Who run the world? The female-first future of Coalition Snow
The Tahoe-bred ski and snowboard company built by women and for women expands with a youth line. Here, Coalition Snow’s co-founders check back in with DPB on International Women’s Day to show us who run this mutha!
Interview by Andrew J. Pridgen
When last we checked in with Coalition Snow co-founders Jen Gurecki and Danielle Rees, it was 2015, the pair had just got done pressing their first line of skis designed and built by and for women and were starting company in a strangely competitive industry where the consumer dollars are scarce or at the least, very fickle.
A lot has changed since then. The brand has gained international recognition and evolved from its original “tackling the shrink it and pink it problem in the ski industry” mantra.
Now that we live in an era of protest and pussy hats, Coalition too has grown up with the cause. They are now, as ever, “Women first.” And, well, we’ll let them lay it out for us full stop.
DPB: I want to talk about your aesthetic really quickly before we get to more serious matters. I see a very filmic (yeah, I said filmic) influence — lots of dreamy suburban ‘70s girl diary — depicted in your latest youth line. It’s a little Lux from The Virgin Suicides— the Sofia Coppola version, not necessarily the Jeffrey Eugenides source material (apologies for the name checks) meets my older sister’s wallpaper before she discovered Depeche Mode and was forced to redecorate.
Coalition: [We had to bring Lauren in on this one, since she’s the brain behind all of the graphics.] Lauren Bello Okerman, Creative Director: Along with WWPLD (what would Pippi Longstocking do), the YOUth graphics are meant to be fun and fresh, and I’m not calculated enough to be recognizably referential. The last time I watched enough movies to have a “filmic” reference was probably the mid-eighties, but maybe you’re onto something…The seventies is the right decade. Can you be nostalgic for a time that passed before you were around? I think you can. The mid-seventies to me are a time in the wake of civil rights movement and first wave feminism and after Title IX when men and women were just groovin’. The world wasn’t giant and plastic yet, so girls and boys dressed the same, in Levis and t-shirts, and both wore their hair long, an androgyny that met somewhere in the middle for feminine and masculine. Kids had a little more freedom then, before “Just Say No” and the missing kids milk carton panic. For the first time girls could be just one of the boys — Rell Sunn, the surfer from Makaha and Peggy Oki, part of the Zephyr Competition Skateboard Team, come to mind. Out there, doing it. So yeah, maybe these graphics are for that girl who wanted to be in the neighborhood bike gang, doodle in her diary on her bed while listening to Houses of the Holy or a Carpenters album, and dreaming big (aka me in 1990).
DPB: You guys are a little bit punk rock, and I think the La Nieve ladies’ backcountry skiexemplifies that. A little darker, more severe, still beautiful. I think of all my female punk rock heroes when I look at it: Kathleen Hanna, Kim Gordon and I guess I should mention Carrie Brownstein, because she’s the queen. Is a ski’s look, feel, what it evokes, as important as how it rides for women? Trap question, I know.
Jen Gurecki, CEO & Co-Founder: Not all women care about aesthetics, so we can’t make a blanket statement representing the feelings of an entire demographic. But for us, the answer is unequivocally YES. We see our art as an extension of our lifestyle, our values, and our essence as women. It’s an opportunity to chip away at the rubber-stamped gender normative bullshit of what is “supposed” to appeal to women and offer up design that is more complex and interesting. It would be far easier to slap a trendy monochromatic ombre top sheet on our equipment, but that’s lazy design. We want to push ourselves with every single aspect of our equipment, from the performance to its aesthetic appeal.
DPB: What have you learned about running a ski company over the last two seasons?
