Skip Yowell Leadership Lesson 5: Honor Thy Dirtbag Soul

If Outdoorists share one, deeply rooted attribute, it's that we champion play above all else. But as our industry's forbearers and Future Leaders like Burton's Ali Kenney love to remind us, work and play aren't and never should be mutually exclusive.

By Devon O'Neil October 24, 2016

Ali Kenney, one of the outdoor industry’s most innovative thinkers, did not plan or aspire to her career path.

Her father was a fighter pilot. He flew F16s and F4s, mostly, and Kenney bounced around from Air Force base to Air Force base growing up. She lived in Washington, D.C., Alabama, and Vermont, but given her love of the natural world and family roots in Vermont dating to the 1800s, it’s probably no surprise that she felt most at home in the Green Mountains.

Many years later, Kenney—a former pro hockey player who holds an international relations degree from Brown University—took a job at Burton Snowboards in Burlington. Beginning in 2006, she worked as a financial analyst, then as product manager for the brand’s flagship product: the boards themselves. For four years, she did things like drive around the Alps as one of three people wedged across the front seat of a van and met shop owners, attended demos, and snowboarded every chance she got.

Eventually, though, Kenney outgrew the role and decided she had more important problems to solve than making sure the reps were stoked and the graphics were tight. She still gets 30 to 50 days on snow each season, but as the senior director of Burton’s global supply chain and sustainability, she admits it’s getting tougher to take advantage of her free lift pass at Vermont’s Stowe Mountain Resort.

Kenney, 38, created Burton’s sustainability department almost by herself four years ago. She spent six months building a case (and business plan) for why Burton should make sustainability a full-time initiative. Then she gave her spiel to the owner, Donna Carpenter. “It took another six months for me to convince them—through lots of presentations and executive interviews—what we needed to do and why it should be me,” Kenney recalls. Still, the need was obvious: “Trying to be a snowboard company without doing something real in that area is … I don’t want to say embarrassing, but it’s just not how to do it. We’re not only chasing profit.”

Read: “Hatching The Next Great Idea
about Kenney and her SYFLA classmates

Kenney’s new department ensured human rights were protected at Burton’s factories. She helped reduce waste at company headquarters by 50 percent in the first year. Now her team of five full-time employees includes two who specialize in sustainable chemistry. She and Carpenter also make two trips a year to Capitol Hill to lobby for causes like climate change. “You can do things with your company and try to educate youth, but it’s really important to influence policy, too,” Kenney says.

As a member of OIA’s inaugural Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy, Kenney blends old school with new school in a way few others do. Which aligns well with a message some of the industry’s leaders are trying to impart on their successors. Specifically: preserve the dirtbag soul.

Read these other profiles from the inaugural class of the SYFLA:
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

At the Outdoor Retailer show last winter, Kenney and other Yowell participants heard from a handful of industry bigwigs and mentors including prAna founder Beaver Theodosakis, Toad&Co CEO Gordon Seabury, and Ann Krcik, senior director of brand communication and outdoor exploration at The North Face. All three share a similar fear: that brand consolidation and corporate leanings could erode the industry’s free-spirited core. “They’re worried that it’ll become something different from the original intentions,” Kenney says. “So they want to raise future leaders who can take on that legacy, and still be dirtbags in the sense that we’re all outdoor junkies but also be really effective leaders in this new environment.”

How do those mandates work in concert?

“That’s really the million-dollar question,” Kenney says. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re a private company, but I think it’s well respected at Burton that I can be my 100 percent authentic self, which is a dirtbag who likes to go out and have a good time and party, but also work incredibly hard. Not be a cutthroat ladder-climber who’s just trying to get ahead, but rather, more importantly, someone who wants to do a good job.”

As they say—and as Kenney’s career has shown—the rest will take care of itself.