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The Outdoor Industry’s Future Leaders Come Together to Move Us Forward

Class 5 of the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy (FLA) started much like every other class. Participants kicked off the program at Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show at a meet-and-greet event with their mentors, followed by a happy hour celebration with past FLA participants who are now part of the Future Leadership Alumni Group (FLAG). They spent the following weekend getting to know each other, rock climbing and participating in their first set of leadership development activities.

Photo from the FLA January 2020 retreat.


But in early March, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, OIA made the decision to cancel FLA’s hallmark program event: a five-day, in-person retreat in Granby, Colorado. That’s when program director, Kristen Freaney, and this year’s 36 class participants had to get creative and lean into the real-time leadership lessons this crisis provided.

“People need community now more than ever to deal with the uncertainty, stress and social isolation that we’re all experiencing on some level,” said Freaney. “This is also totally uncharted territory, professionally speaking. We’re all navigating new scenarios around managing teams remotely, having difficult conversations about the health of our businesses and creating a culture of transparency and psychological safety for our employees.”

Unlike previous FLA classes that graduated in June at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, this year’s class will extend their learning through late-October, in hopes of holding that in-person retreat on the back end of the program. “While this year’s FLA class will look a bit different from past classes, they’re reaping the benefits of this tight-knit support system and sounding board at a time when it’s really needed,” says Freaney.

That sentiment is echoed by Class 5 participants, who are leveraging leadership lessons to meet real-time challenges. They’re finding community and support while navigating the realities of an economic downturn.

For some participants, it’s all about developing leadership skills. “Being part of the FLA Class 5 community couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Rachael Nichols of Sea to Summit. “I have learned how I can be a source of stability and an outlet for my team in a time of isolation. Through guidance from my FLA program mentor and our True Colors personality working session, I learned how to play toward my strengths in strategic organization. I built a new plan that prioritized what our team needs to get after the rest of the year, providing structure and stability for the team in this time of uncertainty.”

For others, FLA has been a way to build community and share resources. “I have found that in this time of extreme uncertainty, it’s remarkably helpful to have an outside group of individuals to turn to for support, advice and guidance,” says June Shen-Epstein of Burton. She added, ”From my program capstone team to the weekly large group calls to my mentor calls, getting the perspective of people who are all around the country and in different aspects of the industry has been so helpful to my mental health.”

Jess Smith of Outside PR adds: “I feel incredibly lucky to have this group of peers and advisors who are willing to band together and share information, create a network of strength and swiftly pivot to engage with and understand the situation at hand.”

To support participants in real time, the FLA program has pivoted much of its content. “I have been able to take ideas and concepts that we have shared in our FLA campfires, webinars and happy hours and apply them directly to my current position and own team,” says Smith. “We now have a stronger emphasis on personal check-ins, which gives our team time to share any thoughts or issues that might not be directly related to work but are impacting their emotional and mental health during these difficult times. We have also added a JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) program to our capabilities as a PR agency, formulating a taskforce dedicated to consulting and advising on issues within the space for our clients and media.”

Because of the global situation, many outdoor industry businesses have been directly and financially impacted. A number of FLA participants’ careers have taken unexpected turns. Some have been temporarily furloughed, others have had hours significantly reduced and a few have been forced to explore new opportunities entirely.

Natalie Colvin of Toad&Co, a small privately held outdoor clothing company that was hit hard by the closing of retail partners, says, “The program became even more important after I was furloughed, providing me a support system and sounding board during the craziness of COVID-19. FLA has given me the opportunity to stay engaged and excited about our industry.”

While Madalen Moore of Oros Apparel hasn’t lost her job, her approach to daily work life has had to shift. “I am trying to hold onto the take-charge-of-my-career attitude I was gaining before everything changed,” says Moore. “I’m trying not to become a victim of this unprecedented situation and reframe my skills and what I’m learning in FLA for a post-pandemic world. It’s a privilege to think critically about industry-wide topics a few times a week while also dealing with the day to day.”

While the future is uncertain, it’s clear that our post-pandemic world will rely even more upon community and strong leadership—cornerstones of the FLA program. For participant Kaitlin Tripi of REI Adventures, the program provides hope for the future. “I’m thankful to have the whole FLA crew during this really challenging time. We’re all weathering this thing together, and I know we’ll come out the other end stronger for it.”