Former Nike Product Director & Proud New Yorker, Sarah Sukumaran, Looking To Disrupt The Hypermasculine Sneaker Market With Her Female-Centric Brand Lilith

Tell us about your upbringing and how that ended up shaping your passion for tech, and eventually footwear?

I was born in Elmhurst, Queens, NY and at that time (80s), there weren’t many Tamil families settled in Queens just yet. My mom’s entire side of the family settled in the Toronto area and my dad’s side was scattered between Canada and Europe. So I didn’t grow up within a strong Tamil Diaspora community and therefore didn’t come under the scrutiny of any community members. I think my upbringing would have been a lot different if we grew up elsewhere with my parents comparing us to other Tamil kids. 

Luckily, Queens is amazingly diverse so growing up here was a blessing and I’m thankful to my parents for settling here. I always joke that Queens culture is sneaker culture. My love of sneakers definitely developed from hanging out with guys on basketball and handball courts. Growing up in the 90s where the NBA and players were in their prime, influenced my love of certain styles. I wasn’t the least bit athletic but loved basketball silhouettes like the Nike Air Way Up, Uptempos, and Foamposites. But my go-tos were Air Max 95s and Air Max Pluses. I definitely dressed like a tomboy or even a middle aged man, so over time, I also had a lot of New Balance in my rotation. 

In terms of tech, I didn’t even know what engineering or computer science was when I was in high school. I wasn’t exposed to tech being a viable career path. At the time, I loved the sciences and thought a career in genetics was in order. But by senior year of high school, I quickly decided I wanted to major in Business in college so I applied to 4 year undergrad business programs and ended up at Babson College. But once I entered the workforce, I discovered startups and coding, which came naturally to me. I would become more and more technical on the job and that’s how my passion for tech transpired. I knew I wanted to start my own business down the road but didn’t know it would be in footwear until I was 29 or so. This is probably the first time in my life where I’ve explored the creative side of my brain. I’m slowly coming to terms with referring to myself as a creative which a lot of folks have referred to me as, as of late. 

How do you think your early tech experiences (Experian CheetahMail, Sailthru, SAP) helped you get the opportunity at Nike?

It definitely helped to have a technical background in ecommerce analytics and a track record in the startup space. Nike was particularly interested in the fact I was Head of Product at a startup that was acquired by a larger corporation (SAP). In 2018, Nike completed an acquisition of a predictive analytics startup so they were really looking for a Director of Product who had experience managing teams in both a startup and corporate setting to help transition the newly acquired team.

What attracted you to the Director of Product role at Nike? 

To be honest, despite being sneaker obsessed, working at Nike or any other footwear brand was never on my radar. I was working at SAP at the time and still very much focused on building my career in tech and deepening my skills on the backend & DevOps side of things. I wasn’t proactively looking for a new job at the time but a Nike recruiter reached out to me with the opportunity and I thought it would be dope to apply my data background and love of sneakers to the role. In a way, the role also offered the opportunity to jump back to the startup world, working with the newly acquired startup team, which at the time was still very lean and moved fast.

What made you decide to leave Nike to pursue creating Lilith? 

For one, I come from a tech startup background so I prefer a fast paced work environment and despite working with a lean team, found that we were still getting caught up in red tape from the broader organization. But most importantly, I was deeply frustrated at how slow the industry was moving as a whole. Despite a lot of data showing that women were outspending men in sneaker sales, I felt women consumers were still overlooked and underserved. Not much had changed since I was a young girl around colorways, styles, inclusive sizing. As grown women, most of us were still shopping in the men’s and grade school sizing sections. I had an idea in 2015 around changing the shopping experience and aggregating women’s sneaker styles.  However, I realized there was so much to do around building actual footwear specifically for women and that meant having to build a brand for the ground up that wasn’t going to be rooted in hypermasculine sneaker culture. 

When you left Nike (recognized brand name) to start your own brand – what was the social commentary from your friends & family like?  Did anybody try to discourage you?

Most folks were generally excited. They had known I was obsessed with sneakers for a long time so the move wasn’t entirely unsurprising. They would often be on the receiving end of my complaints regarding the struggles of sneaker shopping. But some were shocked that I would leave a great paying gig at Nike especially in 2020. My last day was March 2nd, 2020, which was 2 weeks before the world caught wind of the global pandemic, so there were some folks wondering if I could pull this off in a pandemic. 

How did you come up with the “Lilith” name?  What will make Lilith stand out in the highly competitive market of footwear? 

I actually came up with the name in 2015, long before I launched the brand! I knew I wanted to build a company in the women’s footwear space but wasn’t quite sure what exactly. But I wouldn’t take the leap for another 5 years. According to Jewish and Mesopotamian folklore, Lilith was the first woman, preceding Eve, as the first wife of Adam – the first feminist. She was written out of history by male scholars because she chose not to be submissive to man, and as a result, consistently labeled a temptress or evil spirit. But to me, Lilith is self-actualized. 

Her story resonated with me because most of my life and career was spent as a “woman in tech” or “woman in footwear.” Lilith, the first feminist, as our namesake, is entirely apt and intentional. 

Lilith stands out in our storytelling and product. We intentionally invest in premium tooling and materials because historically women’s products have been a takedown of men’s. For me, seeing orders come in from outside the US has also shown me that the brand is resonating globally. There’s an obvious appetite for this product. 

How did you go about putting together your team?  

A lot of networking! Again, because I didn’t have a footwear design or development background, I had to seek out folks who could bring their experience to the table. Talking to folks in my different networks and sharing my plans on what I was building, opened doors and intros to footwear folks. And people were generally excited to make the connections – for some, this was the first time hearing of a women’s focused footwear brand. Our footwear designer (Sara Jaramillo) had amazing experience designing both heels and sneakers and was previously on the Yeezy footwear design team. 

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