JG: We knew starting a hard goods company in a seasonal, male-dominated industry that targets a niche demographic wouldn’t be easy, but we’ve learned over the past years just how much of a grind it really is. Don’t let Instagram fool you — it’s not endless pow runs and apres. We’ve learned that to be successful, we have to treat this like a proper business, not a hobby. Running a ski company means toiling over 20-plus tab financial spreadsheets, forecasting production, developing marketing strategies, hustling for money. You spend a lot more time behind your computer and in meetings that you do on the slopes, and that’s been a sacrifice. But we’re banking that it will pay off in the long run.
DPB: Jen, because you pop up on our Facebook once in awhile, I see you were a road warrior at least for the beginning of the winter, balancing travel for your day job with life as a (I hate this term btw, so forgive me) Ski-E-O. The travel is not all intrigue, minibars and pillowtop mattresses. It’s a lot of morning-after runny makeup and shitty antiseptic hotel lobby fruit. Can you talk a little bit about the circuit?
JG: In the grand scheme of things, I can’t complain about traveling for Coalition. It’s pretty fun. I’ve met some amazing people, shared incredible experiences, all nestled in beautiful places. But yeah, that Airbnb in Salt Lake City that turned out to be more like a hostel where I shared one bathroom with 10 dudes under 25 years old, or the white knuckled drives through the Rockies as the remnants of your fast food breakfast-lunch-dinner piles up in your passenger seat, definitely makes you wonder just why the fuck you do this. It’s exhausting, and at some level you end up on auto-pilot to make it through the day. You also spend a lot of time in your head on those long road trips and flights, wondering if you said the right thing at that really important meeting, calculating the ROI of that plane flight and hotel room, and stressing out about an inbox that you can’t keep on top of. And it can be lonely, but I’ll save the details for when you take me out for drinks.
DPB: Is the company where you thought it would be a couple years ago? Where will it be in a few more?
JG: This is a difficult question because as I reflect back on to what we were thinking a few years ago, I can say that we didn’t know shit. We started out, as you noted, to break the “shrink it and pink it” mold by making really exceptional women’s equipment. And we’ve done that. What we’ve seen over the years, which we didn’t anticipate, was the rise of the #ladyboss and #outdoorbabe movement (or trend — only time will tell). We’ve been positioned as thought leaders in that space, in part because we’ve been so outspoken about issues that women face in the outdoors and beyond. It’s not just about planks of wood anymore; we realize that we can have a much bigger impact. As we look forward, you’ll continue to see the same quality production of women’s equipment, but our voices will be bolder and stronger. And there’s also that world domination thing that we’re pretty serious about…
DPB: When we first spoke you said something that stuck with me. I sort of poked at you guys about how wasteful the ski industry is; the legendary and carcinogenic torching of the year’s leftover skis at the factories in China or Austria that the Big 13 companies are known for. The worthless re-marketing and putting a new top sheet over the same tech year after year. You guys, on the other hand, said you wouldn’t come out with a line annually to prevent this kind of waste. Though in that time, I’ve seen you roll out and cycle through lots of new product, especially the recent youth lines.
JG: We still stand behind our statement that the industry is wasteful, but our introduction of new equipment each year doesn’t necessarily mean that we are falling trap to this reality in the industry. You’ve seen us roll out more product for a few reasons. First, when you sell out, you need to make more product. We’ve done well with forecasting our production runs and don’t sit on a ton of inventory at the end of the year. If we don’t sell skis we don’t exist, so we make more skis to meet the demand. And this demand is what drives the introduction of new products into our line. Our youth line is in direct response to our community asking for equipment that caters to their children. We invested in designing a backcountry ski (and a splitboard that we are introducing next season) because it felt like there would be an uprising if we didn’t.
DPB: We’re going to get into some political stuff here in a second, because you can’t come to this space without being forced to express your views …but to get the gears turning a little more, what about the company has you most proud as it has grown from infant to toddler to shredder girl?
