07 Feb Show Me The Money! BIPOCs In Business Need Outdoor Industry Investment
When she arrived at the Denver Convention Center, Brittney Coleman had that fierce look of determination, like a woman ready to take on the world. Though even she would admit that while attending the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in 2021 as the CEO of a new company, her outward appearance of self-confidence concealed more than a little fear and a since of intimidation. But she wasn’t about to let that get in her way.
“I flew in on a cheap flight, stayed with a friend and walked the show,” she told me in an interview. “When you saw me with my suitcase, I had it at the show because I just didn’t have anywhere to put it. I couldn’t have a booth or anything like that. It was just me.”
The founder of Tough Cutie, a maker of women’s athletic socks, Coleman came to OR to begin establishing her professional network in the outdoor recreation industry. A Black woman of small stature, age 30, she immediately impressed me as force to recon with. Among a new generation of entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous or Persons of Color (BIPOC), Coleman aims to redefine the outdoor sector of the economy to address more equitably the interests of women and the under-represented as a way of doing business, literally from the ground up.
“The brand Tough Cutie is about all the shoes that women fill. Maybe she’s putting on hiking socks today. Maybe tomorrow she’s going to do a presentation to the board. The next day she’s in her slippers at home, taking care of her kids,” she told me. “There’re a lot of ways to attack the problem of lack of representation and lack of equity. This brand is about exploring those ways, and we’re choosing to do it through the outdoor industry.”
At time when so many companies, trade organizations and non-profit institutions are working to improve the professional landscape in outdoor recreation to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive, there is still much work left to do. Despite her tenacious spirit, Coleman, and other entrepreneurs like her, have many obstacles in their way that are endemic to an industry that has long prioritized the market imperatives of customers and senior executives that are majority male, affluent, socially mobile, and white. Fortunately, a great deal of progress has been made toward the creation of opportunities and resources to better promote the products and services of outdoor recreation to an emerging demographic that is growing more gender and racially diverse. We are indeed seeing an increase of marketing and social media campaigns that include more people of color, women, the plus-sized, the differently abled and those who identify as LBGTQ. But to be truly inclusive there must be as well efforts to encourage members of these same marginalized communities to build senior level careers and brands of their own. Coleman believes that equity and inclusion must be a design element of every product she makes.
“You should feel like you belong here, and you have the gear and the products that you know will take you wherever you want to be,” she said. That’s the thing about this brand that I want to communicate. Everyone can start where they are. You can come as you are and know that the brand is going to support you.”
In a highly competitive retail environment, many might believe that such lofty ideals are too ambitious for small companies to possess. The financial resources and expertise necessary to effectively overcome decades of exclusionary sales practices are likely far beyond the capacity of a single start-up. Tough Cutie can’t possibly do it alone. But imagine how the outdoor industry, as a whole, might benefit if the marketplace and its constituency of potential customers was expanded to include literally everyone.
For more than 10 years, Kenji Haroutunian, the former director of the Outdoor Retailer Show, has hosted a gathering of BIPOC professionals he calls the Inclusivity Luncheon. Back when OR was held in Salt Lake City, Utah, the event drew a handful of Black and brown folks to a Chinese restaurant across the street from the Salt Palace. A few of us got together in solidarity twice each year to support our respective efforts toward career development and commiserate upon the industry’s lack of diversity. Overtime the number of attendees has grown so that when we last met at the Colorado Athletic Club in Denver, before the Covid-19 pandemic, so many people showed up that the food ran out as we welcomed a standing-room-only crowd.
Diversity in the outdoor industry is absolutely improving, but what about those up-and-coming young professionals who are trying to make their way? “Eventually, you can find your path. Brittney will find her path. If they just stick with it for ten to twenty-five years, it’ll happen,” Haroutunian said with a chuckle. “But what we’re trying to do is fast track it. We’re trying to put the jets on and help us become a more diverse industry now.”
At least a few companies are proactively creating opportunities to promote and elevate BIPOC professionals to start their own businesses. Brittany Coleman was the recipient of an award from the 2021 Title Nine Pitchfest event. Touch Cutie socks will soon be available at Title Nine stores across the country. By building a community of so-called Movers & Makers, the female focused retailer aims to bring positive change to under-represented communities and create a more inclusive economic environment.
