How A Kid With $0 Built Nike

the tale of a true American underdog

How A Kid With $0 Built Nike

the tale of a true American underdog

“The cowards never started and the weak died along the way. That leaves us, ladies and gentlemen. Us.”

Long before reading the pages of "Shoe Dog," I witnessed the omnipresence of Nike.

The kid on a new bike, the grandfather jogging at dawn—all adorned in their Nike gear.

It was clear: Nike wasn't just footwear; it was a statement, a lifestyle, a movement.

But behind every great brand lies a story—a story of grit, of relentless pursuit, of overcoming the impossible.

Phil Knight, the visionary behind the brand, epitomizes this journey.

In 2023, Forbes estimated Phil Knight's net worth to exceed $40 billion, securing his place among the 30 richest people on the planet.

Yet, Phil’s influence extends far beyond his wealth.

He revolutionized the athletic world without ever being a professional athlete himself.

By aligning Nike with the greatest athletes, from tennis legend John McEnroe to basketball supremo Michael Jordan, Phil Knight infused the brand with unparalleled credibility and allure.

Under Knight's visionary leadership, Nike has perfected the fusion of fashion and function.

It remains a timeless style icon while continually pushing the boundaries of athletic performance. This unique blend of appeal and practicality is the holy grail every sports brand aspires to achieve.

Even after retiring from Nike's board in 2016, Phil Knight’s legacy endures.

His accolades are numerous: induction into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and countless other honors.

His contributions to business, sports, and philanthropy have solidified his status as a true titan of industry.

As we delve into this awe-inspiring narrative, let his journey be a beacon of hope and motivation.

Let it remind you that with vision, determination, and relentless effort, you too can leave an indelible mark on the world.

We all have mentors who inspire us, whose habits and practices we strive to emulate.

But when I started reading Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog,” I was hooked on a deeper level. It revealed the simple truths every entrepreneur faces, resonating profoundly with my own journey.

Today, you’re getting this in a mere 3,700 words—a distilled essence of Knight's extraordinary journey.

Welcome to the revolution. Welcome to the legacy. Welcome to the extraordinary.

Welcome to the kid who built Nike.

Today on David to Goliath:

  1. Finding His Mentor

  2. Gap In The Market

  3. Following His Heart and Discovering Destiny

  4. The Inception of a Giant

  5. Finding The One

  6. The Business Betrayal

  7. Sleeping Giant is Awoken

  8. Signing The G.O.A.T.

  9. The Trio of Tragedy

  10. Philanthropy

Finding His Mentor

Phil Knight was born into a humble family, the eldest of three children.

His mother, Lota Knight, dedicated herself to nurturing her children, while his father, Bill Knight, initially embarked on a career in law before transitioning to newspaper publishing, overseeing the Oregon Journal.

Growing up in the Eastmoreland neighborhood of Portland, Phil attended Cleveland High School, where his interest in academics was minimal.

A common narrative for many who would later carve extraordinary paths.

In 1955, Phil enrolled at the University of Oregon. It was here that he discovered his true calling.

While many saw him as a typical student, he was far from ordinary. He found an unwavering passion for sports, particularly running.

The thrill of racing, the joy of pushing physical limits, and the euphoria of breaking barriers became his world.

He trained under the mentorship of the legendary coach Bill Bowerman, who was renowned for his innovative approach to enhancing athletic performance.

An amateur shoe designer, Bowerman was a relentless tinkerer, constantly perfecting his craft to give his runners an unparalleled edge.

Phil didn't just find a coach; he found a father figure.

But little did either of them know this partnership would birth the biggest shoe sportswear brand the world has ever seen.

Gap In The Market

Upon graduating from the University of Oregon in 1959 with a business degree, Phil stood at a crossroads, uncertain of his next move.

Eager to explore different paths, he enlisted in the army for a year.

However, his true interest beckoned elsewhere—somewhere between the realms of running and entrepreneurship.

Realizing this, Phil set forth on a journey of knowledge and insight.

He enrolled in night classes at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he immersed himself in the world of commerce and strategy.

This was 1962, amidst a running landscape dominated by European giants Adidas and Puma in the U.S. shoe market.

It was at this point that Phil’s vision began to take shape.

Japan, rising with its burgeoning manufacturing capabilities, particularly in footwear, captured his imagination.

He saw beyond the status quo, recognizing the potential for Japanese production to deliver superior sneakers at more accessible prices.

With clarity and conviction, he sat in small business classes, championing the competitive advantages of Japanese manufacturing over entrenched European brands.

The contours of a new era in athletic footwear began to emerge. The vision grew clearer.

“I’d tell men and women in their midtwenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.”

A vision where Germany’s stronghold in the running shoe market, anchored by Adidas and Puma, would face a formidable challenge in Phil’s strategic calculus.

So armed with inspiration and a deep understanding gained from his studies, Phil set his sights on bringing this ambitious vision to reality.

But to do this, he knew he must venture beyond familiar shores.

Following His Heart and Discovering Destiny

Phil graduated with an MBA from Stanford in 1962.

Yet, his spirit yearned for more than a routine job; it craved the extraordinary.

Eager to explore the world, with a loan from his father and a carefully crafted itinerary alongside a Stanford friend, Phil embarked on a voyage around the globe.

“How can I leave my mark on the world, I thought, unless I get out there first and see it?”

Japan, a land ablaze with innovation, beckoned.

He had to go and see first-hand the craze that was brewing in the Japanese shoe scene.

When he arrived, he met with executives at Onitsuka Tiger shoe company (now Asics) and toured their factory in Kobe.

He was amazed at the cheap production costs and the speed and quality with which the Japanese company could produce shoes.

He knew that these would rival anything being put out by the industry goliaths back in the U.S.

Inspired by this revelation, Phil seized the moment and proposed to become Onitsuka’s exclusive U.S. distributor under the banner of Blue Ribbon Sports.

He didn't just want to witness change; he wanted to drive it.

His audacious offer was met with agreement, and soon, samples were on their way across the Pacific Ocean.

Phil’s global trip continued.

Like a modern-day Odysseus, he traversed Asia’s ancient landscapes, stood in reverence amidst the remains of empires in the Middle East, and gazed upon the timeless marvels of Europe.

Among the ancient ruins of Greece, he stood before the awe-inspiring Temple of Athena Nike— the goddess of victory, carved in timeless stone. 

In that sacred silence, Phil felt a profound connection to the countless warriors and philosophers who had stood in this very spot.

He could almost hear the chants of the victorious Athenians mingling with the sacred stones.

Undeniable. Eternal.

It was here, in the shadow of the temple, that Phil was struck by a revelation.

“Life is growth. You grow or you die.”

He understood that victory, through tales of valour, was not just an endpoint, but a journey, a relentless pursuit.

This was a place that would be etched in his heart forever.

And planted the seed for the name we all know today.

But before all the success, it was time to head back to Portland to receive the first sample of Tiger shoes.

The Inception of a Giant

Phil received the samples when he returned to the states, as he began work as an accountant for half a year.

He sent some of the samples to his former track coach Bill Bowerman, who was at this point a legend in the track community.

Bowerman asked to meet Phil to discuss the shoes and offered to be a business partner.

“I was a linear thinker, and according to Zen linear thinking is nothing but a delusion, one of the many that keep us unhappy. Reality is nonlinear, Zen says. No future, no past. All is now.”

On an auspicious January 25, 1964, with a handshake steeped in conviction, Blue Ribbon Sports was born.

It wasn’t just a company; it was a manifesto of innovation and integrity, crafting tools for champions, built upon the foundations of passion, functionality, and comfort.

Phil asked Onitsuka for more shoes and the exclusive distribution rights for Tiger shoes in the Western United States, funded by another loan from his father.

He and Bowerman took to the track meets, spreading the gospel of affordable performance-oriented footwear through the power of personal endorsement and the burgeoning medium of print advertising.

Their commitment to excellence soon resonated across the athletic world in the US.

Blue Ribbon Sports became synonymous with groundbreaking products tailored to athletes’ needs, marrying precision in production with an acute sensitivity to market dynamics.

