Designer Jason Mayden had his dream job.
As the lead designer at Nike’s Jordan Brand, Mayden spent long days and nights researching and designing some of the brand’s top shoes for its most popular athletes. But 13½ years into his tenure, Mayden decided it was time to serve a much larger purpose — and a brand of his own. After walking away from a fruitful career at Nike, it was time to direct his attention to and invest in today’s youths. Mayden put his own skills to use as CEO of Super Heroic, a comfortable and affordable footwear line designed to inspire children “to discover new places and hold on to that invincible feeling of play.” Mayden was determined to design shoes that were not only comfortable for children but also unleash creativity and inspire physical movement and imaginative play.
“The response [to Super Heroic] has been exceptionally well,” Mayden said. “Everyone says, ‘Hey, my kids love the shoes.’ They’re so comfortable. We get a lot of videos and photos of kids running and declaring that they’re superheroes and parents smiling and laughing and interacting. That’s exactly what we designed the product to do.”
The inspiration for the brand stemmed from not only Mayden’s love for superheroes but also Mayden’s son, who struggled with his own body image issues. One night, Mayden returned home to his wife and kids after a long work trip, only to discover his son sulking in the bathroom. There he stood staring at himself in the mirror, shirtless and crying.
“He hated his body. He hated who he was and didn’t want to go to school the next day,” Mayden said.
Right then and there, Mayden’s decision was made. As much as he loved his job and working with athletes, Mayden believed his family needed him more.
“There’s no way in hell I’d be able to go into work tomorrow and not feel some type of way about [my son’s situation],” Mayden said. “I walked through the door the next day and I quit. The most important job for me is to be a good father and a good husband.”
Although Super Heroic has opened many more opportunities for Mayden, the knowledge, wisdom and skills the 37-year-old learned during his time at Nike have been essential to the success of his own business.
Mayden always had a knack for art and innovation. By the time he was 7, Mayden was airbrushing, drawing names in bubble letters, imagining his own designs and sketching pictures of cartoon characters. An avid reader of comic books, Mayden was drawn to Lucius Fox, who supported his friend and ally Batman through many of his daily activities, including designing and supplying gadgets and technology for the superhero. Mayden likened himself to Fox, in a way.
“My whole career of wanting to work with athletes was driven by me wanting to design products for Batman,” Mayden said. “So, of course, the closest one to me [growing up in Chicago] at that time was Michael Jordan.”
But Mayden and his family weren’t exactly sure he’d live long enough to see that dream come to fruition.
When Mayden was 7, he experienced symptoms of a common cold, or perhaps the flu. The family couldn’t be sure since the diagnosis changed with every doctor’s visit. Each time, Mayden and his parents were sent home. Each time, Mayden grew more ill.
“When they finally rushed me to the hospital and identified what it was, it was at a critical point. I remember drifting in and out of consciousness and listening to these discussions [of my situation].”
The official diagnosis was confirmed. Mayden was battling septicemia, a bacterial infection that sends bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream and through the entire body if left untreated. Because the infection was misdiagnosed so many times, doctors moved swiftly to do what they could to save Mayden. Treatments had begun, but at such a critical stage, there was no guarantee that any of the medications would help. Aware of how serious the situation was, the 7-year-old Mayden seemed to be the only calm one through it all. Death may have been imminent, but there were things far more important than the fight for his life.
“Honestly, I was at peace with whatever the outcome would be,” Mayden said. “Would I be able to go to school tomorrow to get my Easter candy? That’s all I was focused on: seeing my friends and getting Easter candy. I needed to get my gummy bears.”
Fortunately for Mayden, treatments were working. Doctors began seeing progress, and he was eventually discharged from the hospital. The situation, as scary as it was, inspired Mayden’s response to life’s challenges — one he continues to live by.
