Women Don’t Need To Be Empowered” | Jen Gurecki On The Commodification Of Feminism In Action Sports
Anyone could tell you that if you step into an interview with someone as passionate and driven as the co-founder of Coalition Snow, Jen Gurecki, all the metalicious planning and prep is going to go out the window. Jen writes her own script. She’s carved her own path, built her own businesses, broken down stereotypes, and redefined what it means to be a badass girl in the action sports world.
Coalition Snow was co-founded by Jen and Danielle Rees in 2014, producing a line of skis and snowboards for women, designed by women, with the tag ‘we make womens skis and snowboards that don’t suck!’ Beyond the technical aspects of the equipment, the skis and boards are extremely easy on the eye, and without a single camp pink floral design in sight.
Settling down for our chat, it’s 4:45pm here in England, and 8:45am in Lake Tahoe, California, where Jen is based. I’m anxious about having dragged her up so early, but she doesn’t sound sleepy in the slightest. ‘I started a company in Kenya’, she says, ‘I’m often on early morning and late night calls.’
When she’s not shredding in Tahoe, Jen is the chief officer of the Zawadisha Fund, a non-profit organisation based in Kenya that provides renewable energy and water products on credit to women. Exploring ‘bottom-up’ approaches to social change (you can watch Jen’s fascinating TEDx Talk on ‘Reimagining the Paradigm of Poverty’ from the University of Nevada), the objective of Zawadisha was to provide the fundamentals for these women to improve their immediate quality of life. A better education system would follow wake, and putting women in positions of power tackles gender inequality hands-on. Even though these humble resources, some of the women discovered their inner entrepreneurs and started their own businesses.
It’s a very different type of venture to a women’s ski and snowboard production company, but for Jen there’s not a million miles between the two. ‘It is very different’, she says, ‘But at the same time, based on the same values and overarching mission that women just deserve better, right?’
We certainly do. Feminism has been slowly creeping into pop culture over the last decade, and rightfully so. If you put the clock back ten years you can see that the action sports industry was void of positive and aspiring female role models for younger girls to look up to, and a gross lack in sponsorship funding for women. It seemed like a desolate no-go terrain for girls who wanted to reach the top. Jen remembers these times also.
‘When I was growing up there was a dearth of women in sports, in snow sports, in business. What we’re doing is more than slapping planks of wood on our feet- we’re shifting an outdated narrative, creating role models, working hard towards levelling the playing field.’
The market speaks for itself, and the lack of diversity in the action and snow sports scene is reflected back at us; coming by good, professional-grade snow sports equipment for women is still difficult. With bigger brands focusing their time, money and energy into the men’s lines, a women’s line feels like something hastily tacked onto the side; an afterthought.
It’s thanks to determined women like Jen that over the past few years positive change has begun to slowly balance out the sports market. Women and girls who are prepared to go against the grain, stand up to male CEO’s and prove, through their voices and through their hard-earned cash, that there is a thriving market for women who love to shred just as much as their male is where Coalition Snow has found its niche; the untapped oil well that is the female market demanding high-grade, professional snow sports equipment.
‘You definitely see more women being sponsored’, Jen says, ‘In terms of technical gear, this is where the market can move mountains. Female consumers (I hate using that phrase because it’s so impersonal, but don’t know how else to describe it) can use their dollars to force companies into creating the gear they want. You do see more offerings, which is good, but am I crazy for thinking we can do better?’
“Coalition Snow is so much more than just an end product delivered to consumers. It’s about the values of companies, and how they live those values”
Call it a wake up call to the bigger corporations, call it whatever you will, but while the consumer benefits from their gorgeous skis and snowboards, Jen insists that Coalition is targeting a bigger, institutionalised problem.
“Women in business, women in the outdoors are trending right now.” she says, “But are we really gaining traction or are we being commodified? For me, Coalition Snow is so much more than just an end product delivered to consumers. It’s about the values of companies, and how they live those values with equal pay, diverse teams, and a social mission embedded into their companies.”
With all the ‘girl power’ surrounding us, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are coasting easily towards something of a social revolution that will fall naturally into place after a few aptly posted Instagram pictures with inspirational slogans, but this is not the case.
If female empowerment and #ladyboss is a trend, how long will this female empowerment trend last? Will it blow over like most trends and hashtags in this day and age of fleeting attention spans and skittish interests?
“Until we can really get under the hood of these companies to understand how women are actually treated in their companies and equally represented, and until we see more female founders and CEOS, then the #ladyboss thing is just a hashtag” says Jen.
While it’s great to see women being empowered, Jen voices a concern that we are approaching this revolution of gender roles the wrong way. “I like to say that women don’t need to be empowered, they need to be in power. Empowerment connotes that someone else is doing something for you- the opposite of empowerment”she says.
“I’m a pragmatist, just because women are trending right now, I’m not convinced that our progress will be sustained. We are going to have to fight for it if we don’t want to take two steps forward, one step back when the next hot thing hits the market.”
A conversation with Jen is eye opening, sitting five thousand miles away in the beautiful snowy mountains of the U.S. Rockies, she can completely change your view on feminism and stir a sense of passion inside you that we just aren’t getting enough.
Maybe we should embrace Jen’s ‘bottom-up’ approach to social change by tackling it at the cusp of the problem. Until there is an equal balance of men and women in top CEO positions in the outdoors industry and representing the competition at sporting events, along with equal sponsorship funding and equal pay for equal work, this spotlight on women in sports and business is going to remain confined to Instagram feeds and ‘inspirational’ advertorials that don’t so much benefit women as they do the male-driven brands behind the campaigns.
The superficial illusion of change can fool us to thinking that things are looking up, but being tools for brands to further their own interests instead of there being a basis of real, solid change shows that it’s going to take a bit more fighting yet.
But there is an answer, put driven women like Jen at the helm and others will follow suit. She throws herself into the cause tooth and nail and while in the past there may have been a lady-shaped void in the action sports industry, with role models like her, maybe there won’t be for much longer.