When Latosha Stone first attempted the sport that would later become her lifeblood, it did not go as planned. She was in sixth grade and using a "crappy" Penny board; she fell off the skateboard as soon as she started, hurt her arm, and shelved the hobby.
Then, in high school, she took it up seriously, going to the park and street skating with her friends. "I guess I was an outcast growing up," she tells ELLE.com. "But skateboarders, they're always so accepting of different people. It also gives you time to be on your own. You can go skating and it's just you, your board, and your thoughts."
It's a—dare I say it—fun way to practice social distancing, making 2020 a good, if not complicated, time to be on the backend of a skateboard company. For Stone, 33, it's meant increased interest in Proper Gnar, the Ohio-based business she started in 2013. "The pandemic has actually affected [the business] in a positive way, which I feel weird saying because obviously the pandemic is a horrible thing," she says. In March, Stone joined millions of Americans when she got laid off from her job as a school photographer. She's been working full time on Proper Gnar since.
Stone decided to launch the business while working a factory job she wanted to quit. She'd attended art and design school and felt like many of the skate brands at the time were starting to look the same, simply putting "their logo on a board and not [doing] anything creative," Stone remembers. She began selling T-shirts featuring her own designs, getting friends to model the clothing, and reinvesting all the money she made back into the store. Eventually, she had enough to start creating skateboards, and Proper Gnar became the first Black woman-owned skateboard company.
Beyond the pandemic, it's been a busy summer for Stone. As the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests unfolded, activists pushed the public to buy from Black-owned companies. On Juneteenth, Proper Gnar got the ultimate endorsement—Beyoncé featured the brand in a directory of Black-owned businesses on her site.
"I was freaking out for the rest of the day," Stone says. "It was definitely a blessing." Other companies have reported that Beyonce’s boost caused a "massive uptick" in sales, and the same happened for Stone: "I’ve never had orders like that in the entire time I’ve ran this." The surge in sales has held steady, and while Stone has seen Proper Gnar receive additional shoutouts and support these past few months, she says it’s been difficult to contend with the news of recent police violence while running a business. "Deciding to protest or not was a big choice because we're supposed to be social distancing," she says. "But I can't stay home. I have to go out and say something."
But the attention has given way to a network she didn't know existed. She got connected to women at other Black-owned skate brands, like Bliss Skateboard Shop in Canada, and skate groups like froSkate in Chicago. Now, she says, they're in a group chat together, sharing resources and offering help.
It’s a drastic change from when she was younger and often the only girl—and one of the few Black people—at the skate park. She's heard people say Black girls don’t skate or Black people don’t skate, and others refused to take her talent seriously.
But Proper Gnar’s success speaks for itself. The company now informally sponsors six different female skaters, and Stone's boards were recently featured on HBO's new series Betty, which follows a group of teen girls skating in New York City. As for that new generation of skaters, Stone only has words of encouragement: "It's such a neat sisterhood to get into. Don't let other people discourage you because you'll always have guys that want to say sexist things to you. It's worth it in the end."