight of my career.  

[Illustration: Cat Sims]

Nelissa Carillo, Jordan Apparel Designer

As a Mexican-American designer, it was not always easy to get the visibility and recognition I felt I deserved. Being a part of the Crew has granted me the exposure to highlight my work from a diverse perspective and voice. Serena’s own career trajectory of inspiring others and opening the door for them to follow in her footsteps gives me so much motivation to hopefully create a path for others like me to pursue design. I truly believe that we are charting a new path for diverse creatives and creating a more equitable and inclusive industry.

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[Illustration: Cat Sims]

Juan Huerta, Nike Footwear Graphics Designer

I was working in Nike Retail and had just graduated from FIT, with hopes of getting into Nike Design. Being Latino, it’s difficult to get these types of opportunities, and when I was chosen to be in the Crew, it was like a dream come true. It was, in many ways, life changing. This experience with SWDC and working as a full-time Nike designer has also reinforced how important it is to be part of an inclusive workplace culture. One where you can bring your authentic self to work while shaping what a more diverse design community can look like, and what it can deliver.

This story is part of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards. Explore the full list of companies creating products, reimagining spaces, and working to design a better world.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a Senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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