Phil Knight, MBA ’62, Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus, Nike | Summary and Q&A

February 7, 2019
Stanford Graduate School of Business
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Phil Knight, MBA ’62, Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus, Nike


Phil Knight shares his journey in building Nike, emphasizing the importance of passion, collaboration, and a strong company culture.

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Key Insights

  • ❓ Passion and finding a niche are crucial for entrepreneurial success.
  • 🏛️ Company culture should be built on teamwork, belief, and a commitment to excellence.
  • 😤 Effective leadership involves understanding and adapting to individual team members' strengths and communication styles.
  • ❓ Responding to and resolving crises requires transparency, continuous improvement, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.


[MUSIC] [APPLAUSE] >> Phil? >> Pretty good. >> Welcome home. >> It's great to be home. But I couldn't help but be really pleased to see the dean wearing a business suit and Nike shoes showing. >> [LAUGH]

But I think we can all be, and we can all be glad that basically I was not the founder of Jockey underwear. >> [LAUGH] We'll try and make th... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How did Phil Knight come up with the idea for Nike?

Phil Knight was inspired to start Nike after noticing the importance of lightweight shoes in track and field. He saw an opportunity to bring innovative sports shoes to the market, leading him to start his own shoe factory in Japan.

Q: How did Nike handle accusations of running sweatshops?

Initially, Nike defended itself against the accusations, but eventually realized that it needed to take a different approach. The company committed to making improvements, working towards better factory conditions, and being transparent about its manufacturing processes.

Q: How has Nike's company culture contributed to its success?

Nike's company culture, formed by a group of passionate and driven individuals, has been a key factor in its success. The company values teamwork, belief, and commitment, which have helped it navigate through various crises and challenges over the years.

Q: How does collaboration play a role in Nike's leadership style?

Phil Knight believes that collaborative leadership is essential for long-term success. He emphasizes the importance of leaders understanding their team members' strengths and finding various ways to communicate and motivate them. Collaboration allows for different perspectives and fosters a cohesive and dynamic company culture.


In this video, Phil Knight, co-founder and former CEO of Nike, discusses his experiences building the iconic brand and shares insights on leadership and entrepreneurship. He talks about his journey from being a shy introvert to becoming a successful business leader, the importance of having heroes, and the challenges Nike faced, including accusations of running sweatshops. Knight emphasizes the need for collaborative leadership and the continuous innovation and adaptation required to keep a brand relevant in a rapidly changing world.

Questions & Answers

Q: What led Phil Knight to give this interview?

Phil Knight was approached by the interviewer, Will, who had previously interrupted Knight at McDonald Hall to pitch him the idea of the interview. After some stalking and persistence, Will finally got the chance to have a conversation with Knight.

Q: How did Phil Knight feel about being back on campus?

Phil Knight expressed his gratitude to be back on campus, feeling a sense of nostalgia and appreciation for the memories and experiences he had as a student. He mentioned how returning to campus allowed him to step back in history and remember the time when he had his whole life ahead of him and was shaping himself into the person he ultimately became.

Q: What kind of person was Phil Knight back at Stanford's business school?

Phil Knight described himself as someone who was focused on track during his undergraduate years and didn't really know what he wanted to be. However, when he became a graduate student at Stanford, he discovered his passion for entrepreneurship and saw it as an opportunity to pursue something he truly cared about. He mentioned that his time at Stanford was a turning point for him, and the inspirational professors and the right environment made it an ideal place for him to explore his ambitions.

Q: What was the crazy idea that Phil Knight had and where did it come about?

Phil Knight's crazy idea was to start a shoe factory that focused on lightweight shoes. He came up with this idea during an entrepreneurship class at Stanford, where he realized that the major shoe manufacturers were neglecting the lightweight aspect of athletic footwear. His inspiration came from his track coach, who believed that lighter shoes could make a significant difference. Knight combined this insight with the notion of starting a shoe factory in Japan, which had a reputation for excelling in labor-intensive industries.

Q: How did Phil Knight handle the accusations of running sweatshops?

