Portrait of Girlboss: How Jessica Haggett is Disrupting Motorcycle Culture
Chalk it up to deeply ingrained social conditioning that when someone says “leader of a motorcycle group,” most of us think Jax Teller (if our consciousness is being kind) or else some generic version of a burly, bearded, leather-clad dude, probably with a bandana wrapped around his head, probably listening to ZZ Top. Unless you know her personally, the connotation tends to not be 26-year-old Jessica Haggett, whose long, pale locks would be equally at fitting on the head of a Middle Earth fairy as they are on her, founder of The Litas, a 100-city, 2,000-plus-member all-female motorcycle collective.
Born and raised in Kennewick, a sleepy Washington town southeast of Yakima, Jessica wasn’t raised on motorcycles; in fact, she’d gone two full decades being into “normal stuff—clothes and friends,” as she put it, before the idea of living that two-wheeler life ever entered her mind. But at age 20, on the drive home from her family’s Montana cabin one year, she looked out the window at the long stretch of highway and happened to see a biker. “I'm just one of those people who gets kind of a random, crazy idea and then I just do it,” she said. And so, in that moment, her family all packed in the car, she made a declaration that would go on to shape her life the next couple of years: “I want to get a motorcycle,” she said. “They were like ‘OK, Jess. You’re crazy,’” she added, laughing. But sure enough, she found a friend of a friend who helped her find a bike, fix it up, and learn how to ride.
She and her family had moved to Salt Lake City by this point, and while she’d researched female riding groups that were popping up in the major cities, she craved that sense of community for herself. She decided to start reaching out on Instagram, and over the holidays one year, that obsessive side of her kicked back into gear: she stayed up all night creating a website and a logo—something to match the inevitable coolness of girls that were looking for a motorcycle community of likeminded women. Then, she scheduled her first meet up.
“It was November. In Salt Lake City. It was so cold. Literally, one girl came,” she recalled. But Jess kept at it and as time went on, fellow female riders in the area began to notice. In time—and thanks largely to Jess’ marketing savvy (which we delve deeper into in the interview below)—the Salt Lake City group gained traction, and as their presence on social media grew and grew, women all over the country began inquiring as to whether The Litas would start opening chapters in other cities. “At first, I ignored it, because I knew it would be a lot of work,” she said. But eventually, curiosity got the best of her; she posed the idea of starting a branch in NYC on Instagram, and before she knew it, she had over 300 enthusiastic comments.
This was a little over two years ago. In the time since, Jess has transformed The Litas into something of a rarity: in a culture notorious for hierarchy, it’s an organization without hierarchy; it’s a far-flung, wide-ranging group that centers around an idea of inclusiveness above all else. Presently, more than 2,000 members of The Litas are leaving their treadmarks across 100 cities in 15 countries, and the collective is sponsored by Harley Davidson and Indian Motorcycle. We talked further with Jess about her recent move to running The Litas as her full-time gig, the education and work experiences that enabled her to get to this point, being a female leader in a hyper-masculine world, the challenge of turning community organizing into an actual sustainable job, and what’s in store next for this remarkable and rapidly-growing endeavor.
So, as of a couple months ago, growing The Litas is your full-time gig, a.k.a you’re living the dream. But you put in a lot of time at your previous jobs that you credit with being instrumental in your skill set. Can you tell us a little bit more about what got you to this point?
I don't think I could have figured this out without [my time as operations manager at tech company ArduSat]. I learned so, so much about business models and just how business works and how to grow it and how to market to your customers and all that stuff. My boss was a huge mentor; without that, I don't think any of this would be possible. On top of that, I'm super operationally minded. When it came to growing at the scale [that The Litas is at now], I was able to figure out what I needed to do.
I was working full-time for the past two year. I just had to figure it out; I definitely put in 70-hour weeks sometimes with my job and The Litas. It was a combination of my schooling and my job right after school and my determination to figure something out. It's not like I knew how to do it. I probably spent 100 hours figuring out how to build a freaking Squarespace site [laughs]. I've learned Adobe Illustrator, I've learned In Design, I've learned Photoshop, I've learned how to use a camera. I mean, there are a million things.
At what point did you realize there was this gap in the market, that there were so many women riders who were looking for a community to be a part of?
It's pretty amazing. This is just a woman's motorcycle group, but I'd say the product market fit was perfect. This is something people were wanting at this time. I think times are changing and more women are getting into motorcycling and along with that, they just love the community aspect of it.
What’s it been like as a woman not only participating in a culture that has historically been dominated by men, but as a woman who is actively carving out space for other women?
My general attitude is that every woman should be able to do exactly what she wants, whether it's something that's stereotypically for men or not. I actually wouldn’t say that I’ve focused on that a ton. But I’ve gotten some push back. It's hard to do something that's different. People are kind of uncomfortable with it. For female and women motorcyclists to be—not shown off, but publicized is a better word—I think people are a little bit uncomfortable with it for whatever reason. I definitely get people trying to put me down. I just kind of ignore it and keep going.
One of the first things I noticed on the site is that there’s a really deliberate lack of hierarchy within The Litas. There’s not a ton of information about who the founder is or what your story is; there are no leaders being listed for each chapter. That relative anonymity seems unusual in this day and age. Why did you make that decision?
I think it’s all just based on my personality. That sounds silly, but I'm not someone who needs a bunch of attention or praise or to be in the spotlight. I didn't really want to be like, "I'm the one who started it." Obviously, I've done some interviews and stuff. My mom the other day, she said, "There's not enough pictures of you on the website." [laughs]. I'm like, "Mom, there's not supposed to be." Then on top of that, I think it being all-inclusive is the funnest way to do it. That's kind of how I started the Salt Lake branch and without realizing it, when I started going into other cities, I had to define who we are, what we stand for.
I looked at how I created the Salt Lake branch and put those ideas out of there. All girls and all bikes, non-exclusive. With the girls that start each branch, for example, I call them the organizers. I told them, "You can’t call yourself anything other than that, because I don't want you guys to be put on a pedestal." Because that's not really what it's about. I think the vibes that come from that are all positive ones. I want women to have an opportunity to bring each other up rather than put each other down. It's been so fun to see it unfold, because these women have adopted that [mindset] in such a way where they'll wear it on their sleeve and say, "Yeah, we accept all women." They make that their mission, which I think is super rad.
You’re primarily funding The Litas by lining up sponsorships like with Harley and Indian Motorcycle, and then you’ve got a little clothing retail going with Hell Babes, something else you figured out from scratch. What has the journey to making this profitable been like?
That’s been the biggest challenge, because it was taking up so much of my time. I knew I was going to have to ditch it or figure out a way. So that’s how I came to start working on sponsorships. Like everything else, I just sat down and tried to figure it out.
Any advice you can pass on to girls looking to start a community around something they love?
Don't be afraid of a little hard work, because that is the only way that it will work. For community, create something positive, because the world always needs more of that.
-interview by Deena Drewis