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Leading Change: 5 Female Founders Talk Being Women in the Outdoor Industry

Verde PR founder Kristin Carpenter cycling towards the Leadville 100 Race finish with her daughter Bella running beside her
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Women CEOs are taking the outdoor industry by storm, blending decades of experience with a new, much-needed perspective.

The outdoor industry is becoming more conscious and more diverse as women and people of color take the lead to actualize change. They’re building products and businesses to fulfill their needs.

Some of this change is happening from within our predominantly white, male-dominated space, but at a sometimes glacial pace. Many accomplished businesswomen still go largely unacknowledged.

Take Alpacka Raft founder Sheri Tingey. Now in her 70s, Tingey spent 20 years innovating the world’s most cutting-edge packrafts, arguably spearheading a new adventure sport. Yet she’s not widely known like her contemporary, Yvon Chouinard.

And Teresa Baker, 56, founded five DEI-focused events/organizations and, in 2018, the 185-member strong Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge. Yet Camber Outdoors, which is run by predominantly white people at the time (it’s now run by a more diverse group), launched a “first of its kind” diversity pledge in 2019 — a year after telling Baker its members weren’t ready to tackle diversity, reported Outside Magazine.

Communities of color have always been in the outdoors, Baker explained in the film Here We Stand, whether that’s recreating, working on environmental issues, or fighting for a more diverse outdoors. “But you don’t see us. We are not out front, and that’s the problem.”

People in Rafts on Water
(Photo/Alpacka Rafts)

But a shift is happening.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s New Outdoor Participant report for 2020, participation by women and minorities is increasing: 46% of outdoor enthusiasts are women and 34% are people of color. The women in this article — white, Black, Latino, Asian — are taking their place front and center.

And, they’re bringing with them a new paradigm of thinking about how businesses in the outdoor industry can be run.

Angelica ‘Cheech’ Casaverde — Founder, Casa Verde Clothing

Angelica Casaverde is using her love of cycling, background in fashion design, and passion for sustainability to bring innovative styles of small-batch clothing into the cycling industry.

cheech casaverde

From Fashion Design to Sustainability

Angelica Casaverde’s husband, Matt, reintroduced her to bikes shortly after they met in 2016. It didn’t take long for this petite 4’10” gal with a huge smile to get hooked on the lifestyle — traveling in a van, riding bikes, exploring the outdoors. With Matt, she co-owns Crust and still runs the day-to-day operations.

But Cheech didn’t start out in bikes. She started in fashion and design, earning a BFA and working for fashion icons Kate Spade and Betsey Johnson. It wasn’t a surprise when her husband asked her to design a pair of men’s canvas bike shorts. They sold well, so she started designing clothes she wanted to ride in, and Casa Verde Clothing was born.

“At the beginning it was really hard,” she said. “There are many challenges in taking a garment from your head and making it into something a person can use every day.”

She’s submitted designs and fabrics to her factory that she tested, only to find something changed along the way during production.

Casaverde alleviates these problems by working with trusted local sources nationally to make her clothes and internationally for her textiles. She contracts with a small factory in New York that offers good pay and working conditions. And she works with a trusted textile factory in China that offers natural, organic, and recycled textiles.

Likewise, Casaverde refuses to work with factories in the region where Uyghurs are forced into internment camps, and she’s skeptical of companies that use the words “sustainable and eco-friendly.”

She cites rayon as a good example. It may come from wood cellulose, but that wood comes from the deforestation of some of the most beautiful forests in the world. “We all wear clothing, and we should be as transparent as possible so the consumer can make their own decision.”

This results in more expensive clothes and smaller batches being made, she said. “That’s the harsh reality of ethically sourcing products.” But she wouldn’t do it any other way.

Eventually, she wants to source textiles directly from a village in Peru where she has indigenous roots. “My end goal is to bring a source of income for the women without them losing their culture.”

Speaking Up & Building Community

Cheech feels lucky. Her high-quality clothing and affiliation with Crust gave her street cred, and now her business is thriving. On the other hand, it wasn’t easy at the beginning. At bike shows, the predominantly male crowd often “pushed her out of the circle,” and she wondered if people saw her and other people of color as a “peripheral thing.”

angelica cheech casaverde

She takes it to heart when she experiences racism. And it’s difficult to speak up when microaggressions occur.

“Women of color get put into this box where we are considered ‘hysterical’ or ‘too sensitive’ when we speak up, particularly black women. We start to internalize the lack of validation and start to question our own emotions and actions, which makes it more difficult to speak up in the future. I do not want to be put into the box of ‘feisty Latina that overreacts.’”

