Tate Chalk

Tate Chalk: To Nfinity and Back

Tate Chalk: To Nfinity and Back

Pacing back and forth on top of purple tumbling mats in front of a rapt audience of All Star Gym Association members, Tate Chalk encourages the coaches and gym owners in attendance to make their voices heard. Wearing a black button-down shirt and stylized jeans, he talks about how to rise above fear of failure and innovate. Suddenly, he goads the crowd to yell, “Money is good!” Understandably, they need a little encouragement. “You all have to find ways to make it work… Learn things, like ‘break-even point,’ and know what they mean,” he says. “Know that this is a business. This is a business!”

Nfinity Athletic Corporation CEO Tate Chalk brings to mind a scrappy Tony Robbins type rather than a stereotypical suit-wearing CEO. After all, this is a man who, when Nfinity was unceremoniously dumped from Cheersport, posted a digital picture of a “breakup tape”—accompanied by a list of songs such as REM’s “Everybody Hurts” written in girlish bubble letters — on Nfinity’s Facebook page and encouraged fans to submit their own favorite sad-sack tunes. Conventional? No. Memorable? Definitely.

He’s also a guy who decided to follow one of his dreams and move out to Los Angeles to try his luck as an actor in Hollywood back in 1999. Among other gigs, he scored a part as a referee in the 2004 Vince Vaughn–Ben Stiller comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and consulted on cheerleading for the movie. (He says the “brutal” movie industry gave him “a much thicker skin.”)

Speaking up and standing out have become synonymous with 25-year industry veteran Chalk and the Nfinity brand—and that’s the point. The one secret to success, Chalk says, is being original.

“If I had to give three [pieces of advice], I would say be original, be fearless, and be relentless,” he says. “To me, ‘be original’ means know what you are and what you bring, and don’t try to be someone else—and you’ll be successful.”

Chalk has followed his “know what you bring” advice to the letter, taking his stints as a cheerleader at the University of South Carolina and the University of Kentucky and parlaying them into a lucrative career coaching the USC squad, teaching summer camps and owning cheer gyms. Then, in 2003, he developed his own cheerleading shoe just for women: Nfinity, a meticulously designed, spring-floor athletic shoe. The industry hadn’t seen anything like it. And Chalk was in a unique position to sell his vision.

“We’re the only footwear brand whose CEO has actually been on the mat,” he says. “I mean, I was a cheerleader. I coached cheerleading. I have held thousands of stunts and taught thousands of back handsprings and back tucks. And so we hope that the brand comes from a place of authenticity and knowing what it’s like to be there when the lights come on and the music starts.”

Now, almost a decade later, Nfinity Athletic Corporation is not only a consistent leader among the cheerleading shoe market, but has also expanded into basketball and volleyball shoes as well as other sports apparel. In 2009, Nfinity won “Business Innovation of the Year” at the American Business Awards, and the company has regularly ranked in the “Inc. 5000” list.

Though the risks eventually paid off, the early days weren’t without their setbacks. When Chalk was first hawking Nfinity cheerleading shoes, he had only one model pair of shoes and 150 promo T-shirts to try and make his case for the product.

“I was naive, but I think that’s part of being successful—that you’re just naive enough to think you can do it,” he says. “We had lots of defect problems and delivery problems. There was a time there for the first several years that not one shipment had everything go right. You come to accept that it’s never going to be perfect, that something’s going to be off, as far as business goes.”

But Chalk stayed the course, dead-set on making it work. Though his cheer background certainly played a role in his dedication, he attributes his choice of all-star cheerleading as an industry to study and dominate to a deeper reason: the spirit and drive of the people involved.

“I’m really passionate about all-star cheerleading because it gives kids who wouldn’t normally have a chance a [way] to cheer themselves out of whatever situation they’re in,” Chalk says. “Whether they come from the poorest of poor neighborhoods or bad family situations, these kids have had a chance to cheer themselves into a better life. Also, our [industry’s] history is full of small-business owners and entrepreneurs who have taken a chance and taken an idea and created something out of thin air, and that’s noteworthy.”

Putting a megaphone to another marginalized group, Chalk recently founded the Embrace initiative, designed to educate children and parents in the sport about love and acceptance of people of all sexual orientations. The initiative follows a new USASF rule introduced earlier this year decreeing, “Males: minimize exaggerated or theatrical movements,” which has been perceived by some as being anti-gay. (It has since been amended to apply to both genders.)

“The idea being that whether you’re straight or gay or whatever that you can embrace each other in this sport,” Chalk says. “Because of what we do, we’re all sort of outsiders. Cheerleading has a stigma, and we all have to stick together and support each other. And the second part of Embrace is ‘Embrace who you are.’ If you can’t feel safe and secure as a gay or lesbian in cheerleading, then there’s no hope for you in the rest of the world. Our sport should be the one spot that you can go and be yourself and feel at home.”

-Jamie Beckman 

ASGA: We Want Answers!

ASGA: We Want Answers!

Between Tate Chalk’s take-no-prisoners talk and the organization’s open letter to the USASF, the All-Star Gym Association (ASGA) is making its voice heard—and many cheer professionals are listening. In its open letter, the ASGA put USASF on the hot seat on a number of its concerns, specifically:

· Tax structure: ASGA inquires as to the current tax structure of the USASF, citing the prospect of mandated athlete membership as the main area of concern. Reads the letter: “Gym owners would like a transparent view of spending and expenses so as to be the best stewards of our customers’ fees.”

· STUNT: The ASGA also asks for more information about the STUNT movement, where it stands in the bigger picture and its potential ramifications on all-star cheerleading. Reads the letter: “Who from within our leadership is in charge of safeguarding the interests of our businesses and will be responsible for prioritizing all-star cheerleading within the umbrella of other cheer-related activities?”

· Board of Directors: In the letter, the ASGA requests an “immediate, open election” of the Board of Directors and President, along with access to board meeting minutes and financial statements. The letter also poses questions about the USASF’s financial and professional ties to Varsity, with an emphasis on moving toward independence.

· Athlete Membership Fees: If and when mandatory athlete membership is introduced, the ASGA wants to know which USASF programs and expenses will be supported by the funds. Another potential concern is the privacy and confidentiality of athletes’ personal information captured in the USASF client database.

It’s only a matter of time until the USASF responds, and if ASGA has its way, they’ll get answers by October 12th (as requested in the letter). That’s just a few days away…and we’ll keep you posted as to what transpires.