The pair’s deep-rooted ties within the track community proved invaluable, placing their revolutionary footwear directly into the hands—and onto the feet—of real runners.

“Beating the competition is relatively easy. Beating yourself is a never-ending commitment.”

And around this time, the cultural tides were shifting.

The emergence of jogging as a national pastime could not have come at a better time.

Once a niche activity confined to dedicated athletes and fitness enthusiasts, running now swept across neighborhoods, parks, and city streets like a wildfire of well-being.

It was time for Phil to go all in, securing vital loans from the First National Bank of Oregon to sustain the momentum of Blue Ribbon Sports.

To Phil Knight, it was do, or die.

Finding The One

Throughout Blue Ribbon’s formative years, Phil defied conventional wisdom, maintaining minimal equity and re-investing every bit of money into inventory.

To sustain his dream, he balanced his entrepreneurial pursuits with his full-time job as an accountant, auditing companies and learning invaluable lessons about financial stability.

Always learning, always evolving. Always innovating.

But doubts still loomed. Financial institutions voiced concerns over the company’s unconventional equity strategy.

Remember, this was the 60s—a time when Venture Capital was a fledgling concept, not the powerhouse it is today.

“The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting, and I now reminded myself of that fact. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past.”

Suddenly, a letter arrived from a coach claiming exclusive US distribution rights for Onitsuka products—a shock to Phil, who believed he held those rights.

Without hesitation, he flew to Japan, met with Onitsuka’s founder, and secured exclusive distribution rights in the Western US.

It was a triumph of persistence and negotiation, but the journey didn’t stop there.

Phil’s sister joined as a part-time secretary, a friend became a sales powerhouse, and stores sprouted across America.

Challenges came—competitors encroached, setbacks arose—but Phil met them head-on, jetting off to Japan again and again, forging new alliances, and expanding his empire.

Phil made a bold move, quitting his job as an accountant to teach accounting at Portland State University.

This change allowed him more time to focus on Blue Ribbon Sports.

During his off-hours, he continued selling shoes out of the back of his car at regional track meets.

And while teaching he met Penelope Parks, one of his most capable students.

Recognizing her potential, he hired her as a bookkeeper for Blue Ribbon.

Their professional relationship soon blossomed into a personal one.

They began dating, met each other’s families, and decided to formalize their relationship.

He’d found the one.

And 60 years later, they’re still happily married. 

Meanwhile, in the background, Bowerman was secretly chipping away at something extraordinary.

But out of nowhere, their business partner stabbed them in the back.

The Business Betrayal

In 1967, Bowerman modified the Onitsuka Tiger to create the Tiger Cortez, which they planned to introduce at the 1968 Olympics.

The sneakers proved to be highly popular, and by 1969, they hit $1m in sales in a single year.

This success led Phil to quit teaching and manage Blue Ribbon full-time.

Everything was on the up.

Then out of nowhere, the unthinkable happened: the First National Bank of Oregon ended its relationship with Blue Ribbon.

Shoji Kitami, the export manager for Onitsuka Tigers, and the company founder of Onitsuka visited Blue Ribbon’s Oregon offices, where tension came to a head.

Their long-time friend had stabbed them in the back.

But being the creative spark he is, Phil had other ideas…

Phil discreetly took some papers from Kitami’s briefcase.

These papers revealed Onitsuka Kitami had plans to visit numerous other distributors during their US trip.

Just as it looked as if Blue Ribbon was going to collapse, Onitsuka attempted a hostile takeover.

Phil rallied his troops and sought another Japanese ally, Nissho, to manufacture their own Sneakers.

In a pivotal moment, Nissho provided some financing, under the condition of a full audit, during which they discovered Blue Ribbon had actually misrepresented their use of a previous load, secretly using the money to build a new factory while claiming they were still using third-party manufacturers. 

“When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is—you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.”                                                                                             

Remarkably, Nissho did not mind the deception. The manager responsible for the Blue Ribbon relationship told Phil, “There are worse things in life than ambition.”

