Erin Parker says she's always been an athletic and self-motivated woman. The 27-year-old Filipina American graduated from Stanford University with a degree in economics, but rather than continue a career in finance, she taught herself how to code instead.
Today, Parker is a full stack engineer, serial entrepreneur, and the founder of Spitfire Athlete, a women's strength training app, which seeks to inspire women athletes. Parker built Spitfire with co-founder Nidhi Kulkarni, an Indian-American computer science graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Besides both being female engineers, both founders are also athletes. Parker, a former marathoner, competes nationally in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, while Kulkarni, a rower, is also a competitive weightlifter. The two met when Parker attended a party straight from the gym carrying a protein shake, Parker said. Kulkarni, also in attendance, approached Parker to ask what type of shake it was. The exchange sparked a bond between the two athletes.
Parker, who stands at 4 foot 11 inches and weighed 90 pounds when she first started training, found that she could casually lift up to 205 pounds in the barbell glute bridge exercise at the gym. When a coach saw her, he recognized her talent and suggested that she compete, Parker said. His hunch was right — she qualified for the American Open, the largest national competition, in just eight months.
"[When I ran marathons], the real reason why I started running is because I wanted to lose weight. I didn't like the way I looked," Parker told NBC News. "One day, a guy I was dating asked me when I'll ever look in the mirror and think I was beautiful, and I replied, 'Probably never'. That's when I realized my mind was messed up."
In contrast, weight lifting opened the doors for Parker to be a high performance athlete, inspiring a mentality shift. "The sport makes me want to be stronger," she said. "It became a chance to improve my mental attitude and myself. With weightlifting, I build myself up instead of breaking myself down. That's why I fell in love with it."
Encouraged by her own physical and mental transformation, Parker decided to create Spitfire Athlete to fill what she says is a gap in the health and fitness industry: One that catered to women's needs in a healthier, more empowering way.
"So much about fitness is about weight loss and reduction — it's always about shrinking yourself," Parker said. "But what I realized in this journey is that [fitness] is not about being less, but rather, building more of ourselves."
Despite not having an engineering degree, Parker set off to learn software programming on her own. After attending a San Francisco meetup teaching women how to use Ruby on Rails, a web programming language, Parker became fluent in one year.
Around this time, she was able to build the prototype version of Spitfire, which she presented to Kulkarni, who she invited along as a co-founder. Since starting the company in 2014, the team has served 106,000 users who have used the app to train through pregnancy, overcome eating disorders, lift more than their body weight, and accomplish their first ever pull-up, Parker said.
The Spitfire Athlete app provides users with training plans for different goals while helping to create a community that allows female athletes to "connect, join forces, and lift each other up" the website said. According to Parker, Spitfire focuses less on weight loss and more about building basic body strength.
As both weightlifters and engineers, Parker and Kulkarni often find themselves in male-dominated spaces. Parker calls herself a "tomboy," synonymous with "spitfire," a term from the 1950s era that negatively described "a woman with a fiery temper who spoke her mind," Parker said. When she read the definition, she knew she found her namesake.
"Spitfire stands for the fierce, independent, ambitious woman in every one of us," Parker said. "While it once had a negative connotation, we're here to take it back and give it a powerful new meaning."