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Women Finding Fresh Paths to Leadership in the Outdoor Industry

Lady leaders prove to be a breath of fresh air


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For businesses based in the great outdoors, women leaders have proven to be a breath of fresh air — and Boulder-based Camber Outdoors is committed to creating more of them. One of many efforts to encourage equality in a male-dominated sector, the organization’s CEO pledge to actively attract, retain and advance women “provides the space for companies to recognize the talent that is in front of them,” Executive Director Deanne Buck says.

More than 75 companies have signed the pledge, acknowledging a growing body of evidence that a diverse and inclusive culture actually increases profits, and women in decision-making positions can drive inspired design and faster, more proactive innovation. “Women need opportunities to move up, take bigger assignments, prove themselves,” Buck says. “And they have to be conscious and deliberate.”

Rachel Popp, 29, knows this all too well. She’s a young entrepreneur running Big Fish, a PR and marketing firm out of Denver’s Wayfinder co-op, a new co-working space dedicated to incubating outdoor-inspired companies. She founded the company with Chelsea Litsey after they met in the Salt Lake City airport on the way back from Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry’s biggest event, which moved to Denver last year. 

“When I first started in the business, I wasn’t taken seriously at all. That could’ve been age, that could’ve been gender, and it was probably both,” Popp says. “I do think (those experiences) impacted me in a way that might be counterintuitive. It caused me to be bolder, show people I’m not messing around. I became more vocal about my opinions. I took charge and ownership of things.”

Coming off a long history of gender discrimination, “mommy-tracking,” and pay gapping, women like Popp have something to prove, but many lack empowerment tools they need to succeed, especially in traditionally male-dominated sectors like outdoor recreation and sports industries.   

“We sell ourselves short. If we are not asking for it, they are not going to give it to us,” says Kristen Blessman, president and CEO of Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, who prior to being mentored admits she struggled to believe she was good enough to lead a company. “When women have a tribe, support and sponsorship, they are more successful.”

Too often, women wait until they are fully confident about something before they act, Buck says. “They have to have nine out of 10 things to apply for a job, and they take their foot off the gas well before they make that decision,” she says. “Women can really help themselves by identifying what they want and then asking for it, and we can provide the support mechanisms to help them get there.”

For a woman with no problems pressing the gas, however, there may be an even quicker path to equality: building a woman-owned company. Three such outdoor Colorado-based startups — Bold Betties, Gearo and Western Rise — recently made Camber Outdoor’s Pitchfest eight-business finalist list.

It’s not surprising there’s an upswing in woman-owned businesses where women get to reset the rules that might have unfairly docked them in the past. In fact, Colorado is home to some 216,700 woman-owned businesses, an increase of 88 percent since 1997. But looking wider, Colorado only ranks a little better than average among other states for woman-owned businesses. Nationally, just 26 women are heading Fortune 500 companies, and 2 percent of woman-owned businesses ever break the $1 million revenue mark.

There’s plenty of progress to be made, but females seem to be paving the way one leader at a time. “Women entrepreneurs on surveys voice greater satisfaction and more optimism about their work lives than do women employed in large companies,” says University of Colorado-Denver sociology professor Jennifer Reich, an expert in gender and public policy. They are more hopeful they can support gender equity.”

Popp is one such optimist. “Women are killing it,” she says. “From speaking events, to starting new companies, to taking on new leadership roles — the list goes on. It’s not like this hasn’t been going on before, but now the spotlight has turned to elevate these incredible accomplishments.”

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