Silicon Valley is famous for the startups that began life in someone’s garage. Nike, the iconic maker of athletic shoes, got its start in 1964 when its cofounder sold sneakers from the trunk of a car in Portland, Oregon.
Nike’s recent past has been a bit rocky. The company was shaken by allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination last year, a scandal that prompted the departure of a half-dozen male executives. Its ad campaign featuring ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was controversial and touched off a Nike boycott. Knight recently spoke at a View From The Top session at Stanford GSB and shared stories about his career and the company he founded. Here are a few things you might not know about Knight and Nike.
LeBron James and the Kaepernick Ad
Making an ad with an in-your-face social point of view isn’t something many corporations are willing to bet on. There was a certain amount of doubt at Nike when the advertising department showed the Kaepernick “Just Do It” 30th anniversary TV ad to CEO Mark Parker and Knight. “Parker looked at it and went, ‘Gulp.’ And they said, ‘Well, here’s the deal. If we’re going to get this in time for the campaign, you’ve got 24 hours,'” Knight recalls.
"You can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something".
Knight approved the ad. And part of the reason he took the risk was a conversation he’d had weeks before with basketball star LeBron James. At the time, Knight was worried about his grandsons, who were about to get their driver’s licenses. James confided to him that his son was about to start driving, and he worried that the young African-American man might get shot by a policeman. “I thought of the top hundred worries I have, and that doesn’t make my list. That was a real eye-opener,” Knight says.
As to the blowback about the ad, Knight says he couldn’t care less: “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”