On the other hand, Cheech has found an amazing group of women of color to ride with through social media and networking events. Like RAR, Radical Adventure Riders, an organization that creates space for women, trans, femme, nonbinary, and genderqueer cyclists in the world of bike exploring.

“I used to look at cycling like an outsider, but eventually realized being a cyclist didn’t mean I’d have to fit one shape. I could still be me and enjoy riding a bicycle.”

Susan Clayton — Founder, WhitePaw RunMitts

Susan Clayton saw a product that didn’t exist, recognized the need, and created it herself. She strives to support local manufacturers, broaden her products reach, and bring runners everywhere together.

Susan Clayton WhitePaws RunMitts 2021

An Entrepreneur, Filling a Need

Susan Clayton doesn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur. Society, she said, values Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and people with billion-dollar companies. But looking back on her family history, she realizes she comes from an entrepreneurial lineage.

During the Great Migration, her grandfather relocated from Georgia to Baltimore, along with more than 6 million other African Americans from the rural South who moved to cities of the North, Midwest, and West from about 1916 to 1970.

“He started his own shoe repair business,” she said. “And my dad had a hair salon. It was just something you did back then. You opened your own place.”

In Clayton’s 50 years, she’s started a hair salon, which she’s owned for more than 25 years. And, WhitePaw RunMitts, a company that makes convertible, thumbless mittens designed for runners.

“In the winter, my hands were so cold,” she said in a Baltimore Fishbowl article. “I saw a friend running with socks on his hands, and that gave me the idea. My mitts are like socks, but they have a flap so you can push them off your fingers or up your arms.”

Clayton believes most female business owners start companies for similar reasons. They just want something practical and affordable that works.

“People constantly ask me, ‘Are you going to add more stuff to your line?’” Clayton explained. “But am I adding t-shirts because it’s the thing to do, or am I adding t-shirts because I need a better shirt? Why can’t I just sell mittens for the rest of my career?”

Go Small & Stay Home

Clayton enjoys her quiet life, and is thrilled when people recognize her as the maker at farmer’s markets or running expos. “I’m not trying to be all over the news. I’m just happy people love my product,” she claimed.

Clayton was initially nervous about starting the company. She thought her idea was simple, but really good. She wasn’t the only one. Her local Baltimore running community embraced her mittens, and most recently, REI started selling them. This, she said, “makes all the hard work worthwhile and gives me credibility in the industry.”

Founder Susan Clayton wearing her WhitePaws RunMitts and black clothes, sitting on some stairs

She did have some early manufacturing challenges and considered going abroad to reduce prices and expand operations. But she ultimately decided to work locally.

“I know who my manufacturers are,” she said. “I can talk to them and know they’re treating their employees right.” She also minimizes plastic packaging and shipping costs because her mittens aren’t coming across the ocean.

Clayton feels lucky to have been embraced by the running community. She hasn’t had issues being a woman or woman of color in business because, she believes, there are many runners of color.

On the other hand, she recognizes that the sportswear industry is dominated by men. And sometimes at events, those men assume she works for her company, instead of owning it.

Lastly, Clayton doesn’t really consider herself outdoorsy. “When I meet with other people of color, we talk about doing urban hikes …  mapping out a walk around the city to check out historical sites,” she said. This isn’t typically considered an outdoor activity like thru-hiking in the woods.

On the other hand, she’s in REI now. And she’s started to realize, “you can still be outdoorsy just by running and walking around.”

Heidi Wirtz — Founder, Earthplay Retreats

Professional athlete Heidi “Almighty” Wirtz didn’t start a business just to make some cash. Rather, she sought out how one activity — yoga — could be beneficial and impactful when paired with another activity — rock climbing. Then, she built an entire platform to encourage others to try both.

heidi wirtz climbing photo by lizzy scully

Yoga for Climbers 

Heidi “Almighty” Wirtz loves yoga and climbing rocks. She’s avidly practiced both for 3 decades. She’s a high-level AMGA guide and climbs 5.13 and Water/Ice V. One of America’s most well-known climbers, she’s graced the cover of various magazines, been featured in numerous films, and she’s taught thousands of less-experienced climbers.

In the mid-2000s, she started the nonprofit Girls Education International, and in 2014 she founded her yoga-climbing retreat company, Earthplay Retreats.

