Lanny Smith set an ambitious goal for himself when the pandemic started: launch a Black-owned athleisure company that invests in Black communities. Indeed, the former professional basketball player has done just that.
Launched on Black Friday, Smith founded Actively Black in 2020 with the intention of uplifting Black people and reinvesting in Black communities and organizations around the world. Actively Black is a premium athleisure and sports apparel brand designed by us for us. The brand’s motto: “We are not asking for a seat at the table anymore. We are building our own table.”
Only months after its launch, Smith’s former University of Houston classmate Dr. Seun Adigun, the flag bearer for Team Nigeria, asked him to outfit her country’s Olympians in the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics. This groundbreaking partnership is not only a monumental moment etched in history for the brand, but a step forward for Black-owned, small-businesses around the world.
Smith, who saw a void in representation and investment back into the communities, whose culture creates the “cool” factor for those said brands, sought to support programs that provide resources and education to neglected communities and generate awareness that will continue to drive meaningful change. In this conversation with ESSENCE, Smith talks the importance of bringing more representation to the fitness industry, the brand’s latest capsule collection and why it’s important for Actively Black to exist.
Why the shift from Active Faith to Actively Black? What sets this line apart?
Over the last 5-years, Active Faith Sports has been a huge success; we’ve generated $20+ million in sales and have active consumers across 65+ countries. Active Faith Sports was recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest growing private companies in America. I still own Active Faith and it is still its own separate entity. I just felt like it was time to use my experience and knowledge gained from building Active Faith to do something specific for the Black community with regards to my decision to build and launch Actively Black.
Seeing first-hand the impact we had on the Faith-based community, I was inspired to create a brand that would have a similar impact on the larger Black community. I developed Actively Black with the intention of uplifting Black people and reinvesting in Black communities around the world. Actively Black represents the greatness in our DNA.
It’s very important that we — Black people — see more of ourselves in the fitness industry. Especially when it comes to inclusive apparel to suit active lifestyles. As a Black entrepreneur, how important is it for you to bring more representation to the fitness industry through your product line, the people that you work with, and the culture that your brand represents?
Fashion trends, what we wear and how we wear it, is a reflection of our culture – particularly Black culture. It’s important that our communities not only see Black culture and style represented in fashion, but also see people who look like them in the campaigns designers and brands present to the public. Seeing yourself represented and knowing that a product is made specifically for you is empowering, and that power is really at the heart of what Actively Black stands for. For too long, our culture has been profited off of but not represented. Actively Black aims to change that.
Why is it important for a company like Actively Black to exist?
We see Black culture and Black style used by mainstream brands to inspire their products and create cool and cutting edge campaigns that drive sales not only from mainstream consumers, but also that target Black-consumers. Yet we don’t see those brands reinvesting back into Black-communities or using their dollars to uplift the very Black creatives or Black-owned companies that inspired their work.
We are no longer asking for a seat at that table. Black-entrepreneurs and business owners like myself are building our own table. We are the founders behind the brands that support our communities, the ones that generate meaningful and lasting change. With Black-owned labels like Actively Black, we have the ability and funds to invest in organizations and programs that provide Black people – creatives, athletes, scholars, entrepreneurs – with the resources and education to succeed in any industry.
Our company is rooted in a culturally rich network from our own communities from which ‘the culture’ has been borrowed from for ages.
How did you come up with the concept to create a capsule collection honoring three of the first Black NBA players who broke the color barrier in pro-basketball in 1950?
When we discuss athletes during the civil rights era, the impact and legacies of sports icons like Jackie Robinson and John Carlos are synonymous with the movement, but as a lifelong fan of the NBA, as a player myself, I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with Nat Clifton, Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper. As the first Black players who broke the color barrier in pro-basketball, they left an indelible mark on the sport and I felt drawn to use my platform to bring awareness to their stories.
I partnered with the players’ families for this collection to commemorate their lives and to tell their stories authentically by uplifting the voices of the people who knew them best. It’s important that the impact they had, beyond basketball, on the larger civil rights movement is recognized and celebrated. I hope that by learning about their stories and wearing this collection, a sense of pride will reverberate across the Black community and be felt by younger generations of athletes.
The Pioneer Collection [launched] during NBA All Star Weekend.
Where do you see Actively Black going in the next few years and what are your plans for getting it there?
I see Actively Black becoming a global brand that connects the entire Diaspora. Being able to outfit Team Nigeria for this year’s Winter Olympics is a great start to that reality. I also see Actively Black expanding into content and events and finding creative ways to impact the people outside of just providing some fashionable and functional athleisure apparel. I’m blessed to have Rich Dennis and Kwame Anku as investors in this brand as they have now given me the capital and resources needed to build out an incredible team that can scale this brand and take it to another level. In the next few years, Actively Black will extend its reach, build out it’s own platform, and also become THE destination for top Black talent to come and work without feeling the need to code switch or feel suppressed. I plan on utilizing the current momentum, the addition of incredible Black talent, and all of the many opportunities presenting themselves to achieve these goals and more. The opportunities are endless.