It’s no secret that Black women have been killing sports in front of the camera like Jemele Hill and Cari Champion or on the court like Serena Williams. However, as a marginalized community, we’re still treated as though we’re at the bottom of the totem pole in comparison to other racial and gender counterparts. Playa Society founder and creator Esther Wallace has channeled her previous career as a Division I and professional/overseas basketball player to ignite her fire to create space and opportunities for young Black girls in sports because “girls cannot become what they cannot see,” she told HelloBeautiful.
Esther Wallace began designing shirts in 2015 and after her professional basketball career ended, she was inspired to recreate basketball-inspired t-shirts for women that she would buy from the men’s department. In 2018, she officially launched Playa Society and her designs have since been endorsed by players in the WNBA, NBA, USWNT, NWSL, and NWHL. “I believe that by designing for women in sports I can help amplify their voices and influence societal change,” Wallace told HelloBeautiful about her passion for design and its impact on the sports industry. This past January, she quit her full-time job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to run Playa Society full-time and has since been managing to double her profits throughout COVID-19 and staying in business successfully.
HelloBeautiful had the chance to catch up with the Playa Society creator about her journey through black-woman entrepreneurship, gender equality and representation in sports, and how the media and sports teams can do a better job at protecting our Black women and girls.
HelloBeautiful: What sparked your initial interest in sports? What was your journey like as a teenager and young adult Black female athlete?
Esther Wallace: I was a tall kid, and I had a math teacher who was a basketball coach when I was in middle school. He would always try to recruit me, but I was never interested. I had my mind made up, at a young age, that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I started high school at a performance arts school, focusing on costume design, but I transferred after a week to go to school with my friends. Honestly, it was all about timing because I ended up at a high school with the best girls basketball team in the state, and a couple of the best players in the country. Also, I had grown a few inches that summer, so I was 6’1”. Once I saw the girls at my high school, and saw that girls basketball was kind of a big deal there, it piqued my interest. The more examples of women basketball players I saw after that, like Tina Charles, Candace Parker, and Sylvia Fowles, the more I wanted to be one. It was crazy to me as a teenager to see groups of black girls being cheered on and celebrated.
How did your experience as a DI and professional basketball player teach you that “girls cannot become what they cannot see”?
I earned a DI scholarship after playing for just 2 years, so that’s what led me to realize that representation is really important. I had such a short basketball career, but what if I had started sooner? What if more girls saw positive representation of women in sports and decided to play? Those are the questions I started to ask myself when I was playing overseas in England. I didn’t know I wanted to be an athlete when my math teacher told me I should be one, but I knew it once I saw these tall black girls with braids carrying themselves with confidence on the basketball court. They looked just like me.
When, if ever, have you experienced or bear witness to a Black woman experiencing hypersexualization, sexual harassment or not being taken seriously as an athlete?
Honestly, I experienced it a lot as a young basketball player. Since I had to practice and play twice as much to catch up in high school and college, I was often the only girl on the court with the boys. There’s almost always that one guy who is either going to spend the whole game trying to ask for your phone number, or challenge you because you’re a female. Sometimes they take it easy on you because they don’t respect you, and other times they feel threatened and try to intimidate you.
I’ve gotten into a lot of arguments with guys on the court, especially because as I got older I started to stand up for myself more, and if I would see another girl on the court being disrespected I’d stand up for her too. A year ago I got into it with a 40 year old man who kept grabbing me so he didn’t get scored on ‘by a girl’, and just a couple of years before that I was playing with all men and a guy gave me a black eye with his elbow after I blocked his shot three times in a row.
When did you know that you wanted to become an entrepreneur? How does your experience as a Black woman play a role in your passion for gender equality and representation?
Once I started playing basketball, I abandoned my dream of being a fashion designer. I wanted to become a basketball coach instead. But while I was overseas, I was exposed to so many unique experiences and I started to think I could make an impact for girls and women beyond the basketball court. I had my first thoughts about entrepreneurship while I was playing and getting my master’s degree in England. Initially I thought that I could simply build a business that promotes recognition for women in sports. But as a black woman entrepreneur I realized that it was so much bigger than that. Whether I intended to or not, there are young black girls that see me and see some version of who they want to become – an athlete, an entrepreneur, a speaker, a leader. So, recognition and representation for Playa Society is just as much about being a black woman as it is about being a female athlete. I want more black girls to play sports just as much as I want them to see themselves as entrepreneurs.
What is the Playa Society?
Playa Society is a brand that is committed to promoting recognition and representation for women in sports through intentional design. We give female athletes an opportunity to challenge the status quo, and create our own narrative with wardrobe staples like t-shirts and socks that make a statement. Additionally, Playa Society builds a community for women in sports by highlighting our authentic, shared experiences.
How has your experience as a Black woman athlete played a role in your career as a designer and entrepreneur?
Young black girls are disproportionately affected by the barriers to participating in sports like cost, access, and representation. I was no exception. I started playing really late because of a lack of representation and exposure. My parents had to find creative ways to pay for travel basketball during the summers and I had to learn how to play the game without many resources. That is the foundation of who I am as a designer and an entrepreneur – I make something out of nothing and I’ve learned how to be a creative problem solver using design.
I started making t-shirts in 2015 with a small amount of savings and since then, resilience has gotten me to where I am now with Playa Society. My experiences on the basketball court taught me how to navigate all of the challenges I deal with as an entrepreneur.
How was The Female Athlete T-Shirt first received when you put it out into the public? What was the original brainstorm behind the concept?
I remember exactly how nervous I was to launch the Female Athlete T-shirt! When you design something that you think is dope, the worst thing that could happen is for everyone you intend to love it, to actually hate it. That was my fear. But I posted the shirt on Instagram and it got the most likes and comments that I had ever gotten at the time, in 2017. The traction moved pretty quickly over a few months and that led me to launch Playa Society in 2018.
The design was pure instinct. I think it was in my head for a long time without me realizing it. In college I always questioned why the men’s gear said ‘basketball’ and the women’s gear said ‘women’s basketball’. Why is male the precedent? Putting that line through the word female felt liberating, and honestly I hoped that a lot of women would feel the same way.
How do you believe sports publications, teams, management, etc. can do a better job at supporting women – namely Black women – athletes?
The media has a lot of influence in dictating societal perspectives, and sports media needs to own that as it relates to women’s sports. There needs to be a shift for female athletes, which starts first with increasing media coverage. We don’t just need more coverage; we need to shift the focus of the stories from what women can’t do and tell the stories of what women in sports are achieving everyday, leaving the conversation open for women to define our own limits (which we’ll ultimately prove don’t exist). Black women need more black sports journalists, editors, and coaches. The representation at the top for a league like the WNBA doesn’t match the representation of the players, which is over 80% black women. So who is there to speak on their behalf when promotional decisions are being made? Hire more black people.
Where do you see Playa Society and the future of designs for women in sports going?
Playa Society is building the brand that myself, and a lot of athletes from my generation, needed when we were younger: a brand that prioritizes representation and facilitates meaningful conversation for women in sports. I’m a serial designer, so there will certainly be an expansion of products, beyond the t-shirts that I’m currently known for. I believe that there’s so much room for development when it comes to designing for women athletes, we’re complex. Sometimes we dress more feminine, and other times more masculine. The future is in balancing those concepts.