Skip Yowell's Future Leaders: Hatching The Next Great Idea

What will the future of the outdoor industry hold? That might be for these outdoor visionaries to decide.

By Devon O'Neil May 10, 2016

“We are making our brains hurt,” Michelle Barker says.

Barker, director of the midwest region for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, is taking a momentary break from four days of discussion and critical thought when she overhears a visitor ask what she and 21 other young, accomplished professionals are doing. As her smile reveals, she means “hurt” in a good way.

The 22 men and women, most in their 30s, were selected late last year to participate in the inaugural Skip Yowell Leadership Academy, an intensive, nine-month program organized by the Outdoor Industry Association (and named after the JanSport founder who died last October) to convene and groom those who might one day lead the industry. On this chilly Tuesday in April, the class has split into five groups that are hunkered down in a large mountain house in Jefferson, Colorado, working on their capstone projects—essentially ideas for businesses, nonprofits or alliances that currently do not exist but that could fill a critical need within the industry.

“We’re asking them to think about and help solve industry challenges in a new way,” says Stasia Raines, senior marketing director for the Outdoor Foundation, who helped conceive the academy.

Following a successful pilot year, the 2017 class of 33 individuals will be joined by 24 industry veterans who will offer mentorship and direction while they guide this next generation of outdoor industry game-changers. Read more.

“The Camp,” as its organizers have taken to calling it, is the second of four retreats this year where the 22 class members will meet. The others include the winter and summer Outdoor Retailer shows in Salt Lake City and OIA’s annual Rendezvous in September. But the academy is far more than just a once-quarterly commitment . In addition to the retreats, participants—who were selected from a pool of more than 200 applicants and come from a range of sectors and job titles—also write weekly papers, discuss projects and issues in online chats, take part in webinars run by noted industry leaders, and converse at least once a month (and in some cases once a week) with mentors or “guides” who were assigned to them in January. “The program is rigorous and thought-provoking by design,” says Jennifer Pringle, OIA’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We want participants to get immersive learning, so they work hard and in return get transformative value.”

SYLA Sunrise Hike

The 2016 Skip Yowell Leadership Academy participants warm up for a day of deep thought and big brainstorms with a morning hike near Jefferson, Colorado.

Raines and Deanna Lloyd, who manages recruitment at Patagonia, pitched the academy to OIA two years ago, with the hope of educating and uniting bright young minds across the industry. The duo had launched The Futurist Project in 2011 for similar reasons. “We felt like there wasn’t really a space for our generation to connect, network, and create a shared set of values for what the future of the industry was going to be,” Lloyd says.

The inaugural Yowell class members represent brands ranging from AvaTech to REI to Under Armour, as well as groups like the Outdoor Alliance and IMBA. Much of the program’s cost is covered by OIA, though participants (or their companies) are asked to pay for their travel as well as a program fee to help cover expenses.

Read about a few members of the inaugural class of the SYFLA and what they’ve learned about leadership:
Lesson 1: The Myth of Seniority
Lesson 2: Sometimes You Find Success By Taking a Detour
Lesson 3: There’s Strength in Numbers
Lesson 4: Enterprise Will Get You Everywhere
Lesson 5: Honor Thy Dirtbag Soul

Back in Jefferson, groups of four or five spend much of the day honing their ideas before they’ll present them to the organizers and their peers. The mood is focused and quietly urgent, everyone wanting to impress.

“Who needs the most public speaking practice?” Ben Christensen, director of global sourcing and financial planning at Simms Fishing Products, asks his teammates. Christensen’s group is brainstorming a way to teach consumers about recreational land access while also motivating consumers to get involved in land access advocacy themselves. The group breaks up the 10-minute presentation between them, with Christensen serving as choreographer. “Once we’ve laid out the why, then we tackle the how,” he says. “And we want to make sure that it’s not preachy—not some high-minded alpinist talking down to the newbie.”

Down the hall, another group is sitting on beds and windowsills, discussing the potential for a consultancy comprised of Future Leadership Academy and Futurist Project alumni. Adam Garrett, senior product manager at Under Armour, proposes pitching the consultancy’s services to brands and retailers in need of outside consultation.

“We’d basically ask them to give us a problem or a question, and we’d come up with a solution,” he says.

“We could be a supersmart focus group,” adds Tania Lown-Hecht, communications director for the Outdoor Alliance. “Maybe even get companies to pay for it.”

Upstairs, three other groups are wrestling with their own ideas. One wants to create a program for companies to target college job fairs and recruit prospective employees who are already passionate about the outdoors. The goal would be to galvanize a more effective—and diverse—workforce. After all, says Alex Baires, category manager at Yeti Coolers, “The outdoor industry is white males, primarily.” His teammates nod and jot notes.

In a sun room off the kitchen, Cristin O’Brien, product line sales manager at Columbia, is drawing a chart to communicate the challenges of evolving sales channels, namely the “Us vs. Them” dynamic between wholesalers and direct-to-consumer retailers. Amazon comes up more than once. So do Sports Authority and the Sport Chalet, which recently declared bankruptcy and went out of business, respectively.

“We know the traditional retail model is broken,” O’Brien says as she writes it on the chart.

“And right now the new retail model is fractured,” adds Dan Willis, operations assistant at Deuter USA.

When it’s time for the presentations to begin, only one of the five groups seems to have a detailed plan in place. (The others will continue to hone their ideas over the next several months before their presentations at Rendezvous in Denver in September.)

That group takes its turn in front of the crowd and introduces its concept: A gear exchange that transfers gently used or ding-and-dent equipment to people who might not get to participate at all unless the gear is subsidized or free. The donated product would come from companies’ “zero-value inventory” (like scratched returns, demos and samples) as well as from recreationalists who suffer from “guilt in the garage” and who could get credit toward new gear. They could either drop off their used gear at retail stores, thus enticing new customers to brick-and-mortar shops, or mail it back in the same box that their new gear arrives in.

The mission: “Getting more people outdoors by giving gear a second life.”

The name: “Yoweller,” after the academy’s namesake.

The other future leaders applaud. It’s an idea with staying power.