Her Background … Running has always been a part of Karen McDonnell’s life – “It gave me strength to get through anything and it gave me lifelong friendships” – and she has been in the running retail industry since 2007. She was a stay-at-home mom of two kids, Makena and Kai, for 10 years prior to getting into the business and now is co-owner at Sole Sports Running Zone, with three locations in Tempe, Scottsdale and Phoenix, AZ.

So tell us how you got to Sole Sports Running Zone.
It's a long story with many twists and turns, but in the end it all turned out for the best. I ended up with my current business partner, Lance Muzslay, and it has been a win/win since then. Lance and I have had a yin-yang type of partnership — he takes care of the back of the house and I take care of the front of the house. We empower our team to make decisions without us.

How do you two work together?
We learned early on that to be more productive we needed to delegate responsibilities. That is not an easy thing to do when you are first starting off. But, Lance and I figured letting go was the only way to grow. You surround yourself with an amazing team and there is no stopping you.

So how has the past year been for Sole Sports in dealing with the pandemic? 
In the beginning, it was the unknown that was the scariest part. We were "closed," but still doing e-commerce and curbside pick-up and that kept us going. I like to see the positive in most everything and I needed to make sure on the most challenging days I portrayed that to the team. I firmly believe in the top-down strategy,  leading by example.   

How did it affect the business?
Our business dropped roughly 40 percent in the month of April, but thankfully with the PPP loan we didn't have to let anyone go and we could keep paying our team. We ended the year strong and haven't let up yet.

How about personally?
On a personal note, I tried to take advantage of some of the down time I wasn't used to having. I love to read and got a chance to do so. I tried to read a non-fiction and fiction book every couple of weeks. A couple of my favorites are “Who's Got Your Back” and “Life Lessons.” The pandemic has hopefully reminded us how important it is to keep that work/life balance in check.

What is your “typical” day like these days? 
I love my job. I get to go to work and be around like-minded people that care about what we do. It’s not a punch the clock kind of job. Each day brings on a new challenge. I feel very blessed to have people around me to bounce ideas off and help resolve issues that arise. Making sure the inventory between the stores gets where it needs to on any given day is really important to us. 

Can you explain your management philosophy?
I tend to be the cheerleader, elevating the morale. You want to make sure to foster that environment so that it feels lively and comfortable once that first customer walks through the door. Retail can be so much fun, but there are definitely days that drain the energy out of you. Fortunately, those days are few and far between at Sole.

Here’s a question that gets various responses: Do you view yourself as a woman in the run specialty business or as a professional in the run specialty business? 
I view myself as a professional in the run specialty business. Of course we bring a different perspective being women in our industry, but I got into this business due to my love for running and passion for helping others reach their goals. 

Many people feel that run specialty is actually more equal in gender participation than many other businesses. Just look around The Running Event (when we have it again back in Austin in November!) and see how many women are walking the aisles and working in the booths. Do you agree with this?  
It is definitely becoming more balanced over the last decade. I remember going to an ASICS event back in 2008ish and the room was full of men and only a handful of women. It was an invigorating feeling, but I was never made to feel less than my peers. Thanks to empowerrun, Burke and Kathy have helped women confidently take a "seat at the table" and move forward together.

What makes your local running community unique? 
Our climate makes us unique. When it is over 100 degrees five months of the year we need to get creative. Runners have a tendency not to give up, so we run early in the morning or late in the night to do what we love. We are also unique in the fact that we are a large metropolitan area with one of the largest trail systems in the U.S. within city limits. We find ourselves being both avid trail runners and road runners.   

What do you think you bring to your business with a woman’s perspective as compared to your male colleagues? 
I am often called the "Store Mom." I have a tendency to be the more nurturing one who listens when people need to talk. Leadership is very personal. I like to give my support where it is most needed on any particular day. When someone comes to work with us they enter the Sole Family. It's an important part of who we are. Once you feel like you belong and are part of something, magic happens.  

Do you think having a woman running the business has helped your store reach more female customers?
Not necessarily. I feel that the dynamics in the sport have changed. It is no longer a completely male-dominated sport. Today women represent a majority in race participation and fitness. Therefore, naturally more women are entering our stores. We loved being involved with races such as Women's Half Marathon or Esprit de She. Events like this give women the ability to show their strength and hopefully others will feel the power to do the same. 

So what advice would you give to other run specialty retailers about reaching out and merchandising to female runners? 
Being that our clientele runs about 55 percent women over 45 percent men, purchase your apparel with those percentages in mind. Focus your social media more heavily on the female buyer. Merchandise bras near an available dressing room in order to maintain privacy and the ease of finding different sizes. Buy and display clothing in outfits. Who doesn't love getting an awesome new top to go along with the shorts she came in to find. Treat your apparel customers like you treat your shoe customers. Ask lots of questions to determine their needs. We are there to help them feel confident and give genuine feedback.

Based on your experience then, what advice would you give to any young (or older) women considering following a similar career path in the run business? 
Go for it! Don't let anything stop you and your dreams. In the beginning, you will be working around the clock. Be prepared to be at every event, every Expo, every sell-in meeting. Build a team that supports your vision and surround yourself with positive, enthusiastic people. Sole Sports wouldn't be the same without the amazing team we have.

Anything else?
You have to be able to be flexible and ever-evolving. You can't get complacent or stagnant. You will reap the rewards when you see your staff flourishing and the community coming together living healthy lifestyles. I couldn't imagine a better job. It's a journey, so enjoy the run! 

Finally, what are you expecting for you and Sole Sports in 2021 and what is it going to take to achieve that? 
Hopefully, getting back to lots of fun events in the stores again and celebrate the wins. I used to joke and say we are more party planners than shoe salespeople. We love getting the community together doing what we all love to do — run and socialize. Running is an individual sport, yet so much fun while doing it together. We hope to continue to motivate people to get outside and live life. Running, walking and hiking can do so much for the mind, body and soul! 

Karen can be reached at [email protected]