Nissho's support went beyond finances; they assumed all of Blue Ribbons debt to the Bank of California and even withdrew from a separate deal to punish the bank for its treatment of them.

This loyalty was instrumental in the company’s survival and growth.

But they would need a brand name for their new products…

Sleeping Giant is Awoken

In a moment of spontaneity, Phil made a decision that would forever change the landscape of the athletic footwear industry.

Blue Ribbon needed a fresh identity to match its growing ambition.

Initially, the heads of the company were deciding between the names “Falcon” and “Dimension Six”.

Then the name “Nike,” randomly appeared in a dream to Jeff Johnson, Blue Ribbon’s first employee.

And of course, it was a name which meant a lot to Phil, having been to visit the temple of Athena – the Greek goddess of victory.

On a whim, Nike was born. It was a bold, unexpected move that reflected the company's daring spirit.

A name fit for Champions.

Trading under this new brand, complete with a swoosh logo commissioned for just $35, the company began manufacturing shoes with a newfound vigor.

The first production run took place in a factory in Mexico, followed by additional manufacturing in Japan, all made possible by the critical funding from Nissho.

This rebranding was not just a change of name; it was a declaration of a new era.

The unveiling of Nike shoes at the Chicago National Sporting Goods Association show was a watershed moment.

The reception was overwhelmingly positive, confirming that Nike was not just a new name but a formidable force in the market.

“just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where “there” is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”

Retailers and athletes alike were captivated by the innovative designs and superior performance of Nike shoes.

In 1971, Bowerman designed a groundbreaking line of sneakers with waffle soles. These soles offered superior traction, revolutionizing athletic footwear.

However, as with any great journey, success brought its own set of challenges. Onitsuka, the original Japanese supplier, discovered that Blue Ribbon was already selling Nike-branded shoes.

Feeling betrayed, Kitami declared that the contract between Blue Ribbon and Onitsuka was terminated and presented them with a bill for the shoes delivered.

This confrontation was a critical turning point for Phil and his team.

It was a moment fraught with uncertainty and risk, but also one of opportunity. 

With Nissho’s unwavering support and the passionate commitment of his team, Nike navigated these turbulent waters with a clear vision and unyielding resolve.

At the track and field trials for the Olympics, blue ribbon promoted Nikes to the athletes, and prepared to launch them at the 1972 munich Olympics, where Bowerman was head coach at the track team.

Knight started choosing young, unconventional athletes to endorse the Nike brand.

Step forward one Michael Jordan.

Signing The G.O.A.T.

Despite Nike's innovative strides and promotional efforts, the company encountered significant struggles.

Sales were stagnating, and the competition was fierce.

“There’s a kind of exuberant clarity in that pulsing half second before winning and losing are decided. I wanted that, whatever that was, to be my life, my daily life.”

To turn the tide, a Nike executive proposed a bold strategy: sign an endorsement deal with NBA rookie Michael Jordan.

At first, Phil was sceptical.

Could an unproven athlete truly make that much of a difference?

Yet, sensing the potential for a game-changing move, he decided to roll the dice.

The partnership was a masterstroke, intertwining the brand's identity with someone who would go on to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Jordan's charisma, talent, and relentless drive resonated perfectly with Nike’s ethos.

The result was the birth of the Air Jordan line, a series of sneakers that became a global phenomenon almost overnight.

The Air Jordan sneakers transcended their primary function as sports shoes to become cultural icons.

They symbolized athletic excellence, streetwear cool, and an aspirational lifestyle all at once.

Young athletes and fashion-conscious youth alike clamored for the latest designs.

The Air Jordans, perhaps the most recognized and sought-after shoes in the world, catapulted Nike to unprecedented stardom.

The endorsement deal with Michael Jordan was a seismic shift in how athletes and brands interacted.

It paved the way for future collaborations between sports stars and corporations, fundamentally changing the landscape of sports marketing.

Jordan's influence extended beyond the basketball court, as he became a global ambassador for Nike, embodying the brand's spirit and reaching audiences worldwide.

This bold move demonstrated the power of strategic risk-taking and the importance of aligning with influential figures who embody the brand’s values.

