When Emma McIlroy was seven-years-old, she loved fossil hunting behind the home where she grew up in Ireland. One day, she found a small, greyish rock and told her mum that she was sure she had found a mammoth's foot in the woods.
Instead of saying, “Yeah, right," her mum said, “Yeah, maybe" and took McIlroy and that “fossil" to the Natural History Museum. Turns out, that little rock was not a mammoth's foot. It was, however, a 200-million-year-old Ichthyosaurus skull, a prehistoric dolphin from the early Jurassic period and, in fact, it was the best example of such ever found in Ireland.
Her mom could have said, “Yeah, right," and McIlroy may have tossed that fossil or added it to her rock collection. Instead, her mom, said, “Yeah, maybe."
Fast forward to 2007, when McIlroy has finished her studies at Cambridge and is living in the US, working at Nike as an Associate brand manager. She soon works her way up to being a product marketing manager.
Then, in the summer of 2010, McIlroy and her friend Julia Parsley, also a Nike exec and also a self-proclaimed tomboy, were looking at clothes at Urban Outfitters. Nary an item of gender-fluid clothing did they find. When McIlroy suggested to Parsley that they start a clothing company to fill that gap, a clothing company that allows women to wear “whatever the hell they want," Parsely could have said, “Yeah, right."
Instead, Parsely said, “Yeah, maybe" and Wildfang was born. Even if their name doesn't sound familiar, one of their most prominent designs likely will, a simple black crew neck sweater with the words Wild Feminist emblazoned on it.
Wildfang calls itself “the company that seeks to build a home for badass women everywhere, while delivering menswear-inspired styling and irreverent content." Its queer founder is killing it at not only at doing that but also at inspiring women to start imagining life where, “Yeah, maybe" is queen. And Wildfang Is not just for tomboys, but rather for women who are tired of other people “shoulding" all over them, “And isn't that kind of EVERY woman?" McIlroy asks.
After leaving Nike in 2012 and launching online that same year, they opened their flagship brick-and-mortar store in Portland, Oregon. A New York store is slated for May and a Los Angeles spot is planned for the end of 2018. “We had 3 leases fall through in LA. So, we pivoted and are opening a store in NYC in May. It's going to be incredible. And honestly, we've learnt that when something falls through it's usually an opportunity to reassess and deliver something even better. Our Creative Director always says: when someone shuts a door, Wildfang opens a window."
But online and in store sales are only part of their mission. Making change in the world in the other. In 2017 alone, Wildfang helped to give $75,000 to a variety of charitable organizations including, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Joyful Heart, New Avenues for Youth, Tegan & Sara Foundation, I Am That Girl, Q Center, Girls Inc, and many others.
And just today, Wildfang announced that it is lending a hand to the last abortion clinic in South Dakota, Sioux Falls Planned Parenthood, creating a campaign that will allow the clinic to stay open. The campaign, We're Not Going Back, also offers donors the chance to fund an abortion for a woman who is unable to pay for it herself by donating $1000, which will go directly to Sioux Falls Planned Parenthood.
Billboards also were erected today New York, Los Angeles, South Dakota, and Portland that read, “WE'RE NOT GOING BACK." Why the twenty-second of January? Because it marks the 45th anniversary of Roe v Wade and still we fight for the rights won in that case. Wildfang is not messing around and it is challenging people everywhere to stand up with them.
Naturally, the path to success was not without its obstacles. Even her “Yeah, maybe" mum wasn't too crazy about the idea. “She was not a fan. She thought I was totally mad to leave a good job at Nike with security and benefits. She's come around though -- she is for sure a Wildfang now." And there were more than 70 no's from investors before there was a yes. What finally led to landing the money they needed you ask? Well, McIlroy says, “I definitely changed my approach to raising money and the people I'd been approaching. Usually when you hit a wall like that it means you need to change your approach. If I hadn't had a 'yeah, maybe' attitude I wouldn't have got through that period. It was pretty rough."
McIlroy has done a TEDx Talk on how putting “Yeah, maybe" ahead of “Yeah, right" can be the difference between the birth of a dream rather than a death. For McIlroy, it certainly did. Because of “Yeah, maybe" she became not just a fossil hunter, but a fossil finder. She became not just a clothing line co-founder, but the hub of a community, the creator of a force, the incubator for an attitude, all of which existed, but all of which were scattered and without any way to coalesce. Wildfang was born and this community, this force, this attitude found its home. And you can be sure that it's not going anywhere. In fact, growth is afoot.
“We want to keep building our tribe, our community. We'd like to see stores in New York, LA, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, San Fran -- anywhere women need a community and a platform. We are also working really hard on our product right now to improve the fit and the quality, but also expand the sizing range so more women can access it. Our new suiting will go up to size 20 and we're psyched about how awesome it looks. The long-term goal is to be her favorite brand and make a huge impact on our community."
