Back Girl Power Inside Nike’s Secret Builder Lab

Back Girl Power Inside Nike’s Secret Builder Lab

In the midst of Nike’s inspirational ads and athlete endorsements, something that might get overlooked is the science behind every piece of footwear that comes out of Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Something that definitely gets left out of the story is the women working in that lab to make shoe innovations happen through engineering. Recently, Nike invited GoldieBlox to the lab to meet these women who are responsible for designing the shoes of the future.

We sent someone who values footwear quite a bit: 14-year-old YouTube dance sensation Nicole Laeno to watch how the latest release, the Nike Air Max 90, gets made. The Air Max 90 airsole contains at least 60% recycled manufacturing regrind plastics.


Behind each shoe is a team of at least seven women. The team ensures each stitch is up to Nike standards, and goes beyond what the team has done before. Every shoe concept starts on a piece of paper, until it grows into a prototype. Then, it’s run through constant testing. The shoes the team is dreaming up now probably won’t be on shelves for three to five years, yet that process is what is so exhilarating to them.

“I get to work with a group basically trying to figure out how to make a shoe that’s never been made before,” Jill Murfin says. Her literal title is “Future Shoe Innovator.” She works with the team to make sure the next design of shoes are always more sustainable and better than the last. 

One of the advantages of being an engineer for a company like Nike is the ability to easily point to what you create. Engineering Director and Air Sole Innovator Melanie Moteberg says she loves her job both for the process and the result.

“It’s a super cool thing to be able to physically hold the product that you make and see your people wearing your shoe out front in Portland, but also all over the world.” 


Though their products make a global impact now, many of the women working at Nike had no idea engineering was a thing until they got to college. Surrounded by a jigsaw puzzle of tiny leather shapes at her work station, Materials Innovator Cara Jackson explains her career started with an interest in fashion.

“I loved watching Project Runway growing up. I started tearing apart my own clothes and putting them back together. [When I got to college] I discovered a degree program within textile engineering.”

Similarly, Margarita Cortez, a Senior Innovation Engineer, studied Mechanical Engineering in college, but followed her love of style to Nike.

“I thought I’d work on planes or cars or something, which are cool, but I’m not that into them. I really love clothes and shoes, so this is perfect for me.”

Nike has deep roots in engineering. Its trademark air sole was actually ideated by aerospace engineer Frank Rudy in 1977. However, like many of the women at Nike, Moteberg had no idea engineering was a possibility until she became one. “I never knew you could be an engineer at Nike, but there’s a lot of us. We’re the only people in the world who do this, so it’s really cool.” 


The road to engineering doesn’t need to be paved with robots and beakers. Murfin remembers thinking in high school she’d be a lawyer or a teacher because she wasn’t really clear on what an engineer did. But, once she realized that the heart of engineering was solving problems and design, she was full speed ahead. Her advice to girls now would be to always keep different career options open.

“Pick something that you love, but don’t be afraid to pick something that maybe scares you. I wasn’t sure if I was an engineer, or sure of how good of an engineer I was going to be, and I think, when I stuck with it and really gave myself the chance to try something that was maybe a little bit out of my comfort zone, I found something I was really good at.”

Future Shoe Innovator Jill Murfin shows Nicole Laeno just how precise each piece of leather is in each shoe.

Even if girls aren’t good at math, that doesn’t mean they can’t one day build something incredible. Cushioning Innovation & Prototype Specialist Elizabeth Raissian says there’s more to science than just math equations.“You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room; you have to be the one that’s the most curious.”

Though the gender gap in STEM still exists, the team at Nike gives hope that gap will soon close. Project Lead Rachel Wright followed her love of sculpture to her job at Nike. She wants girls to know that their talents can lead them to great things, too.

“Know your worth. You’re worth just as much as the little boy next to you. Don’t chase money; chase happiness and really try to contribute with your gifts.”

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