JG: When we launched the company, we truly believed that a community of women would rally around us. And they have, which is a testament to the importance and validity of our message and our equipment. But what has been surprising (in a good way), is that we’ve received accolades from the industry in such a short amount of time. This year our Abyss ski received a coveted Blister Gear Review and was selected as an Editor’s Pick at Skiing Magazine. We landed distribution in REI, the nation’s largest outdoor retail stores. And we just got back from Powder Week, an annual gear test hosted by POWDER Magazine. We knew that breaking into the industry would be crazy tough, but this year we started to make progress.
DPB: OK, here it comes. The question about where you guys are with the big orange pachyderm in the room. I’m going to start with my feelings, OK? I think we’re totally fucked. And not in a fun way. What we are seeing (and not seeing) is a complete societal takeover from the worst people with the worst ambitions in the history not just of this nation, but maybe of all of Western Civilization. You have a political party whose elected heads are willing to put personal profit, party and power grab over the health and welfare of their constituents and the planet. And you have an inner circle, starting with the president himself, who is this strange mix of incompetence, incoherence, compromised integrity, aged-out-of-relevancy and naked revenge that is so patently evil that we could very well be discussing these matters as star dust in a few years. Actually, I take it back. There’s no question here, just respond if you’d like.
JG: You pretty much summed it up in a far more interesting way than I could, but yes, we’re ashamed and completely in awe of the shit that we see out of this administration. Every. Single. Day. I’ve been managing my frustration/sorrow/sanity by writing about our situation from the lens of a female CEO. I penned two pieces, one titled Pussy Grabs Backand the other Ready To Grab Back But Don’t Know Where To Start. It’s become very clear to us that if your company is founded with any sort of social or environmental mission you cannot be agnostic. We have a responsibility to speak out against the misogynistic, xenophobic, racist (you get the idea) narrative coming out the White House. On the upside (because we all need a glimmer of hope), we’re optimistic that the arm chair activists of the world are literally rising up and following the lead of of outspoken, savvy leaders who are hell bent on correcting our course. Let’s just hope we can make it happen before it’s too late.
DPB: Because it’s so rough out there on a national and international scale, I’ve found that shrinking back down into things I can control is where it’s at. I think of the #grabyourwalletmovement and I have definitely made some choices with my spending that I never used to. Like no more foie gras for starters, period. This is for Danielle. I know you and your husband have previously been a part of the Squaw and Alpine family, but like many in the Basin and beyond, the machinations of the resorts’ private equity firm parent companyhave turned you off. I know diplomacy is key when running a company, but can you at least talk a little about what lessons you’ve learned (even the what-not-to-dos) from seeing what’s happening to Squaw and Alpine…once the most trusted brands in the region, now the most reviled.
Danielle Rees, Team Manager & Co-Founder: I believe that our daily choices do matter. Zach and I spoke out against the proposed development project at the Placer County Board of Supervisors hearing. After KSL received approval for development in Olympic Valley we decided to put our money where our mouth is. As former Squaw and Alpine Meadows employees and ten-year season passholders, changing our home mountain was not a decision we took lightly. We chose to invest our dollars in a ski resort that values their season passholders. I learned that open and honest communication with your customers builds trust, and that communicating your values by taking a stand on political and environmental issues builds a loyal customer base.
DPB: Since you guys both essentially started Coalition by balancing two careers, family, friends and riding — are you ever off? How do you wind down?
DR: Growing two organizations simultaneously was becoming increasingly difficult and affecting my outdoor recharge time. As an introvert I need alone time and have recommitted to my yoga practice and started daily meditation. After the election I took some time for reflection on a solo hike. Recognizing the importance of having enough energy to make a difference, I realized it was time to leave the nonprofit sector and dedicate all my efforts into building a company based on a shared vision of women staking a claim in the mountains.
JG: I, like Danielle, don’t balance two careers any more (I’ve worked over the past year to build an awesome team in Kenya that is running our daily operations at Zawadisha). And I drink bourbon.
