Inspired by her 11-year-old daughter’s passion for a sport that lacked sporting gear for girls, Deb Tompkins North, ’93, was on a mission to create a company to empower young female athletes brave enough to compete in male-dominated sports.
A year ago during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 1993 Baker University graduate founded YES! Athletics primarily to provide shoes for girls like her daughter Annie who competes in the rising sport of girls wrestling. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ latest survey, 21,124 girls nationwide participate in high school wrestling, a 27 percent increase from the previous year.
We are all about saying, ‘Yes!” to scary things and I had to keep going with the plan.Deb Tomkins North, ’93
“We are all about saying, ‘Yes!” to scary things and I had to keep going with the plan,” said North, a single mother living in Topeka with three daughters: Annie, 11, Rae, 14, and Grace, 19. “Here’s a girl who walks into a room full of boys, and boys don’t necessarily want her there. I would never have had the nerve to do that when I was 10 or 11 years old. I asked myself, ‘How is it possible there’s no shoes or gear specific to girls?’”
While girls wrestling is the focus of her budding business, North has noticed an uptick in suburban housewives interested in new gear for their kickboxing classes. She also hopes to expand her market and provide more options for women in powerlifting and MMA training.
Starting a business is not new to North. Shortly after she became a widow with three young daughters in 2010, she founded True North Consulting as an executive recruiter after working at Koch Industries, North Construction Solutions, and Spencer Reed Group. She continues her role with True North while managing YES! Athletics operations.
Other than a part-time assistant who handles social media, graphics, website updates, and managing brand ambassadors, North is the lone employee of Yes! Athletics.
All three of her daughters are active in sports. In addition to Annie’s wrestling, Grace competed in track and field at Concordia (Nebraska) University, and Rae is involved in tennis, cheer, softball, and basketball. North didn’t have as many opportunities growing up in the 1980s in southeast Kansas, another reason she looks for any chance to help girls thrive.
“It didn’t seem like girls sports were as big as they are now,” said North, who studied finance, economics, and business at Baker. “I was athletic, but I didn’t have anyone encouraging me to get involved and stay involved. I’m passionate about encouraging any girl to try to do new things.”
Before starting True North, North had been a recruiter since 1995 and felt she had outgrown her position. Her friends and business associates encouraged her to go out on her own.
“I love helping people,” she said. “It’s been a good fit. I’m part counselor and part helping people talk through their career goals. I’m somewhat risk averse. I’m willing to take some calculated risks. I knew I had 15 years in the business and a good Rolodex of contacts and feel like people like doing business with me.”
North prefers the entrepreneurial lifestyle. It provides her flexibility with her schedule while she supports her daughters in their school activities.
“It’s always about learning, trying to do things better, and understanding your weaknesses,” she said. “It’s important to know your areas of expertise and identify people who can help you. A lot of entrepreneurs try to do everything. And there’s no way you can do that.”
North is bracing for more competition from big brands as they expand their shoe products for girls competing in nontraditional girls sports.
“I am truly passionate about what we’re doing,” she said. “There is a story behind my brand. We try to get involved in the community and be true to my word.”
Written by Steve Rottinghaus, ’14 MSM