Initially, Nike's response to the accusations of running sweatshops was defensive. They denied the allegations and believed they were being unjustly targeted. However, they soon realized that this approach wasn't effective in addressing the issue. They decided to shift their strategy and committed to becoming a better company by taking steps each year to improve their factories' conditions. They invited scrutiny and opened their factories for inspection. They recognized that Nike needed to live up to higher standards and continually work on meeting them.

Q: How does Phil Knight believe a brand can stay relevant for a long time?

According to Phil Knight, a brand can stay relevant by constantly improving their products and being receptive to change. He emphasized the importance of having a good product as the foundation of successful marketing. Nike focuses on developing innovative and distinctive products that resonate with consumers. Additionally, he acknowledged the critical role of advertising in projecting the brand's image and maintaining its relevance in a competitive market. He emphasized the need to adapt and keep the product and advertising fresh while staying true to the brand's values and culture.

Q: How did Phil Knight overcome the challenges of being an introvert in a leadership role?

Despite being an introvert, Phil Knight believes that introverts can still be effective leaders through a collaborative leadership style. He mentioned the importance of listening and mentioned that his introverted nature had helped him be a better listener. He highlighted how leaders should know their team members individually and understand their unique personalities and communication styles. Knight also stressed that leaders should focus on finding common values and fostering a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

Q: How did Phil Knight handle the crisis when Nike became synonymous with sweatshops?

When Nike faced accusations of running sweatshops, Phil Knight initially took a defensive stance, denying the allegations. However, he realized the defensive approach wasn't effective and shifted to a more proactive strategy. Nike committed to becoming a better company, implementing steps each year to improve factory conditions and opening their factories for inspections. They emphasized transparency and invited criticism as they worked towards higher standards. This change in strategy helped address the crisis and allowed Nike to demonstrate their commitment to responsible manufacturing practices.

Q: How did Phil Knight handle the criticism of overpaying for Michael Jordan's signature?

Phil Knight acknowledged that Nike faced criticism for overpaying for Michael Jordan's endorsement deal. However, he pointed out that the deal turned out to be a massive success for Nike. He emphasized that it's not just about the athlete's greatness but also about combining it with a distinctive product and effective advertising. Nike created a unique shoe for Jordan, which he wore in memorable performances and was also banned in the NBA, generating significant interest and demand among consumers.

Q: What traits of Bill Bowerman, Phil Knight's former track coach, made him a hero and what did Phil Knight learn from him?

Phil Knight described Bill Bowerman as a uniquely influential person and one of his heroes. Bowerman was an exceptional track and field coach and had a commanding presence. Knight admired his leadership qualities, his ability to inspire and motivate athletes, and his focus on competitive response. Bowerman's attitude and sayings, such as "Do right and fear no man," had a profound impact on Knight's life. Bowerman taught Knight the importance of attitude and preparing oneself for tough competition.

Q: How did Phil Knight handle the crisis during the late 90s when Nike faced scrutiny for sweatshops and low wages?

In response to the crisis, Phil Knight initially defended Nike and denied the accusations. However, he soon realized that this approach was not effective. Nike shifted its strategy and committed to becoming a better company, implementing steps each year to improve factory conditions. They made transparency a priority, inviting scrutiny and opening their factories for inspection. This change in strategy allowed Nike to address the crisis more effectively and demonstrate their commitment to responsible manufacturing practices.


Phil Knight's story shows the importance of finding a niche and combining passion with a viable business idea. Collaborative leadership is crucial in today's world, emphasizing the need to involve and listen to team members. Nike's response to the sweatshop allegations highlights the power of acknowledging mistakes and taking proactive steps to improve and meet higher standards. The success of Nike's brand lies in consistently improving their products, staying relevant, and projecting a distinctive image through advertising. Finally, Knight's emphasis on collaboration and the ability to adapt to change is key for long-term success as a leader and a brand.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Phil Knight reflects on his time at Stanford and how it shaped his entrepreneurial spirit and passion for sports.

  • He discusses the early days of Nike and the challenges of building a brand and company from scratch.

  • Knight highlights the significance of teamwork, collaboration, and a strong company culture in Nike's success.

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