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Lisa Whitaker

Creating the Demand

It’s 2 a.m. in the US when I call Lisa in Norwalk, California. Her son can’t sleep, but she tries to make him sleepy by watching Finding Nemo while she’s doing the interview. Since she’s a mother now, the time for skating herself got less and less, but she’s looking forward to being able to go out more again when her son’s a bit older. But also off the board, she has been and is still doing a lot for skateboarding and a lot for women in particular. If you don’t know Lisa, she is a filmer, started girlsskatenetwork.com, founded Meow Skateboards, works with Women’s Skateboarding Alliance, and also worked several jobs in the industry for years. It’s cool to have all those new girls that get sponsored now, but it’s maybe even more important to have women like Lisa who put all their heart in, trying to promote them in the best way possible.

What got you into skateboarding?

There were a bunch of kids on my street growing up and we all went through different phases. If someone got a pogo stick or a BMX, we’d all do that. One summer, one of the older kids got a skateboard. Once I saw him go off a launch ramp, I knew that is what I wanted to do. Some of the other kids moved onto the next thing, but I wasn’t interested in anything besides skateboarding anymore.

And what got you into filming?

Right around the time I started skating, my dad got one of these huge over-the-shoulder VHS cameras and let me use it. I set it up on a tripod in our front yard and would film my friends and me skating our launch ramp. Everything slowly evolved from there. Every time my dad would get a new video gadget, I’d figure out how to use it. Eventually, I was editing videos with two VHS VCRs trying to copy the Powell-Peralta and H-Street videos I was obsessed over.

And at one point, you started the website Girls Skate Network. How did that happen?

Some of the friends I grew up skating with got sponsored, so we started traveling a bit more and met a lot of people. I was filming and submitting footage to 411 and videos that their sponsors were doing. In ’97, I got sponsored by Rookie Skateboards and they sent me to Slam City Jam in Canada for their first women’s division. I met a bunch of the top girls in the world at the time and would travel to different events with them. When I noticed nobody was filming them, I started to shift my focus. There were a couple contests that I’d film, put down the camera to take my run, then pick it up, and start filming again after I was done. Eventually, the younger girls, who started coming, like Vanessa [Torres] or Amy [Caron], were so much better than me that I said, “Alright, I’m just going stay behind the camera now.” In 2003, I stumbled upon a program to build websites. The internet was still a really new thing back then. I was curious and started playing around for fun but needed content to put on this sample site I was trying to build. I had all these photos and videos of the girls on my computer, so that is what I used. I didn’t even think anyone else would see it, but shortly after I put it up, I started getting e-mails from girls around the world who found it and were inspired by the content. There was a lot less out there, so you didn’t really have to optimize it for Google’s search engine or anything. I got messages like, “I always wanted to skate, but my parents told me that it’s only for boys. I found your website, showed them, now they’re gonna buy me my first skateboard.” Or telling me how motivating it is for them or that they thought that they were the only girl that skated. Once I started getting messages like that, I realized that there was a need for this and I had to keep it going.

Is it the main website for girls skating?

It was for a long time. I started Meow Skateboards in 2012 and had a kid in 2015, so my free time to work on it is a lot more limited these days. Also, everything has changed so much. Back then, it was one of the only places to find female skate content, but now with social media, it is hard to keep up with everything out there. It has become more of a digital archive of women’s skate history and the Girls Skate Network YouTube channel is more popular, but I still try to keep it updated with current events and news.

You mentioned Meow, did you start it for the same reason as filming? Because female skateboarders weren’t able to get sponsors?

Yeah, I mean, I worked in the skateboard industry for about 20 years and I had a couple of people reach out to me about creating a girls brand. But it never seemed like the right time or the right fit for me. In 2012, my husband and I got a tax refund and he asked if I wanted to start a little company with it. At the time, I felt like something was missing. Hoopla skateboards was around and Mimi Knoop and Cara-Beth Burnside are good friends of mine. I really loved what they were doing, but it was focused around transition skaters. Most of the top street girls didn’t have sponsors or if they did, it was just flow and not marketed or included with the rest of the team. I started with Vanessa and Amy, who were legends in the “girls scene”, but the bigger brands didn’t see value in them anymore. I was filming with Lacey [Baker] a lot, but told her she wasn’t allowed to ride for it, because she was in her prime and working on a Thrasher video part, I thought she deserved to be on something bigger that could do more for her. After her video came out, she tried to get on several companies with no luck. She came back to me a year later and said that she really wanted to be a part of what we were doing. It has grown from there.

