running game

Houston entrepreneur levels the playing field for female runners with new activewear line

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

It was race day for avid marathon runner, Debbie Mercer. She and her race pack got up early on a brisk winter's day in Chicago, Illinois, piling on warm layers over their compression tights, to run the Chicago Marathon.

Miles into the race, Mercer and her friends made a pit stop at the portable bathrooms. The female runners stood in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

"I remember thinking 'I wish there was some way that we could do that too,'" Mercer recalls.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says.

From full-length pants and tights, to 3-inch compression or loose shorts, Zip Hers has established an array of products suitable active women. However, it was a long and winding road to producing such innovative, high-quality products that could be competitive in such a vast industry of activewear, according to Mercer.

Zip Hers in the making

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Mercer kicked off prototype production in 2016. She jumped around to various designers and manufacturers, turning away samples that didn't quite fit her vision for the product. Part of the challenge, Mercer describes, was finding a manufacturer who could manipulate stretch and non-stretch fabric in high-quality ways. Maintaining maximum comfort and a sleek design were challenges when the new variable of a zipper was thrown into the mix.

"It took us a while to get the zipper design perfect so that it would fit well and have a design that was comfortable," Mercer says. "We had to find the right manufacturer to find the skill to make these. We found one in Dallas and one in Houston."

Through trial and error, the Zip Hers design team produced a smooth design that coexists seamlessly with the delicate areas that sit around the zipper. They created a custom-made zipper pull, an invisible, thin disk embossed with the Zip Hers logo.

"Women can easily grab it when they're squatting, and don't have to struggle to find it… you can't even tell that a zipper is there. It's very sleek," Mercer says. "They're all handmade. We have to have special fabric for the panels and…have to have special machines to get the seams just right."

By September 2019, the Zip Hers prototype was finalized and officially launched via the company's online retail site.

Game changers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Zip Hers products, the first of their kind, are sure to change the game for female marathon runners, hikers and any other outdoor activity fanatics, Mercer says. With so many athletic brands available on the internet, Mercer hopes that Zip Hers' innovative approach to active wear, and the unique opportunity they offer to women, will help set the brand apart.

"We really don't see any other products out there like ours…As far as apparel goes, we're the only one," Mercer says.

Since launching last year, Zip Hers has watched their clientele expand with predominantly long distance runners and adventure goers. With the 'athleisure' trend on the rise, they're also seeing more women buying leisurewear for yoga classes, or indoor casual use. Mercer says that she hopes Zip Hers will continue to expand to reach female fishers, hunters, climbers, and even first responders, so that women never have to take off their duty belts.

From various race-day experiences of waiting in long bathroom lines as precious time ticks by, to when nature calls during outdoor activities involving co-ed company, Mercer confronted women's realities by proposing an empowering solution for women.

"Ultimately, it gives women a choice. What's more empowering for women than the power to choose what's best for them?" Mercer says.

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Building Houston

 
 

The Ion has fresh funds to commit to its accelerator programs. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion — a rising hub for innovation being developed in Midtown by Rice Management Company — has received a $1.5 million grant to go toward supporting its startup accelerator programs.

The grant from the Economic Development Administration is a part of the organization's Build to Scale (B2S) program and will also benefit three accelerators: the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, and DivInc Accelerator.

"Receiving this grant is a big win for our city — furthering the Ion's opportunity to bring together leading minds to solve some of our toughest challenges," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, in a news release from Rice. "We believe that it's a fully collaborative approach that will lead to accelerating energy innovation and sustainable solutions."

All three of these accelerators will be represented in The Ion's Accelerator Hub and will work in collaboration, according to the release, in The Ion, which is expected to open in 2021 with cohorts set to open applications in early 2021.

"We are really excited about working together with DivInc and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship to realize the full potential of the opportunities that these funds will help unleash," says Jan Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, in the release.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has cycled through two rounds of cohorts — first focusing on resilience and mobility in Cohort 1 then air quality, water purification, and other cleantech in Cohort 2.

The 12-week Clean Energy Accelerator was only recently announced by The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship at the annual Energy Tech Venture Forum earlier this month. The program is established to support Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's Climate Action Plan.

Meanwhile, DivInc's accelerator comes out of a partnership with the Austin-based nonprofit and The Ion, which was announced in spring of this year. The goal with this program is to increase access to minority entrepreneurs.

"DivInc embodies the mindset that this generation and all the generations of innovators to follow must be inclusive of people of color and women entrepreneurs – who will build successful scalable growth companies to address tomorrow's challenges and opportunities," says Preston James, chief executive officer at DivInc, in the release.

"By removing the barriers that currently exist, we unleash this untapped potential and lift Houston to new economic heights. To do this we must establish strong collaboration with partners like The Ion, Rice University, the EDA and many others."

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