“I started Earthplay because I really wanted to incorporate both the things I love into something impactful for people,” Wirtz explains. “The two activities go hand in hand. If you can get body awareness on the mat, you can bring that onto the rocks.”

She started doing yoga in the 1990s to address a bad sciatica problem. “I was in pain all the time,” she said. She went to an acupuncturist who recommended yoga. It didn’t take long before she started regularly studying it with some of the world’s best teachers, including Tim Miller, the first American certified to teach by Pattabhi Jois at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India.

“I started teaching my friends for fun at Indian Creek, and then for pay in Estes Park,” she said. “It felt so rewarding to help people and watch them get more fluid in their bodies and to relieve their pain.”

Around the same time she bought a rope, some hexes, and started rock climbing. She became super-fit and driven to climb bigger and more difficult routes, from 100 to 3,000-plus feet. She held the women’s speed record on El Capitan for a decade and she’s put up some notable first ascents internationally.

Pushing Just a Little Bit Further

“I was just minding my own business and people kept wanting to write about me and do films about me,” she said of her introduction to the professional world of climbing. “I traded some climbing shoes for a photo shoot. And then Pete Mortimer offered me $100 to be in ‘Front Range Freaks’. At that point, I sold out and got sponsored by The North Face.”

Other companies sponsored her as well: La Sportiva, Metolius, and Black Diamond, among others.

Twenty years on, Wirtz reflects on her experience with being a sponsored athlete. Some companies have supported her more than others.

“It’s fascinating TNF kicked me off as soon as I turned 50,” she said. “It’s like women become invisible at 50. They didn’t kick Pete Athens or other old dudes off the team.”

But Wirtz isn’t worrying about it. A successful AMGA guide with rock, ice, ski, and rescue certifications under her belt, she runs popular climbing/yoga retreats in Greece, Puerto Rico, and Utah, among other places. “I have return clients who come back year after year,” she added.

On one particularly memorable climb with a client, she said, “This guy was crawling toward me across the catwalk on Ancient Art (a route in the Fisher Towers), and he told me, ‘Every time I think you have expanded me as far as I can go, you push me a little further.’ And he was stoked!”

Kristin Carpenter — Founder, Verde Brand Communications

Kristin Carpenter is widely respected in the outdoor industry as a force on a bicycle, an articulate podcast host, and founder and co-leader of one of the industry’s most storied public relations firms.

kristin carpenter verde pr
(Photo courtesy of Kristin Carpenter)

A Female Leader

People know Kristin Carpenter in the outdoor industry. She’s a force on a bicycle, articulate on her podcast Channel Mastery, and a successful entrepreneur. Twenty years ago, she founded Verde Brand Communications, a hugely successful public relations and communications firm. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that Carpenter really began to understand her value.

“My mother told me when I was very little that I was my own worst enemy,” Carpenter said of her mom, who died when she was 13. “I’ve always felt like I had to work five times as hard to be equal to my peers or the companies we pitch against. Through COVID I literally would get out of bed every morning and ask myself, ‘How can I help today?’”

She decided to create dozens of webinars, panels, research projects, and podcasts to guide people in modernizing their businesses and connecting with today’s shapeshifting shoppers. It helped her stay sane to serve the industry, and she felt appreciated for the first time.

“One of the most beautiful gifts I’ve received was hearing I was helping people,” she said. She’s always had the trust of her clients because she worked really hard and got results. But, believing you had to work harder to be valued equally sometimes bit her in the ass.

“It’s a fear-based way to live,” she explains. And one of her biggest challenges was that it became the culture of Verde during its early years. “We were over-servicing and not knowing our value.”

The Value of Women’s Voices

Twenty years later, she feels Verde is now in a great place, and she gives a lot of credit to her partners, Julie Evans and Dave Simpson, and her “awesome” team of over 20. Carpenter is especially grateful to Evans for her professionalism and trustworthiness, among other things.

Kristen Carpenter. Photo by the Leadville Race Series 2021

“To grow the business, navigate being female executives, all while raising kids builds a very special friendship,” she explains. “I really look up to her and appreciate her consistency in her leadership. I balance that out with creativity and ability to take calculated risk.”

The duo also share an unusual space as fellow female executives in a traditionally male-dominated community. Carpenter said, like Evans, women leaders excel at mentoring. They tend to be nurturing and they start mentoring earlier than males in the same position. Her assumptions are evidence-based.

The McKinsey & Company 2021 Women in the Workplace reports states women leaders more often help team members navigate work-life challenges, check in on their well being, focus on DEI work that falls outside their formal job requirements (without recognition), and educate themselves about the challenges women of color face, among other things. Carpenter is a perfect example.