“Brittany is smart, hardworking, and motivated to make a difference – she is just the kind of entrepreneur we are looking to support,” said Title Nine event organizer Lisa Gillian. “Women receive only 2.3% of venture funding and make up only 8% of all Fortune 500 CEOs – we want to see those numbers shift. If Title Nine, a relatively small independent retailer, can create opportunities for underrepresented members of our community, imagine what even larger companies could do.”
Organizations that are serious about engaging BIPOC customers and potential employees should take notice of industry efforts to reach communities that are so often underserved. The Outdoor Foundation, the charitable arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, has created a program called Thrive Outside that aims to build capacity toward exposing the residents of urban neighborhoods to nearby recreational resources in city parks and nature areas.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in participation in our eight Thrive communities. It’s not only about the access piece and connecting youth in underserved communities to nature,” said OF executive director Stephanie Maez. “It’s also about demonstrating that this collective impact model, is effective in moving the needle in these outcome areas.”
The Thrive Outside program and others, such as Together Outdoors, a coalition of strategic partners organized by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, are working to create an ecosystem of collaboration that will bring more of the underrepresented into the industry. Together Outdoors director Gerry James works with company executives and human resource managers to provide the education they need to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. They have designed a seven-month training workshop that aims to fill in some of the cultural gaps that make even entry level career placement difficult simply because potential BIPOC job candidates may not have the industry exposure or networking opportunities to even apply.
“Our hope is these folks will absorb this education and start thinking about their pipeline,” James said. “You have to look in nontraditional spaces like HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). And even then, not everyone will have a college degree, but they can still do a good job.”
It is these points of engagement that show our willingness to be truly inclusive. Many companies are committing their time and financial resources to achieve worthwhile progress. But that commitment could be better demonstrated by encouraging BIPOC businesses to grow and positively impact their own communities. Bethany Leibowitz is the founder of the Brown Girls Climb Marketplace, an online retail site that promotes products and services created by and for people of color.
“There is a great opportunity here to expand the market reach for everyone so that outdoor recreationalists that are seeking a specific product have more choice to find a brand that represents them and their outdoor experience,” Leibowitz said.
The outdoor industry is slowly but surely expanding to meet the demand of an emerging BIPOC customer base. Marketing campaigns in print and online are increasingly doing a better job of representing a broader cross section of the American public. However, in order to achieve true equity, Leibowitz says that people of color must also be included in the growth of wealth and influence in the industry.
“All of these efforts are certainly great but continue to feed the growth of already successful companies,” she said. “We need an alternative option that actually comes from the community itself.”
Among the brands promoted on the BGC Marketplace is Alpine Parrot, a maker of apparel designed specifically to meet the needs of plus-sized women. Founder Raquel Vélez said she aims to build products that suit the body types that the outdoor industry frequently ignores.
“When you have clothes that actually fit you after you’ve spent so much of your life learning to cope with clothes that don’t fit you, it’s revolutionary,” she says. “You tell yourself, wow! I feel confident. I can be myself. And that’s amazing.”
In an industry that caters to the sizing demands of a very specific demographic, Alpine Parrot aspires to carve out its own niche. Vélez is putting in the effort to create patterns and styles that will appeal to an audience of buyers that are not the typical thin waisted, narrow hipped, long legged female form.
“We’re focused on people of large size and people of color. But that means we need to think more deeply than simply what is the norm and redefine what our normal is,” she said. “So that means I have to spend extra time measuring people, putting prototypes, on people, taking measurements, looking at what works, what doesn’t work.”
Through her efforts Vélez can help grow the outdoor industry so that it includes the many who are underrepresented. And in doing so she and small business owners like her are redefining an outdoor industry that is diverse and equitable. By creating goods and services that address the specific needs of the emerging market, these BIPOC entrepreneurs can be assured that it will also be inclusive. But in addition to DEI training and outreach programs our industry must be prepared as well to make worthwhile investments of cold hard cash to support their long-term success. “So if this industry wants to help me out, give me some money,” Vélez said. “I have the designs. I know how to build a team. I know how to build products. I just need money.”
This story originally appeared in the Outdoor Retailer Daily on Day 3 of the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show