That growth seems like a sure thing between who wears Wildfang and McIlroy's worldview, including just how vital being inclusive is. “It's a real mix. We always say: fashions change with the season but badass never goes out of style. We have customers who are 2 years old and customers who are 80 years old. And about 20% of people who buy our Wild Feminist range are men. We've always prided ourselves on being inclusive and not some bitchy, exclusive fashion brand. Let's face it -- there's so much work to be done in terms of gender equality, we'll take all the help we can get."
Ultimately though, McIlroy says that its honesty, authenticity, and heart that draws women to Wildfang. “Those are at the core of who we are and I think they feel that," she explains.
If you think you're not a “Yeah, maybe" person, you're in good company. You might be surprised to hear that even McIlroy says she's not always “Yeah, maybe" person. “That's kind of the point -- everyone struggles with it every day, every hour, every time someone asks you a question or throws out an idea. It's so easy to become a 'Yeah, right' person when you're tired or stressed. One big thing for me is to be aware of my energy levels and my stress levels. If I need more sleep I take it, I prioritize working out. I try to make my own health the top priority because, when I let it slip, I become a 'Yeah, right' person and when I am a 'Yeah, right' person it's not inspiring for my team.
One major roadblock to being a “Yeah, maybe" person is that functional fixedness gets in our way, a concept McIlroy talks about in her TEDx Talk. It's a process by which our brains will not allow us to see an object as being useful for anything other than its indeed purpose. For example, as an adult sees a blanket as a means to keep warm. A child might see a blanket as a cape, a body of water, a shelter, or even the wind. Functional fixedness is a block to creativity. It makes us believe that things can only work the way they have been working. The challenge is, how to work around a brain function that tells us, “You can't do that" or “That won't work."
McIlroy says, she's not sure you can avoid functional fixedness “because it's a product of how we are conditioned and socialized from a very early age." But you can work around it. “I think the key is self-awareness and recognition of when you're in that pattern. It's about having the mental strength to recognize what a 'Yeah, maybe' moment is and recognizing your power in that moment to behave differently."
Surrounding yourself with, “Yeah, maybe" people is a vital part of being a “Yeah, maybe" person yourself. How do you do that? McIlroy explains, “First off, you don't accept anything less. You cut out or distance yourself from the people who don't think that way. Secondly, you have to put yourself in places to find people who think similarly - perhaps that's a club or an event. Lastly, when you do find them, you make them clear how important they are to you and how grateful you are for them."
Because the “Yeah, maybe" message is as important as the Wildfang label, McIlroy already has a side project in the works, working with a professor at Portland State University. “She interviews me every month about Wildfang and captures a very real, raw, and painfully honest view of what it's like to start a company. Our hope is to hopefully make it a book someday. The goal is to reflect a much truer picture of what it's like to be a start-up CEO, versus what you see in the movies."
McIlroy also wants people to know that Wildfang is “a small team of people working our asses off to create a safe and empowering space for all women. We're led by a queer, immigrant woman. We aren't yet profitable, but we still gave $75k to charity last year. We literally get up every day with a singular mission to make the world better for women."
And there's still a lot to do in that pursuit, especially with incidents like when Forever 21 plagiarized McIlroy's work, offering a Wild Feminist t-shirt on their site. It has since been taken down. But we all know it will happen again, if not to Wildfang, to another woman-owned business.
When it happens, McIlroy has a request, a simple one. “If you want to support small business, women-owned businesses, female artists -- put your money where your mouth is and don't shop there. It's simple. Forever 21 will continue to plagiarize and steal people's designs, until consumers stop shopping there. Consumers actually have a huge power in this situation to make their views heard by spending their dollars elsewhere."
McIlroy has some advice for entrepreneurs. “If you're doing something special, something others haven't done - get a thick skin. Anytime you do something different -- dress differently, play different music, think differently, you'll face challenges. When you push the boundaries, you should expect resistance and that's okay. It means you're doing something right. Just put on your thick skin and keep going."
“Yeah, maybe" is poised to revolutionize the women's movement, as “It's a powerful tool when you really focus on it. It shifts how you think and how people feel around you. People want to work with you and for you. It's a tool that can make the impossible, possible."
Wildfang's very existence is a testament to and a vehicle for the power of women, in fact. McIlroy explains, “Wildfang is first and foremost a home for badass women. A place that all female-identified individuals should feel comfortable and empowered. We want to change how women are seen and hopefully break some of the boxes they've been put in. Our work often focuses on women of color and the queer community, because those are the women who need a platform and a community most."
That includes members of the queer community, which is why McIlroy sees being out and sharing one's story as more important than we might realize. McIlroy says, she thinks “it's critical for other young queer women to have someone to look up to. To know that they can be a CEO and they can start their own business. It's pretty simple - you can't be what you can't see."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.