Black people are Super Heroes, and Lessons from Michael Jordan

An interview with Jason Mayden of Super Heroic

Jason Mayden is the co-founder and CEO at Super Heroic, an activewear brand designed to enrich the lives of kids through play. He was previously the global design director for Nike’s Jordan brand where he designed shoes for Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Eminem among others, and he was Director of Innovation on the Digital Sport side at Nike. Today, he’s leading a fast paced brand of his own, and recently announced a $7 million venture raise to jetfuel Super Heroic.

In this interview produced by OF10podcast, Will Lucas (OF10podcast host) and Jason Mayden discuss the magic of black people, why Jason can only compete with himself, and what he learned from Michael Jordan.

Note: This portion of the interview is derived from the audio interview heard on the OF10podcast with Will Lucas. To hear the podcast, subscribe in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

This interview has been edited for length.

Will: What about life growing up – were there entrepreneurs or designers who inspired you to do your thing in your family or people in your neighborhood?

Jason: I saw entrepreneurial activity, I saw creativity, but I didn’t see the formal incarnation of either one of those archetypes that you described. I did see a lot of people who used their imagination, didn’t make excuses, were very empathetic in terms of how they saw the world, create their own opportunities. And so for me, every single day in Chicago you have to creatively navigate. So that kinda kept you in a nimble mindset which is very similar to a founder’s mindset. So I wouldn’t say I formally saw it, but I saw the behaviors of both constantly.

Will: I don’t remember which talk to you said this in, but you said you would rather become first you rather than anybody else. I grew up in the midwest in Ohio, and for me I always knew success was possible, but it wasn’t until I moved to Atlanta and saw young black men, younger than I was, who were doing it – living successful lives. That’s when I realized successful was possible for me. So I think your line meant more of, you’re not trying to compete with anybody else. You’re competing with yourself. And I wonder how you jive that with seeing representations of what it is you want.

Jason: How was it possible for me to keep myself motivated to move forward without having a tangible example? It really came down to seeing the products and services that I really admired. That was what was driving my desire. I knew I fell in love with the products like the Jordans and you’re looking at cars and toys and in graphic novels and comic books. I fell in love with these and I started to ask myself, well, who creates them? That I think was the fundamental question. Who did this, who did this and that? That kind of fueled the pursuit. I found bits and pieces of the process, I’d find a sales rep here, I’ll find a marketing person there, and each person that I interacted with was an extension of things that I loved. So it really came down to me constantly asking who did what. Then I discovered the role of the designer. And then I found out about people like the Tinker Hatfield’s of the world and so on. Or the Gucci’s of the world. So it really started with me falling in love with someone else’s output.

So what that statement truly means is just not allowing myself to discount my own gifts and talents and valuing everything that I bring to the table. So many times we look at others and think ‘I can’t do what they do, therefore I’ll never be as good’, but if you look at what you’ve been given, you look at your strengths and weaknesses, your gifts and talents, you’re meant for a very specific purpose. If you find out what that purpose is and you’re perfectly prepared to take advantage of the opportunities as a result of that purpose – then that’s a life worth living. And so for me, I just never tried to compare myself to someone else and assume that their life is better than my own. Everyone’s life should be viewed as valuable and unique.

Will: Being an individual is often suppressed because it’s not something we want people on the block to know what we do as it can be perceived as soft. How do you encourage young people who like things and are attracted to hobbies like jazz, or comic books, or drawing, or poetry, or spoken word, like those types of things when it’s traditionally not street enough, but still to allow their individuality to shine and be able to make it to these higher echelons of industry when those are the things that make them unique and their value proposition shine?

Jason: Authenticity is earned, it isn’t given. When you are the person that you mentioned displays behaviors that normally aren’t associated with inner city activity or certain cultural norms and people assume like, oh man, that’s not masculine enough or that’s not a cool enough of a career, or you’re different or you’re a nerd as you’re into these things. All they’re saying is whatever it is about you that makes you happy and vibrant and joyful is something that is unique and different enough for people to call it out because it makes people uncomfortable. Like, ‘why aren’t you doing things the way we do?’ It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. It just means that your path is meant for you to do something.