“At 7 years old, I realized my life wasn’t finished,” Mayden said. “When I was in the hospital and I heard people discussing my mortality — if I could make it, if I would be alive, if I would be OK — I knew that I would not let my life be defined by if because it’s always will. I will be OK, I will get to Nike, I will persist, I will achieve my goals and dreams. It was the decision I made to never let an if determine my outcome. My parents always joke that I became an adult in that moment. I’ve been moving at a thousand miles per hour since then.”
Mayden continued to grow stronger and fall even deeper into his own creativity. He knew he loved to draw, and he entertained the idea of making a career of it. Becoming a designer wasn’t a thought that crossed his mind, only because he didn’t know much about the industry.
“I was an artist and a creative, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a designer,” Mayden said. “I’d never heard that word. I knew nothing about industrial design. It just really came to a head when I went to an auto show and I saw these products that people made. I wondered how they did that. It was my senior year in high school when I learned about industrial design. It changed my life when I heard that phrase.”
Mayden went on to study industrial design at College for Creative Studies in Detroit. While there, Mayden began forming a master plan to get to Nike. He advocated for himself. He wrote letters and called 800 numbers that were printed to the backs of shoeboxes. He found names from newspaper clippings and dialed the customer service lines pretending to be their relatives. Although he didn’t get a job offer, he did receive free stickers and posters. Eventually, he lucked up and found a recruiter during his freshman year in college. She informed him that internship requests were received all the time and encouraged him to keep applying. Mayden took her advice and submitted his application and portfolio and kept in touch, only to be rejected twice.
“When people tell me no, I just take it to mean yes,” Mayden said. “It just means no, not right now, not no forever. And my grandmother always taught me that delayed doesn’t mean denied. Even during those dark moments, it was my family and my faith in God that kept me going. Even when Nike rejected me, I told them I’d be back.”
Mayden kept applying, and on his third try, the then-19-year-old was accepted into a rotational program where his first job was to design branding, logos and graphics for Virginia Tech football phenom Michael Vick. Mayden’s work with Vick and the Nike Air Monarchs gained the attention and respect of higher-ups who wanted to keep the young designer on board.
Two years later, with the help of Nike senior designer Wilson Smith, Mayden was brought on as a member of the Jordan Brand and thrown his first project: designing a shoe for New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter.
“Derek Jeter was my real-life Batman,” Mayden said. “I’m a kid who was given the responsibility to design a shoe for one of my heroes. I was so nervous. He was the ultimate gentleman, the ultimate coach, and encouraged me to try my best and have fun.
“We would walk to restaurants and he would stop and sign every autograph of every person and take every picture. He would say hello to everyone — from the hot dog vendor to the person selling newspapers. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Studying the interactions of Jeter and other athletes allowed Mayden to be more creative and give their shoes more personality. Mayden also kept consumers and fans in mind during the process.
“I care about the first time a person experiences my products, and that’s why that unboxing experience is so unique because somewhere, somebody is opening that package for the first time,” Mayden said. “I want to make sure it’s magical and amazing, and I want it to live up to the hype.
“I value storytelling and how people interact. Spending time and watching athletes and how they prepare is a lot of my process. I’m constantly consuming information and challenging my own way of thinking. If I can assess my weaknesses while leaning on my strengths, I can prepare for what’s next.”
The experiences from Nike and now Super Heroic are what drive Mayden to keep going. Making a difference in the lives of kids and parents across the country remains the goal — even when things can be a bit overwhelming. “There are times I feel tired and feeling like I need a mental break, then I’m reminded quickly that what we do really does matter,” Mayden said. “People have been very supportive and very encouraging.”
Mayden hopes that anyone who becomes frustrated along life’s journey continues to keep pushing. In the end, it’s all worth it.
“To anyone who feels their dreams are invalid or impossible, I encourage them to just keep going because no one can do anything great in life by doubting themselves because of their experiences,” Mayden said. “Who you are, where you come from, what you look like, your gender, your age, your sexual orientation — none of that matters. Your dreams are valid.”