DPB: I want to talk for a minute about the dead cat bounce we’re seeing this winter. Clearly, the planet is revolting and major storm sets this year are actually a byproduct of that last brutal gasp, not an indicator that things are going back to normal. And yet, I get it. I look and see a six-foot wall of snow on either side of the driveway (in fucking Incline) and think, well, maybe it’ll be OK. How do you guys, as runners of a ski company, reconcile what’s happening to the planet? And what, if anything, are you doing to make an effort to not make it worse? Skiing, I think, is inherently not an eco-friendly activity, see: large families and SUVs …but essential for living
JG: It’s really hard, and we don’t have a good answer for you. The minute you start to dig your way out of the destruction of the industry by advocating for human-powered means of accessing skiing, you run into issues of inclusivity and ableism. You can always integrate ecologically friendly construction materials, but there’s no way to back out of the amount of energy that it takes to press a ski (the difference in the carbon footprint is minimal). This might sound all bougie and naive and self protectionist, but when you think about the biggest offenders, it’s not the snow sports industry or the people who choose to recreate outdoors. We all could do better, and we fucking should, like yesterday. But let’s focus our attention on the dudes who are actively hating on the environment rather than those of us who actually bow down to it every day. We make shit better because we help people fall in love with the outdoors, foster a deep connection to our environment, and aspire to protect it for future generations. When we examine our ecological footprint as a company, we attempt to mitigate it through the ways we actually can right now — planting trees for every pair of skis sold, using recycled and sustainable materials when we can. We can do more, we will, and until then we will wrestle with the difficulties of not being able to do everything we want to.
DPB: OK, here we are at the end of our time. I’m going to ask you to give us an update on the latest at Coalition …I know there’s some stuff in the works this month you’d like to talk about. But before we get to all that, I just want to say thank you for the work you’re doing with our youngest skiers and riders. Your youth squad has definitely grown in number and stature over the last 24 months, and it’s something that comes up first when I talk to folks about your company and its direction. I look at my niece (who’s now a sophomore in college) and she was turned off by the sport her whole life and I never really asked her why…until recently. She said skiing/riding was something that just seemed like it was more for her dad/uncle/brother. I know on the surface attitudes about women in sport have changed tremendously in the post-Title IX era but some stigmas are so deeply rooted that we’re still using 2017 technology with 1960 with attitudes. I guess that’s maybe, sadly, a place we find our country today. Anyway, I just wanted to say I appreciate that very conscious effort on your part to help get the rest of us up to speed.
JG: Thanks Andrew, well said, and unfortunately very true. We don’t live in a post-gender, post-racial, post-you-name-it world. There’s still a lot more to fight for across all issues, for all people, and the story of your niece really exemplifies that. It’s why we founded Coalition Snow, and why we’re launching our YOUth line of skis and snowboards on Kickstarter on March 8th. We want young girls to know that they are welcome in our mountain communities and that they can have a meaningful future in the outdoor industry. It’s not about going pro, hucking yourself off cliffs, or shredding the gnar every day. It’s about having fun, building community, and instilling values, and we hope to inspire young women to stake their claim in the outdoors with the same drive, passion, and confidence that we have. We’re committed to supporting the next generation of mountain bosses, and we hope that your readers will be too. Check out our Kickstarter, dropping on March 8th.
CEO and co-founder Jen Gurecki spends most of her time on the road but calls Lake Tahoe home. She is still disappointing her parents by dropping out of her PhD program and not clocking in and out of a “normal job,” but she’s living the dream. When not tackling the shrink it and pink it problem in the ski industry, Gurecki continues to working on climate adaptation and financial inclusion for women in East Africa with the organization Zawadishaas their Board President.
Co-Founder and Team Manager Danielle Rees moved to Tahoe for “just one winter” after college to work as a ski and snowboard instructor. She is eager to apply her 15 years experience developing leaders for local organizations including Planned Parenthood, Adventure Risk Challenge, and Girls on the Run to Coalition Snow.
All Images: Courtesy Coalition Snow