Four Ways to Meaningfully Invest in DEI
Here are four examples of how outdoor companies have effectively put their money where their mouths are where DEI is concerned. The first two, done in isolation, can be performative if not part of something like the third and fourth, which drive more significant change.
Turn up the star power
Jimmy Chin, the climber, photographer, and Oscar-winning director, arguably has been the highest-profile outdoorsperson of color for years. And now he and Lena Waithe, the director and Emmy-winning actor (“Master of None”), have been tapped for The North Face’s “Reset Normal,” an awareness and funding campaign. The two will lead the brand’s new Explore Fund Council, a $7 million effort to advance equity and access in the outdoors.
Teresa Baker says, “They’re bringing in freaking celebrities now. That’s not to say every brand has the financial ability to do that, but this is huge step.” Advocates like Baker have hoped for the use of higher-profile models or spokespeople, especially BIPOC individuals, to draw more attention to the diversity issues in the outdoors.
Companies that can’t quite shine Hollywood-level klieg lights on DEI can still partner with better-known athletes or activists of color. One example is Chad Brown, who is Black, a veteran, and the founder of the nonprofit Soul River. He is a brand ambassador for Marmot, Mystery Ranch, and Ruffwear, and has been featured in social media by companies such as Columbia Sportswear and KEEN.
Make it personal
It was 2016, and the Trump administration had Rob Coughlin fired up about diversity and the mounting attacks on the environment. So he rounded up his colleagues at Granite Gear, the Minnesota-based backpack and gear brand. “We need to make a bigger difference,” Coughlin, the company’s vice president of sales and product development, told them.
This wasn’t a small ask because, with 24 employees and $5 million in annual revenue, Granite Gear is a relatively small company. The team would have to do more with whatever it had—like its Instagram account with only a modest following. The brand began by increasing representation of marginalized communities on its social media channels, which led to the weekly Instagram TV hit, “A Hot Minute,” and helped Granite Gear’s following increase by 25 percent.
The show is pure Coughlin—humorous, open, and welcoming to people not normally depicted in an industry that he’d discovered upon entering is “incredibly white.” Coughlin’s show is trading wisecracks with Teresa Baker. It’s Coughlin crying as Amiththan Sebarajah, the Canadian thru-hiker, describes seeing his uncle hanging from a streetlight during civil war in his native Sri Lanka. Or staying up all night to read The Unlikely Thru-Hiker in preparation for his session with its author, Derick Lugo.
“Rob takes elevating the stories of people of color to a level nobody else has reached,” says Scott Briscoe, a Black climber and founder of WeGotNext. José González adds, “Rob is sticking his neck out. He’s willing to try things with different people.”
Go where BIPOC are
The birthplace of Aretha Franklin, the Soulsville neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee, remains one of the Blackest stretches in the country. Lately, it has also been among its poorest. So it might be the last place you’d expect to find something as emblematic of white experience and privilege as a climbing gym.
“Nobody invests in a climbing gym in a neighborhood like this,” says Jon Hawk. “We came here on purpose. We’re breaking down as many barriers as possible.” Hawk is the director of operations at Memphis Rox, a nonprofit climbing gym founded by local director and writer Tom Shadyac (“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor”) that opened in 2018.
The pay-as-you-can gym is, Hawk says, “an access point to our relationship” with Soulsville’s people. It has served 30,000 free meals, offered professional development programs, hired half of its staff from the surrounding area, and served as a safe space in a tough environment.
Memphis Rox cost about $10 million to open, but Hawk says other programs can be effective without rising to that scale. For example, The North Face has invested in climbing walls in underserved areas through its “Walls are Meant for Climbing” campaign. And brands can reach out to underserved communities by opening stores or even or pop-ups in urban locations.
Remake company culture
Having been chased off slopes during the early decades of their existence, snowboarders at least have a sense of what it’s like to be excluded. That history has helped push Donna Carpenter to at Burton. Its ambitious plan includes internal demographic auditing and hiring reform, cultural education and revision, increased internal anti-racism infrastructure (a JEDI committee and employee resource groups), and charity/foundation work. Among other things, it’s donating $100,000 to the NAACP and expanding the company’s Chill Foundation, an award-winning youth development program.
Such a comprehensive approach is far more likely to move the needle on diversity. Many companies tend to deal with DEI as if choosing a gesture from an à la carte menu. The result, says Scott Briscoe of WeGotNext, “is not affecting any sustainable change at a cultural level.”
José González of Latino Outdoors, adds, “If you want to focus on a grant-giving program or being more inclusive in terms of your design process for gear—excellent. Just don’t pretend like that’s all of the work.”
The endgame for diversity advocates is reforming hiring practices, a move that would address the gaping absence of BIPOC representation at the highest levels of companies and the industry as a whole. But this includes a difficult process of first preparing company cultures to embrace employees from outside the usual circles. As difficult as hiring may be, retaining employees of color is an even bigger challenge. One study found that the tech industry, which is struggling with similar issues, spends a mind-boggling $16 billion a year on retention.
Enlightened companies have landed on a process that begins with hiring an outside consultant of color who can help audit company demographics and policies, and devise and help execute a DEI plan that includes anti-racism training appropriate to the organization. Companies should be prepared to engage such consulting on an ongoing basis for years because cultural transformation and DEI work is not a single goal. It is a continuum, countering the centuries of colonialist white supremacy that got us to this point.
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This story originally was published in The Voice Magazine and online at Outside Business Journal.