Oiselle supports women in sports, and not just with apparel.

Can a fitness brand do more than just sell you shorts? If it’s women’s athletic apparel maker Oiselle, it also can sell you on supporting women in sports, even the youngest female athletes.

Oiselle, named for the French word for bird, sells a share in female athletic empowerment through its Volée or “Flight” running club. For $100 a year, members gain access to a global running community, events such as “Bird Camp” (summer camp-style weekends of running) and product discounts, but they’re also buying something larger—a stake in its Woman Up Fund that sponsors emerging female track and field athletes, its “Haut Volée” in U.S. and world championships, who might not otherwise receive support.

“We want to be there to support women’s dreams when they are in that intermediate period when no one is clamoring to sponsor them,” said Dr. Sarah Lesko, a family doctor and Oiselle’s head of “corporate development shenanigans.”

A leg up

Its Haut Volée includes Jasmine Blocker, a 2016 Olympic Trials qualifier in the 400 meters from New Orleans; Seattle-based Kristin Owsinski, an NCAA first team All-American pole vaulter; and 2016 Olympic Trials marathon finisher Becki Spellman of Hilliard, Ohio, all of whom receive varying amounts of funding for travel, race fees and other costs associated with training and competing.

Out of each membership, $25 goes toward supporting the Haut Volée, as well as toward charitable programs such as its Bras for Girls program, which has donated thousands of sports bras to girls in middle schools in low-income areas, girls who might otherwise turn away from sports because they feel uncomfortable with how their breasts are developing.

“I have been a middle-school track and field coach for nine years,” Lesko said. “I’ve seen girls not wanting to run, not knowing how to deal with their changing bodies. I thought, we have bras and we can do something about that. We teach the girls that all breasts are normal and show them how to fit a sports bra.”

The Volée also funds Girls Gotta Run, a charity that supports the advancement of girls in Ethiopia, which has the highest child marriage rate in the world. Here, the organization provides athletic scholarships, food and clothes to girls to attend school, join a running club and focus on job training rather than getting married at age 12 or 13. Members of the Volée help provide clothes and bras for these girls to run in, and in addition, they have organized and run a virtual 5K, with the registration fees going to support the organization.

Finding a flock

But while many of the Volée’s members have now taken on roles as running and brand ambassadors at middle schools and high schools across the country, donating time and OiIselle gear, it wasn’t always this way.

Oiselle founder Sally Bergesen started the Volée purely as a women’s running team shortly after her brand launched in 2007, with the idea of connecting women runners to each other and the brand. Then, it was just two dozen or so people running in its branded singlet and getting discounts on its signature un-puffy, smooth-waisted running shorts.

By 2013, the club had expanded so dramatically, the small company could no longer afford to shoulder those costs. So it moved to its current pay-it-forward model to continue its mission of helping women find the warm, intergenerational running community they were looking for, as well as support women athletes at the same time, some of whom have moved up the ranks from the Volée, which now counts 4,000 members in the U.S. and abroad.

Its members can now connect with other members of the “team,” in their own area and when they travel, and attend meetups with some of the members of the Haut Volée who they are supporting.

“We always joke that the Volée is a social experiment,” Lesko said. “But I am gratified by our ability to make a difference.”

Photography: Oiselle