Skip Yowell Leadership Lesson 12: It’s OK to Go Small

Dana Howe knows that in the outdoor industry and in local economies, the little guys can have an outsize impact.

By Devon O'Neil December 13, 2017

Dana Howe has a soft spot for small, independent companies that comprise both the heart of the outdoor industry as well as its underdog contingent. Maybe that’s because Howe represents the equivalent as a professional.

She didn’t grow up in the mountains; in fact, she says, she grew up in “the opposite” of the mountains: rural southwestern Kentucky, the daughter of a teacher and school-district administrator.

“If you asked me in high school if I would be a rock climber who works with outdoor gear companies and specialty retailers, I would’ve laughed in your face,” says Howe. “And if you told people I grew up with who hadn’t seen me on social media, they’d be like, no way.”

Howe drove to Colorado after graduating from Murray State in Kentucky. She knew she wanted to work in the outdoor industry from spending a summer as a kayak guide on Hilton Head Island. Between catering jobs she took an internship with Boulder’s Green Guru Gear, which makes bike bags out of recycled materials. Then she sold ads for the Mountain Gazette—a passion project if not a lucrative one. “I believed in the story,” she said.

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On the side, all the while, she took work nannying and waitressing, “just to live in Boulder.”

She sold clothes for Stonewear, a small apparel brand for women, driving thousands of miles to hawk product. “My territory was basically half of the United States. But I wanted to work really hard for them because I believed in the story of the brand,” she said.

Now, Howe has returned to the south but brought the outdoor lifestyle with her. As the retailer relations manager for the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance—a trade association that supports 65 specialty retailers across the country—Howe’s job of two years jives with her local-first life in Chattanooga, where she works remotely and plumbs the trails and crags. “Specialty retailers are kind of [this industry’s] brand builders; they’re where you go to find the cool new stuff,” she says. On many spots along her career path, stories sucked her in and still do.

Still, as she would learn from her mentor in OIA’s Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy, Patagonia general counsel Hilary Dessouky, Howe wasn’t always presenting her story as effectively as she could. “I learned to tell my story and tell who I am,” Howe says of Dessouky’s advice, “so if somebody asks, ‘How are you doing?’ you don’t say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so busy,’ which is my inclination. Instead, ‘This is what I do, this is who I am, and these are some of the things I’ve been up to.’” Dessouky credits Deborah Knupp of GrowthPlay, a coaching firm, for alerting her to this and other tools she uses at Patagonia.

“I think it kind of rebuilds your attitude, in a way,” says Howe. “It’s almost like people view you with more excitement and positivity. And it makes you feel better.”

Howe is nothing if not proud of her step-by-step ascent from the bottom to her current post—her fifth job already in the industry, at age 32. “Sometimes I’m maybe even a little too proud, but I’ll put my stake in the ground and say I have worked really hard to be where I am,” she says. “And I think that is so important. I didn’t just fall into this.”

When asked where she wants to be in a decade, Howe smiles. She really likes her job, and this has nothing to do with that, she says, but if a girl can dream for a minute, she and her husband—whom she met while working at Applebee’s—would like to own a bed and breakfast and offer hikes and other adventures from their front door.

“I love the idea of being a part of a local economy,” Howe says, harkening back to her affinity for small, independent companies. “And I’d get to make biscuits every day.”

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