“I really believe in the saying, ‘If you can see it, you can be it,’” she explains. “Having female leaders as part of a diverse leadership team enables women or people who identify as women to see they can be there, too, one day.”

Diversity and inclusive company cultures are also critical to the future success of outdoor businesses, she adds. “People want to work for companies that reflect what they see in the world. If you have a brand that people respect, follow and it has a team that reflects the world, that’s another step to enabling people of all walks of life and backgrounds to recreate.”

So how to convince the dominant culture to change? Address the issue systemically, work with organizations like Camber Outdoors to empower more women and foster workplace DEI in the industry, and find employees on Teresa Baker’s In Solidarity Job Board.

“It feels to me like there is an intention to create a new future in the outdoor industry for women and people of color to start businesses and take on leadership roles,” Carpenter said.

“It’s a different community to work in than it was 20, 10, or even five years ago. People really want to do the right thing. They want to enable women and people of color to have a voice. And I want to do everything I can to help.”

Marinel de Jesus — Founder, Equity Global Treks & The Porter Voice Collective

Marinel de Jesus wants more women of color and women in foreign countries taking lead roles in the trekking tourism industry. Since she found no role female models of color for herself, she decided to become her own.

marinel de jesus

The Powerhouse of DEI Takes on Mountains & The Trekking Industry

Marinel de Jesus wants more women of color and local women in foreign countries to take lead roles in the trekking tourism industry. And since she found no role models, she decided to become one. She quit her law career after 15 years and pioneered three organizations focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“I don’t see a lot of women entrepreneurs or CEOs,” she said. “And I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, who was brown. I thought, ‘there’s never going to be a group of women who look like me and who feel comfortable in this space if no one is going to solve this problem. I knew I had to.”

She said it cost her emotionally. It triggered the trauma she experienced as a 13-year-old Filipino immigrant moving to the United States, living in poverty, and dealing with racism. But, equipped with an education, a strong sense of activism, and a newly discovered passion for the nomadic outdoor lifestyle, she knew she could make a difference.

Marinel de Jesus trekking in Nepal (_). Photo courtesy of Marinel

“I used to be too nervous to go off the beaten path,” she said with a laugh. But then she got hooked on hiking, trekking, and backpacking. “It’s not a normal thing that most people do.” And it’s not an easy transition to make from the real world.

“I was always fascinated with the lifestyle, but I thought maybe in my next lifetime,” she said. “With pets, a house, a partner … I couldn’t even imagine being a nomad. But deep down inside that was my dream.”

She’s now traveled to over 70 countries, basing for some lengthier periods to develop programs or because she had to. She got stuck in Mongolia during the initial months of the pandemic. There, she had a lot of time to think. She decided to close her adventure travel social enterprise, Peak Explorations, and refocus on Equity Global Treks, a company that would “disrupt the current systems of oppression by implementing three changes in the industry: workforce-equity tourism, community-led tourism, and women-focused Tourism.”

Giving People a Voice

“I realized the workforce itself should be taken care of and fairly treated,” she explains. She’s seen firsthand the “horrendous” inequities in her industry. “It’s almost forced labor. There are many companies that are outright not paying people.”

So, she also founded the nonprofit Porter’s Voice Collective, which seeks to empower both porters and tourists to speak up for an equitable workforce.

“I want tourists and the industry to be aware so we don’t have to keep denying it,” she said. And she wants women to get a fair shake. “They’re dealing with sexism and gender discrimination in their communities. The systems perpetuate male patriarchy. Women have to have more leverage.”

She attacks these problems from different angles, through investigation, stories, and talking with her clients. Plus, she co-creates trips with local communities that empower those communities. She also partners with women in the outdoor and trekking industries, mentors, participates in diversity panels, and is on various boards, including the American Hiking Society. And she leans into her beliefs and doesn’t compromise.

“The biggest mistake I made in the beginning was listening to people telling me to ‘stay away from controversy’,” de Jesus said. “When I was neutral, I was invisible. When I gave myself 100% permission to be me and to talk about things I cared about, people started to notice me more. It was very liberating to just be myself.”

De Jesus has a message for the white-dominated outdoor and trekking industries. “People think we don’t exist. But the truth is people of color are here in the outdoors. We are business leaders and entrepreneurs, and we are knocking on the door for opportunities,” de Jesus added. “Those in power must learn to create access and open these doors for us [to] belong in the same space.”

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