Found Her: The search for female founders at Outdoor Retailer
For three days straight at the 2018 Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in Denver, I switchbacked every aisle, ducked my head into countless booths, and pounded the entire expo hall floor. But my goal was different than most attendees. I wasn’t there to try on the latest Gore-Tex-coated boot. Or learn about the newest lineup of splitboards. And I definitely wasn’t there to schmooze the CEO of a retail powerhouse while discussing our plans for the industry’s next mega-partnership.
I was, however, on a mission to introduce myself to as many retailers, brands and organizations as I could, asking one common question along the way: “Was this company founded by a woman?”
What I heard nine out of 10 times (spoiler: “No.”) was unsurprising. OR is a conference for an industry that’s been dominated by men, white men, for well, ever. Of my favorite answers:
“I’m sorry that the owners are male.”
“My wife owns 51 percent of the company so it’s technically female owned.”
“It’s not woman-owned, it’s family-owned.”
“I mean, we like women.”
This year’s Outdoor Retailer seeped with irony, especially when you consider the theme of the show: “An Industry Reimagined.”
Some conversations focused on recognizing and promoting more women at the executive level. Other talks focused on knocking down the walls that keep individuals of diverse backgrounds (including people of all colors, abilities and cultures) from being appointed to leadership positions, let alone recognized. Yet, a “friendly bro culture,” permeated every ounce of event — a statement that rang true from a panelist at the keynote breakfast that couldn’t even break a 50 percent threshold of women CEOs on the panel. Not to mention, men’s gear and apparel displays towered three times the size of women’s on the expo floor. And a small group of diversity panelists were left out of breath, running from one small stage to another.
It’s clear the industry still has much to tackle. For promoting women in the industry, that means inspiring and mentoring young girls with dreams of building their own outdoor startup. Supporting female founders on the cusp of growth for their business ventures. And amplifying the voice and awareness of women-owned businesses who already have a presence in the industry.
My mission of finding female founders at winter OR was put to the test. That said, I did find some you should know about. Here are nine introductions to female founders that don’t quite get the recognition they deserve:
Kellie Jones, Founder & CEO
Kelli Jones’ idea for Noso Patches was born out of an unfortunate situation: ripping her brand new jacket on a branch in the backcountry. Refusing to patch the tear with duck tape, Jones grabbed an exacto knife and cut some spare fabric into fun shapes to cover up the hole. Her now durable, waterproof and self-adhesive ‘no sewing required’ patches — from hearts and stars, lighting bolts and unicorns — eliminate the need to toss torn jackets, pants, tents and backpacks. “We want to save the world one patch at a time,” said Jones.
Colleen McGovern Wagner, Founder & Chief Adventure Officer
When she couldn’t find a vintage-style map of Grand Teton National Park, Colleen McGovern Wagner asked her friend, who doubled as a cartographer, to design exactly what she was looking for. McGovern Wagner loved the map so much, she taped it to the front of her canvas messenger bag, showing it off everywhere she went. After more compliments than she could count, McGovern Wagner began printing her vintage park maps on apparel, accessories and bandanas. Today, McGovern & Co. a is trusted partner of the U.S. National Park gift stores and has become best known for their Bana buff and Inside Out Mug that reveals a map hidden inside the cup once you’ve finished your drink.
Jen Gurecki, Co-founder & CEO
After years of hearing about women settling for skis and snowboards that weren’t suiting their needs, Jen Gurecki set out to build the first ever line of female-only skis and snowboards. Their motto “Shred the Patriarchy” is a proud testament to the company’s mission of creating outdoor gear made by women, for women — a community that’s largely been sidestepped in terms of quality equipment. Two women will ride Coalition Snow equipment in the 2018 Winter Olympics. “We start with women’s strengths and go from there,” said Gurecki. “And we provide the same quality across all of our products.”
Elyse Rylander, Founder and Executive Director
With a passion for bridging the gap between queer youth and the outdoors, Elyse Rylander started OUT There Adventures with outdoor educational programs. The organization’s simple goal — empowering queer young people through their connection with the natural world — has been tough. Rylander admits it’s difficult to reach LGBTQ+ youth who need it most since many keep their identity hidden from disapproving parents, friends and societal norms. “That’s just the unfortunate reality we live in,” said Rylander. In 2018, Rylander will bring her programming cross country with stops in a number of cities to reach kids outside of the organization’s roots in the Pacific Northwest.
Margaret Spiegel, Founder & President
It’s not every day you see a panda (or bear or pig or racoon) on the slopes. But Spiegel’s crazeeHead plush animal helmet covers bring twelve different mammals, reptiles and mythical creatures to the mountain. Speigel’s idea came after a big ski crash that forced her to wear a helmet — keeping from sporting the panda-head hat she was known for wearing while she skied. “It’s been very difficult to start my company,” said Speigel. “But it’s also very satisfying to build a business on your own.”
Niki Koubourlis, Founder & CEO
Niki Koubourlis realized it wasn’t easy for women who love the outdoors to find each other, which is why she created Bold Betties, an online adventure platform that connects women and helps them get out there and explore. For $10 a month, Bold Betties members receive discounts on apparel, gear and experiences around the globe, and the organization also have a number of free programs in 39 states across the country. “Even in 2018, we are very black and white when it comes to mission-driven companies,” said Koubourlis. “Bold Betties is one example of an organization proving that’s not true for the outdoor industry.”
Ivy Akers, Founder & CEO
Ivy Akers was inspired to start her own line of women only climbing and mountaineering equipment after having such a hard time finding women’s climbing equipment that stood up to the men’s versions. Her mountaineering brand, named after Lynn Hill’s cry, “It goes, boys!” after summiting The Nose of El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley in 1994, is still in development, but Akers is eager and excited to make her equipment available for women who love climbing. “You can’t even find down suits used to summit Everest in women’s sizes,” said Akers. “It Goes Equipment is for women who are tired of mediocre gear.”
Stacy Barrows Manosh, Owner
Stacy Barrows Manosh isn’t technically a founder, but she is the fourth generation owner of Johnson Woolen Mills, a wool apparel outfitter started by her great-grandfather 176 years ago in Johnson, VT. Today, you can still find 93-year-old Yvonne Allen sewing together clothes in the factory. She started at the company in 1946 and has worked there a total of 72 years and refuses to put away her sewing machine. “When I’ve got more problems than a math quiz, I think back to how my family kept the company working through hard times like World War II and the Great Depression,” said Manosh, who always knew she’d own the family business but knew she “had to work twice as hard” to prove herself as a woman.
Claire Smallwood, Co-Founder & Executive Director
With the mission of increasing the participation of women and girls in outdoor activities, friends, Vanessa, Lynsey, and Claire, created SheJumps to address the ‘token’ women in groups of guys doing outdoorsy things. SheJumps local chapters span the country and programs range from Jr. Ski Patrol and Wild Skills youth camps to an all-women’s ski mountaineering course. “Our organization challenges women to ask themselves the question: what great thing would you dare to accomplish if you knew success was the only possible outcome?” said Smallwood, who always encourages women to, “find the balance of constantly pushing yourself while never forgetting why you’re there.”
Erica Zazo is a writer, hiker, and adventure-lover based in Chicago.