Playing catcher in softball is not for the faint of heart.
There’s the mask and other protective gear. The heat and the physical toll of crouching behind the plate inning after inning. And let’s not forget the critical job of catching every ball thrown at you even as opposing players swing metal bats inches from your face.
None of that stopped Thalia Cherry when her college softball coach asked her to take on a position she’d never played before.
She embraced the challenge — and ended up with life lessons that guide her today as CEO of Cherry Co. in Kansas City, Mo.
“The catcher really dominates,” Cherry said, because of her ability to look at the whole field and direct the pitcher from that unique perspective.
The role cultivated her team leadership skills and enhanced her talent for seeing the big picture. And it fueled her competitive nature, which she now enjoys using in business.
“If someone were to say to me, ‘Thalia, you cannot do that.’ I am so going to do it,” Cherry said. “That stems right back to the sports and just my tenacity to really make sure that I could achieve my greatest ability in sports. It really has translated to business.”
Build Strong Relationships
Cherry began her career in city government, working on education and workforce initiatives. After 12 years there, she found she had developed a broad network of business relationships.
So, in 2012, with the idea for a sports apparel business that would allow her to flex her own entrepreneurial muscle and give back to the community in new ways, Cherry started sharing her business plan with people who knew her work ethic and professional abilities from years of personal experience.
The response to those direct conversations was positive and garnered a number of commitments for product orders.
Cherry Co. was off and running.
“It really was sparked by … a void in the marketplace around women in sporty clothing,” Cherry said. “We wanted to create something that just really empowered women and celebrated the uniqueness of women.”
Find Your Niche
Because there’s competition in every industry, Cherry encourages small business owners or future entrepreneurs to understand what makes their businesses or ideas different than others.
“It’s really important that you find your niche so it makes you really stand out,” she said.
Her company’s largest slice of revenue comes from business-to-business sales to colleges and universities. The University of Kansas and Kansas State University were added to Cherry Co.’s roster of licensing deals last year, joining the University of Missouri and a score of others.
2020 was Cherry Co.’s highest grossing year, and the company expanded its retail presence at the Made in KC Marketplace locations on the Plaza and in Lee’s Summit.
Cherry Co. has a collection at the Negro League Baseball Museum that can be found at Halls Kansas City as well, and a wide range of products is available at cherrysportsgear.com.
“If you think of a blank canvas, you get to create whatever art or whatever feeling or emotion that you want to tap into. And for us, it’s really about empowerment and what makes you feel great when you have it on,” Cherry said.
The result is a unique product mix with slogans such as “Don’t Be a Lady. Be a Legend.” and “Don’t Let the Skirt Fool You.” alongside Kansas City-themed apparel and more traditional college mascot branded items for both men and women.
Reflect Your Values
In addition to having a product niche, Cherry has a clear point of view in terms of community investment.
The company’s charitable foundation supports education, entrepreneurship and sports to create “the next generation of young people that are really inspired to be their greatest.”
This includes the Entrepreneurship KC initiative that connects high school students with business leaders who can mentor them on aspects of the entrepreneurial skill set such as problem solving, innovation and understanding finances.
The initiative started with 150 students last year and is up to 257 students now.
“If there’s anything that I think sets us apart, it’s just our community investment and what we really want to do to help shape others. And people believe in that for us,” Cherry said. “So, with that, they’re championing alongside of us to really help us to be successful in business.”
Perhaps because of her love of sports or her own competitive nature, Cherry doesn’t think of the word “adversity” much when it comes to her business endeavors. Instead, she likes to view adversity as an opportunity to conquer and overcome.
“I think what’s interesting about most entrepreneurs or small business owners, adversity is almost one of those things you want to tackle head on … We really want to show that we can achieve different elements,” she said.
For example, Cherry said because the sports industry is typically male dominated, she strives to convey her company’s deep knowledge, skill base and understanding of all kinds of sports.
“I can really demonstrate and just show the confidence that I understand our market extremely well,” she said.
Cherry encourages young people and others to follow their hearts if they have the entrepreneurship “bug.” Her other tips:
- “Do it! Really speak to a lot of people that are entrepreneurs, small business owners. Just get their perspectives and their experiences. You can really learn from those.”
- Hone in on what you’re really good at to keep fear at bay.
- Capitalize on your network and have a targeted vision around those personal relationships. Be strategic about it.
And, finally, don’t let worry keep you up at night.
“Fortunately, I’m one of those people that sleeps really well,” she said. “And I think it’s because the business represents our values and our mission and what we really care about.”
Chad Bettes is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Thinking Bigger. He earned his master’s degree from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas.