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Columbia Business Monthly

Lisa Lindahl, SC resident and inventor of the sports bra, talks about creating an industry

Feb 05, 2020 12:12PM

By Dustin Waters

Before she invented the sports bra in 1977, Lisa Lindahl was a student and aspiring artist with a passion for running. What began as a joke between her and her sister—if men can have the jockstrap, why isn't there something to offer female athletes adequate support—would go on to reshape the athleticwear industry. 

"I was an artist and a student just trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. All of a sudden here I was in the world of sporting goods," says Lindahl, who today calls Charleston home. "I was never a jock. I didn't follow sports. I was in an alien world. It was like getting on a horse and realizing you're on a race horse in the middle of the Kentucky Derby. But falling off is not an option."

As a child, Lindahl loved playing dodgeball and swimming in the ocean, but when it came to high school gym class, she felt uncomfortable and self-conscious. Lindahl realized she was not alone in this crisis of confidence among young women. 

Then in 1972, the passing of Title IX opened up a whole new world for women in athletics. Although federal funding had ensured female athletes a place on the field, there still existed a gap in equality as it related to sports equipment tailored to the needs of women. The absence of a product such as the sports bra served as a clear sign that women were still not welcome in the athletic sphere.

"I was a struggling young woman, a struggling artist, and it was just another creative problem-solving venture. I don't know what the alchemy is that makes you someone who grasps onto a particular problem to solve," says Lindahl, who will be speaking at the Innovative Lives program hosted by the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation on March 4, 2020. "Running was an important part of my everyday and I wanted to be more comfortable. Why wasn't there something to make me do better and be more comfortable? It didn't seem that daunting a problem to solve."

While working on her new book "Unleash the Girls: The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (& Me)," Lindahl came across some statistics that showed the profound effect of the one-two punch that was the passing of Title IX and the invention of the sports bra. Between 1972 and 2001, college women's athletic participation increased from 15 percent to 43 percent. For high school athletics, female participation rose from 295,000 in 1971 to 2.8 million in 2002. 

"I had no idea how iconic this garment would really become. I've done a lot of other things in my life since then," Lindahl says, "but in 2014 when the Smithsonian took in all our old archives and put it in the American Museum, that's when I said this is really significant and realized that the combination of Title IX in 1972 and the sports bra in 1977 really changed the game—pun intended—for women and girls literally all over the world."

As the athleisure industry has grown, Lindahl has enjoyed seeing the diverse array of sports bras now available to women. However, while writing her new book, Lindahl became aware of the effort to design "serious sports bras" in response to many athletic bras flooding the market foregoing function for fashion. Also, despite many advancements in clothing technology over the past four decades, Lindahl says no athletic products have been mass-marketed that provide adequate support for larger-breasted women—an engineering problem that Lindahl hopes will be solved by the next great entrepreneur.

When speaking to classes of aspiring businesswomen, Lindahl tells her students that everything is about relationships, and you can't grow your business if you're not willing to grow along with it. 

"By its very nature, growth is change, so things are never going to stay the same. What happens as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, is that means you can't stay the same either," says Lindahl. "You can't keep thinking the same way or keep doing things the same way. If what is necessary to stay current, to understanding your customers' needs, or how the world itself is changing, you have to change too. That is the real secret and underlying principle to not only ongoing success, but also happiness."