It established Nike as a trendsetter and leader in the athletic apparel industry.

“I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, shorter as a morning run, and I wanted mine to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And important. Above all... different.”

By 1990, under Knight’s leadership, Nike had not only overcome this hurdle but had also overtaken its competitors, becoming a dominant force in the global market.

Yet, amidst the company's soaring success, Phil Knight faced profound personal tragedies that cast long shadows over his accomplishments.

The Trio of Tragedy

Phil’s life was turned upside down when his eldest son, Matthew, died in a tragic accident In May 2004.

Matthew had travelled to El Salvador to film a fundraising video for Christian Children of the World, a Portland-based nonprofit organization.

While scuba diving with his colleagues, he suffered a heart attack 150 feet underwater, caused by an undetected congenital heart defect.

Phil and his other son Travis journeyed to El Salvador to bring Matthew's body back to the States, a heart-wrenching task that underscored the fragility of life even in the midst of business triumphs.

To honor Matthew's memory, Laika Studio's 2005 short film "Moongirl" was dedicated to him.

To make matters worse, Phil also endured the loss of two other influential figures in his life.

Bill Bowerman, his business partner and the co-founder of Nike, passed away from old age, leaving behind a legacy of innovation and a passion for athletic excellence.

And Rob Strasser, another pivotal figure in Nike’s ascent, died of a sudden heart attack.

Each of these losses marked the end of an era and the closing of chapters that had been fundamental to Nike's story.

Throughout Nike's growth and the inevitable changes in its leadership team, Phil remained steadfast in preserving the company’s rich history and unique culture.

He understood that a company’s soul is as important as its bottom line.

However, this commitment was tested by scandals involving the factories where Nike’s products were made.

Reports of poor working conditions and labor practices threatened to tarnish the brand's image and called into question the ethics behind its success.

Phil took steps to address these issues, implementing stricter oversight and ensuring better conditions for workers.

Nike's efforts to reform its manufacturing practices were not just about damage control but about aligning the company’s operations with its core values of integrity and excellence.

With all the heartache happening behind the scenes, Phil stepped into another realm.

The realm of philanthropy.


Phil’s impact extends far beyond Nike's corporate success.

His philanthropic endeavors have left an indelible mark on academia, healthcare, and athletics, reflecting his co mmitment to giving back and shaping future generations.

His generosity has been especially felt at Stanford University and the University of Oregon, institutions to which he has donated substantial sums.

His contributions to Stanford include a landmark $105 million donation in 2006 to the Graduate School of Business, at the time the largest ever individual donation to a U.S. business school.

In 2016, Phil furthered his philanthropic legacy with a groundbreaking $400 million gift to establish the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program at Stanford.

Modeled after the Rhodes Scholarship, this initiative empowers graduate-level students to tackle global challenges such as climate change and poverty.

Continuing his commitment to advancing medical research, Phil and his wife Penny donated $75 million in 2022 to Stanford's Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.

This transformative gift established the Phil and Penny Knight Initiative for Brain Resilience, aimed at studying cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

His contributions have significantly bolstered both academic and athletic facilities, including funding for the renovation of the Knight Library and the construction of the Knight Law Center.

In athletics, Phil’s support has been transformative.

His contributions enabled the construction of facilities like the Matthew Knight Arena, named in honor of his late son, which serves as a hub for Oregon Ducks basketball and other sporting events.

Phil’s vision for enhancing athletic facilities also led to the creation of the Marcus Mariota Sports Performance Center, equipped with cutting-edge technology to optimize athlete performance and development.

As of 2023, Phil’s lifetime giving approaches an astonishing $2 billion, underscoring his unwavering dedication to making a positive impact on society.

Life is an adventure of ups and downs, twists and turns.

But there’s one thing for sure.

When Phil Knight sits back in his rocking chair and looks back through his life no one can argue that he lived to the max.

A beacon of inspiration for anyone with big dreams and big visions.

Hats off Phil, your sir are a legend.

Until next time keep dreaming like a Giant.

But fight and believe in your dreams like a god damn underdog.

I’ll see you at the top.

-Nigel Thomas

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