That doesn’t move the ball forward, that doesn’t allow us to create what’s next. That doesn’t advance the culture. So it’s difficult because we’ve often only allowed in one or two examples of what success looks like. If you’re not an athlete or if you’re not a musician or if you’re not insert visible career here, then it’s not valuable. And I think we need to really expand and broaden the definition of success because there are people who are very, I would say exceptionally wealthy in spirit and in love and in resources, but they may not have the brand name, but they definitely have the respect and authenticity. Those can be high school coaches, those can be local barbershop owners. We just need to get over the fact that fame doesn’t equal success. I think the more people believe that success is simply having optionality and creating generational wealth, that removes the stigma of, or the burden of, having to also be famous and influencer at the same time.

Will: Let me position it more as a dad. I have kids, young kids and you have young kids as well and so it’s easier to have that conversation when you’re trying to inspire the parents or the community to allow that kid to be their-self. But if you’re talking to my seven year old girl, all she wants to do is fit in, like most kids. All they want to do is be accepted by their peers. How do you as a father inspire. Say, “hey, you know baby girl,” or “hey son, it’s OK to like stuff that your peers don’t.”

Jason: That’s such a great question. You know, I have this conversation with my kids all the time, because both of them, they’re polymaths. They don’t function or think like most kids in their grade and oftentimes their maturity level is different than kids in their grade. They can’t relate to the emotional outbursts and its hard. What I tell them is, you’re obviously I meant to be a leader. Therefore you’re not going to have the same struggles as other people. Your position of privilege, the things you get to see, things you get to do in your life are not normal. Therefore, you’re obligated to figure out how to use your access to service others. I’m always telling them things like this, to remind them like ‘you don’t have the average upbringing, the way we talk to you, the way we’ve educated you to the way we’ve allowed you to see the world is going to have you be a little bit different than your peers’.

But that’s OK because when you get to college, and it’s all about individuality and learning how to push yourself and learn how to time manage and how to advocate for yourself, you’ll be prepared.

We don’t have the luxury of hiding the true from children anymore. You know, we can’t just tell them “that’s an adult topic”. They’re going to hear about everything just like we do. So we have to now switch our mindset instead of shielding them. It’s simply revealing different layers at the appropriate time of what the world is really like. And if we tell them that the natural disposition of a child is simply seek refuge within popular norms and to fit in, then we build a generation of people who are only consumers and who are intellectually sheep who can’t create, who can’t think differently, and who can’t innovate. And my greatest fear is that as we get older and we’re in our time of need and our elderly years, that we don’t have a generation of people who can’t think creatively on how to help move society forward to support our needs.

Will: We often get inundated with, I guess ‘success porn’. We open up Techcrunch and everybody’s raise a gazillion dollars or you know, see this person exited for this much etc. And when I saw your announcement about your recent fundraising round, I was so happy for you. But it also fueled me like, motivationally, I’ve got to step my game up. I’m not competing with you obviously, but seeing what my peers are doing is fuel. So when you talk about, ‘I’m not in competition with what somebody else is doing’ which is a quote you stated in some other recent interviews, how do you think about using that fuel, being happy for that person though?

Jason: It’s such an important question you’re asking. I definitely want to really unpack that and dig into it because there’s so much that you said that I think speaks to the exact reason why we haven’t seen the increase that we’re hoping for in particularly black entrepreneurship. We as a people for some strange reason have always had to appoint one of us to represent all of us. You know, in every other culture you’re allowed to have multiple examples of what it looks like to be successful. There is no such thing as the “Number 1 well known Chinese entrepreneur”, there’s many. From LKS, to Jack Ma, the founding team of QQ, the founding team of WeChat, you could go on and on, right? No one has to be stuck with one example of your cultures excellence.

We’ve decided that it can only be one. And when that happens, there’s this rank and file. Well, since we’ve all subjugated ourselves to be less than, now we’re fighting for positions to be second to the one, and third to the one, and fourth to the one rather than saying that there is no such thing as “the one”, all there is is “the many” and all of us are successful in own right. If we are doing things that are happening for the first time, that are advancing the ability for us to create jobs, that are getting our ideas and dreams out into the world in a monetizeable and consumable way. So first I think we have to stop electing one person to represent all of us. That’s not healthy. It puts too much pressure on that person.

It makes all the rest of us feel like we’ll never be as good. When I see someone succeed, which is why I always surround myself with people who, as I mentioned, do things better than me in other areas of my life, I get so happy.  Because if he could do it or she could do it, man, I know my blessings are coming.

Hear the podcast episode in full here.