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Former Nike Product Director & Proud New Yorker, Sarah Sukumaran, Looking To Disrupt The Hypermasculine Sneaker Market With Her Female-Centric Brand Lilith
"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."
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator")
Canada
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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.

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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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What does success look like for you with Lilith in the next 3 years?

Today, success is definitely hearing our customers gush about our sneakers being stylish and super comfortable. I always take time to chat with customers and get 1:1 feedback to help us iterate on future products. For the future, it’s Lilith becoming a household name and broadening our reach of customers beyond bi-coastal cities. We launched in November 2021 and have since received inbound wholesale requests for the US and internationally which is still wild to me because wholesale was so far off in our plans.

What’s been a failure (or “learning lesson”) you’ve experienced during this process of launching Lilith and what did you learn from it?

The pandemic showed me that you can't control what you can’t control but you can do your best to contingency plan for future scenarios. We had delay after delay because of factory shutdowns in China and our sneakers showed up stateside much later than anticipated. Another lesson learned is to surround yourself with and build with a team of people who genuinely bring the same energy and enthusiasm to your project. I found that some partners I hired would constantly ask me to compromise or half-ass requests or sometimes had their own thoughts on what the vision should be for the project. It’s a good reminder to follow your intuition and filter through the noise when you need to execute. 

Photo Credit - Kathyrn Page

What advice would you give your fellow female Tamil entrepreneurs out there?

This advice is definitely shared time and time again but taking the leap is the hardest part. I spent 5 years feeling guilty or having feelings of regret for not quitting my job sooner to start building a company. Contrary to what some folks think, you don’t necessarily need to quit your day job to build on the side unless you’re looking to take on external VC capital. (VC typically requires you to work full-time on the startup.)

But another observation is that starting a company as a woman isn’t always celebrated by friends and family the way getting engaged/married or having a child is celebrated. Starting a business is just as important as those events but there’s rarely reciprocity when it comes to support. A lot of founder friends had given me a heads up that this was quite common and sure enough it played out that way with some of my friends. But with that said, you will most definitely find new folks along the way who completely get you, your vision, and will support you 150%. Invest in people who invest in you. 

What made you decide to be the Founding Member of Chief and a member of the Female Founder Collective?

I joined Chief as a Founding Member because much of my tech career was working with and managing teams of men.  I jumped at the opportunity to join a network made of women who shared similar career ambitions. I didn’t quite realize what I was missing all these years working in tech with only men!

What role has your family played in the choices that you’ve made in your life so far?

Early on in my career, I definitely chose jobs out of necessity and ones that I felt would have high ROI - that’s how I ended up in tech despite getting a Business degree. Tech jobs paid well and I knew that would go a long way to pay down my student loan debt, family bills and set my parents up for retirement. My parents definitely wanted me to choose a career path that brought financial security because that was something we didn’t have growing up. They couldn't and never really wrapped their heads around my tech career - they just knew I lived out of a suitcase for many years. But my family has always known that I’m fiercely independent and am going to follow my gut with anything I choose to do. Despite my family being at the center of my career decisions, I rarely run my career plans by them, mainly so they’re not stressed. 

What do you do outside of work for fun?

I was lucky to have a career that allowed me to travel quite a bit for work and leisure. But I haven't done much of that the past 2 years while building Lilith. Apart from traveling, I love diving into a new book, checking out a new restaurant, exploring a new gallery, and watching true crime documentaries. But I hope I’m able to finally travel this year. 

What is an insecurity you have?

I wish I was little bit taller. (I wish I was a baller)

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

Oof. I don’t really know. I haven’t given much thought to that but folks often refer to me as a rabble rouser for better or worse. There’s so much work to be done in the way of equity in the workplace and that’s something I’m quite vocal about given some experiences early in my career and stories I hear time and time again from friends.

What do you think you would tell 16-year Sarah looking back?

Stop skipping track practice. 

What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. Kawakami’s prose is beautifully poetic and explores systemic oppression and expectations of women in Japan’s working class. It had a bit of a controversial debut given how Japan is still very much a patriarchal society. 

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

A good friend once shared “when you follow your intuition, you’re always on time”. It’s a great reminder in a world that forces us to compare ourselves to others' timelines and accomplishments, especially as founders.

I’m trying to be more consistent with my meditation practice - it’s definitely grounding when the world around me is chaotic. And I know I operate better when I eat healthy (I love sweets 🥴), work out, meditate, take my supplements and all that good stuff.  

Photo Credit - Jonathan Wijayaratne & Ryan Wijayaratne

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

I would definitely invest in a project related to books and literacy. Books and public libraries were critical in my upbringing. My siblings and I would spend countless hours there and we’re all avid readers. I do a lot of book giveaways via our Lilith IG account. Many of the issues we’re seeing unfold in the US is due to lack of knowledge and literacy and sheer ignorance. Books and an overhaul of our education system are the answers.

How has the American (or specifically New York) Tamil community impacted you both personally and professionally? 

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t grow up with strong ties to the Tamil community in Queens so I couldn’t say I was particularly impacted there. But I will say, as I’ve gotten older I crave having access to the Tamil community the way my cousins have enjoyed in Toronto. I love my quick weekend or one week trips to visit family where I eat my weight in Tamil food. Hearing Eelam Tamil being spoken on the regular is something I delight in whenever I visit. It may seem silly, but it doesn’t matter how many times I visit Toronto, I’m always thrown off by hearing and seeing Tamils everywhere. I love it. 

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Meal: Idiyappam, chicken or fish curry and sambal always 😋

Dessert: Seeni Murruku or Vaipan made with ripe plantains. #protip You get a bit of a floral jackfruit flavour when you make it with plantains. 

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

I don’t really watch Tamil movies anymore.

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

Tamil culture is so rich, historical, and vast that I’m constantly learning as I get older what it means to me. I travel back to Nainativu frequently and enjoy spending time there recounting my parents’ stories of growing up. It often feels like time is suspended there which requires the New Yorker in me to stop and smell the flowers.

But I will say I most appreciate Tamil culture through our food culture. My mother is an amazing cook and I spend a lot of time shadowing her in the kitchen (though my food simply does not compare to hers). 

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Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host ("The Tamil Creator") | TamilCulture.com
Canada
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