In 2012, Lanny Smith founded Houston-based Christian sports apparel brand Active Faith Sports. It quickly took off, earning the No. 150 slot on the 2017 Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies in America. Since then, he says, he's wanted to create a similar brand for Black Americans, but it never felt like the right time. Below, Smith describes how his new, Los Angeles-based sports apparel startup, Actively Black, will reinvest in Black communities--and why he's launching in the middle of a pandemic. --As told to Cameron Albert-Deitch

I'm a Black man. I'm a Black founder. And I've had my own experiences with racism and discrimination throughout my life. That's a part of who I am and the lens that I see the world through.

Maybe a year or two ago, I had this idea of doing something that spoke to Black Americans the way Active Faith spoke to Christians who wanted sports apparel with Bible verses and faith-based inspirational messages. I put the idea on the shelf--but obviously, we've seen what's transpired over the last several months across the country. I don't think there's a better time for this than right now.

One of the recurring themes from Black people I've met who work at Nike, Adidas, Jordan Brand, Under Armour, these great companies--not just recently, we're talking years and years--is that they've felt marginalized. There weren't many of us in executive-level, decision-making, or ownership-level positions, even though it felt like Black culture was specifically targeted for consumerism.

I don't know if the Black community feels as though these different companies and brands have necessarily invested back in the communities. So instead of us continuing to beg for a seat at this table, let's build our own table. That's no disrespect to those brands--I love those brands. I still have them in my closet. I'm wearing Jordans right now. But this is bigger than just the product itself. It's bigger than just being Black-owned.

Health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, and hypertension affect Black communities disproportionately. Covid-19 is affecting Black communities at a way higher rate than any other group in the entire country. Some of that is because of the socioeconomic status of people of color in this country, and what that means for their access to great health care or healthy food options. If we can create a brand that speaks to our people and supports our communities, I think that can be powerful.

We'll find existing movements and organizations that deal directly with our physical and mental health, and donate a set percentage of every single purchase. We could fund food trucks with healthy options in underserved communities. I want to build out our ambassador program with trainers in all of these different cities--hopefully, we can provide free bootcamps on the weekends. We can create home workouts and a platform for them, because people may not have access to gyms. You don't see Equinox in these neighborhoods--you know what I'm saying?

I announced that I'm doing this on Juneteenth, even though the product won't release until August or September. It was important to do that while we have the world's attention. Plus, Active Faith's sales are more than double where they were at this point last year, and the reason is what gives me confidence to launch Actively Black in the midst of a pandemic: People will still buy things that they feel an emotional connection to.

The initial response has already been mind-blowing. I've received hundreds of messages saying, "I've been looking for something like this. I'm spending all my money with Lululemon, or Nike, and I don't feel like they truly have shown that they care--so I would rather spend those dollars with a Black-owned brand that I know has some sort of love and care for our community."

As an entrepreneur, you're wearing every single one of the hats--and I know the toll that's taken on me with Active Faith. So, I'm attempting to build out my team from the beginning. We need a creative director. We need a head of marketing. There may be several positions that aren't necessarily permanent positions. That's by design, to give as many people opportunity as possible.

We likely won't have an in-house photographer or videographer, because for each project, I may want to give a different Black photographer or videographer an opportunity. From a design standpoint, let's allow Black designers who may not get opportunity elsewhere to submit designs--and if their designs are chosen, they get a royalty or revenue share of that product's sales.

I have to highlight this: I want to hire women of color. Black women have been marginalized by fighting on two fronts. They've had to deal with sexism and racism. My mother comes from a very small town in Louisiana, was the first person in our family to graduate from college, and became one of the top computer programmers in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country. That inspiration from my own household--I see that value. I need to specifically make sure that I highlight, feature, and give opportunity to Black women.

I started Active Faith in my mother's garage, and in my mind, I was like, "I know this is going to be big." I didn't know how to quantify that with sales, revenue, or anything like that. I just knew it was going to have an impact on people.

I feel that exact same way about Actively Black. Whether this turns into a multimillion-dollar brand or we just do a few thousand dollars, the purpose behind it will still be fulfilled.

Published on: Jun 29, 2020