Career Advice

Allyson Felix Knows the Power of Saying No—And Wants You to Be Able To Do It Without Financial Consequence

Photo: Getty / W+G Creative

Allyson Felix is clearly a natural born trailblazer. The U.S. Olympian, who is the most decorated U.S. track-and-field athlete in history, has made headlines for her athletic ability, yes, but also for her commitment to women. Among her many achievements off the track, she’s built her own brand and community, Saysh; made headlines (and contractual changes for athletes) by openly criticizing her former sponsor, Nike, because the brand didn’t pay its female athletes during maternity leave or give maternity protections, and created a child-care grant for female athletes.

So it comes as perhaps no surprise that she's partnered with ice-tea brand Pure Leaf on a "No" Grants initiative that gives women who say no at work financial protections. It's not a small thing or imagined thing: Nearly three in four women think they'll experience negative outcomes when saying "no" at work, and two in three do. Along with that, one in six women who say no will lose out on pay, and one in 10 women are fired for saying no. In fact, each time a woman says "no" to an ask in the workplace (staying late for a meeting, coming in on a day off, etc.), she risks losing up to $1,406 in future earning potential, according to a national survey commissioned by Pure Leaf.

Each time a woman says "no" to an ask in the workplace (staying late for a meeting, coming in on a day off, etc.), she risks losing up to $1,406 in future earning potential.

"If I'm going to be involved with something, I want to really believe in it, and that it has that purpose and meaning—so, obviously I have my own experience with saying no at work, and seeing how Pure Leaf has created these 'No' grants just made me really excited,” Felix says. “Whether that means no to extra hours, or coming in on a day off, whatever that looks like, it's about being able to say yes to a mental-health day or showing up for family in some way or whatever you need."

The "No" Grants, in partnership with the SeekHer Foundation, will pull from a $200,000 fund and reach 100 women in its inaugural launch—with the brand, Felix, and the SeekHer Foundation awarding grants following each of three separate application periods (period 1: March–May, period 2: June–August and period 3: September–November). Felix emphasizes how easy the process is: "Just go to PureLeafGrants.com and say why you deserve it—that's it." We talked more with the athlete about motherhood, what gets a yes from her nowadays, and more.

Well+Good: I'm personally so impressed by this campaign and this initiative. It's really quite powerful. I think saying no just in general is always a difficult thing, but saying no in the midst of financial repercussions or in the workforce is always even harder. I'd love to know, was that the most powerful "no" you've ever said?

Alison Felix: [Nike] was definitely my most powerful "no." I think just being an athlete, hyper-focused on performance for so long...when it came to this part of my life, it was so challenging. Especially seeing how other women struggled in motherhood, in athletics, and specifically in track and field. There was this culture around [remaining] silent when women became pregnant, and I saw contracts paused, contracts terminated, just a lot.

"There was this culture around [remaining] silent when women became pregnant, and I saw contracts paused, contracts terminated, just a lot." — Allyson Felix

And so for me when it was my part of life to go down that direction, I was terrified already of what the consequences would be. And we're talking about the consequences of saying no, and that they do have a cost, and I was really scared of what that might be and what that meant for my future, if I would still be able to compete or what that looked like.

On the flip side, having said that, when I said "no," and [started] speaking out, it turned out to be just really empowering for myself. And I found out I was absolutely where I was supposed to be. And although it was a fight, maternal protections were secured for people in the future to come. And so that was really great, but it does make me think about that cost of saying no, and I think that's what's amazing about this program and also the report that Pure Leaf commissioned—the study on what actually is the cost. I thought that was super interesting to me having been in that position and understanding the fear around that and not knowing exactly what is that cost or what it could be.

W+G: That's super powerful, and I think it relates to also this idea, there's that stat that's like, "Women don't ask for raises as well. They don't ask for money." But they actually do, they just don't get it. And it's the same here. If you say, "no," There's actually a financial consequence. And so it's dispelling a lot of these myths surrounding what women can earn and also the boundaries that we can set in these circumstances. So, that's really interesting.

AF: I think it's setting that standard and hopefully this is a first step, but that it will eventually just show that you can prioritize these things, and hopefully it'll be the norm so that we don't have to keep saying no.

W+G: I'd love to hear what your emotional reaction to saying no was—to setting that boundary, either in this instance or in other instances when you've had to set those really strong boundaries, and how you navigated that for yourself.

AF: It can be really challenging. I even think about just more recently in my life, just dealing with the guilt around that or whether it's the mom guilt, which is something that I've really struggled with because I do want to be present at home, and I do want to do all of these things, and I do have these responsibilities at the same time. So understanding for me is when I say no, how I say no, and prioritizing things that are important to me.

And right now in my life that looks like blocking out time that I spend with my family, and it's time where I'm just not available. And that might mean that I miss out on some things, but that has to be okay. And so I think it's really just evaluating and understanding when I can say no and doing it and actually setting that standard.

Nearly three in four women think they'll experience negative outcomes when saying "no" at work, and two in three do.

W+G: I feel like that's a huge thing that you, as you mature even, get to kind of decide for yourself what gets your energy, what doesn't, how you say no to things. So what are getting your yeses right now? What are you putting your energy into?

AF: Things that have meaning and impact for sure, on the work side. Work that I believe in and that I see that's doing good. Family is huge. My daughter is three right now, and she just started soccer, so making sure I'm there or at dance class. I want to be around for those things. And also my mental health and not feeling guilty when I say that I'm going to take a day just for myself, and I'm going to do some things that make me happy—really pour into myself so that I still show up for everybody else as well, because I think I can easily get overwhelmed at times and that's just not good for anybody, if I can't be at my best.

W+G: Absolutely. And speaking of being at your best, what's your wellness routine or what are some things that you do?

AF: I start my day writing in my gratitude journal. I started during the pandemic just because I felt like I was overwhelmed with looking on the negative side of things, and I didn't like the way that made me feel—I realized there's so much to be grateful for. So, I've kept with that and jot down a few things that I'm grateful for, setting the tone of my day with positive vibes.

Also just leaning into help, and that's looked like being able to switch off with my husband putting my daughter down so that I can take a nice bubble bath and I can read something that I’ve been wanting to read and have a few quiet moments to myself. So, that's something that I try to do regularly as well.

W+G: Are there things you didn't really do when you were younger that you lean into more now, or things that you do now as a mother?

AF: [I do] a little bit of meditation. I was never really big on it before, but I think being a mom, not even a mom, but a busy person, now I'm like, "Okay, I'm all about this." And I love that. Even some breathwork. Just really being present and coming back to myself. For me, it's really been about finding those tools that make me feel good and that help me feel refreshed and able to continue to take on a lot.

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