It’s crazy that she didn’t get on any team. What do you think was the reason?

It’s crazy how different things are now. Lots of major brands have recently added a girl to their team or are now open to it. That has only happened in the past couple of years, other than a few exceptions. I guess now she wouldn’t have a problem finding something, but at that time, most companies didn’t have any girls riding for them. It’s a totally different landscape now.

Did you achieve that Meow would become obsolete at one point because women are integrated in skateboarding? Do you think we are at that point right now?

Yeah, I think for the past year or two for sure. If this was the starting point right now, there wouldn’t be as much of a need or motivation to start it. I didn’t start a board company to compete with what was already out there, it was started to fill a void and give them a platform to be seen. In 2012, there were no women’s pro model decks on the market (or at least easily found), I wanted to change that. I had a board collection on my wall and there were a few missing that I felt should have been up there. I’m so happy that Alexis Sablone and Marisa Dal Santo had pro boards come out in 2017, but that is something that should have happened close to a decade ago. Even though the initial need has changed, I’m very proud of the team we have built and the community it supports. As long as there is a demand for what we are doing, we will keep going.

"“I always wanted to skate, but my parents told me that it’s only for boys. I found your website, showed them, now they’re gonna buy me my first skateboard.”"

I imagine that having a hard time to find a board sponsor could have something to do with not that many guys buying a women’s pro board.

No, we actually sell quite a few boards to guys. Look at Nora Vasconcellos’s board – the majority of the people who are buying it are guys. Nora has proven that there’s a market. She even has the top-selling board on Welcome. I think it has more to do with the person than it does with gender.

Was it hard to get Meow into skate shops?

I knew it would be hard at first, so I didn’t even try. I just focused on building a team, making quality product, creating content, and building a demand. With the internet and social media, you’re not at the mercy of the others. You don’t need to be included in a major skate magazine or convince a shop buyer to try your new brand to get in front of customers. We were able to create enough demand that most of the shops and distributors we work with today approached us after getting requests from customers.

Do you think social media is the most important thing that helped to make female skateboarding grow?

Yeah, that’s the biggest factor. The girls being able to create their own content and get it out to the world without going through a middleman for approval. There’s a bunch of girls who are not at the top level of skateboarding, but what they do is still inspiring to others. Social media just opens the door to all types of skateboarding.

Talking about creating a demand for Meow Skateboards, I think there’s also a demand for women’s skate fashion, but nobody has done it so far.

I think that’s a huge untapped market. It’s slowly going to start to develop. Vanessa Torres has something in the works and there are a couple brands working with female pros to create capsule collections. It’s a little harder with girls. I can’t say guys are one size fits all, but women come in a bunch of different shapes and sizes. I doubt any two of my riders wear the same jean cut and size, you need to be able to offer more than one fit to be successful.

More and more girls get sponsored, but there are not many working in the industry. Why do you think that is?

For the longest time, there were a lot less girls interested in skateboarding, but now as the pool is growing, hopefully that will start to be reflected in the industry.

There’s also barely any female photographers or filmers, as far as I know. Is that an issue?

I’m not sure I would say it was an issue, but I would love to see more. This is another one that I think has more to do with personality than gender. I think if the skater’s and photographer’s/filmer’s personality click, they can be really productive. If they don’t, it can be torture. There are lots of supportive guys that the girls work really well with. But it’s awesome when more girls get into it because there’s a different type of connection to it. Zorah Olivia and Monique O’Toole are good examples of an upcoming photographer and filmer who are really good friends with a lot of the girls, so they make them feel comfortable and go out of their way to help them get the shots. They are also great possibility models for younger girls, which I feel is really important.

You’re in the filming business for a long time. Have you experienced a different treatment from the industry compared to the male filmers?

For the most part, I’ve felt supported whether it was when I was skating, filming, or working in the industry. Early on, there might have been a trip or two I got passed upon for a male filmer with less experience. I’m sure they were thinking a girl wouldn’t want to be stuck in a van with a bunch of stinky guys and they wouldn’t need to get an extra hotel room. I understand and I benefited from that thinking as well because I filmed a bunch of girls trips for TV shows when I know there were much more qualified guys than me.

What do you think has the media to learn in order to present female skateboarding properly?

What you are doing with this issue and bringing Sarah Meurle on as a guest editor is great. Female-focused issues are powerful, but it’s also great to integrate them in a way so it’s not a separate guys/girls thing. I think in 2018, most media is open to showing more female skate content. The biggest piece missing is getting more girls connected with professional photographers and videographers to create the content.

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