When Money is the Bottom Line: The Inclusion Problem in the Outdoor Industry
I never anticipated ever attending the Outdoor Retailer. And yet, before doing so, many issues surrounding the topic of inclusion have come to the surface after decades and decades of suppression of the voices that have been wanting to emerge as a force in the industry. Among such voices are those of women and racial minorities. So, I was forewarned of the lack of diversity in the outdoors via a slew of written articles, comments via outdoor groups and even books written on the topic. I was armed with the knowledge that women in the outdoors have gained visibility and leadership recently as a direct result of the movement initiated by the women themselves to pave a better future for women in the outdoor industry. As to other minorities, the progress is in its infancy stages as many panels, talks, and discussions occur in a vacuum devoid of the major stakeholders in the outdoor industry.
However, my awareness of these inclusion issues ahead of time didn't prepare me for the actual experience as a first timer at Outdoor Retailer. I was told by some veteran attendees that being overwhelmed, lost and confused at OR is a normal phase of the experience. I don't disagree. But to witness first-hand the imbalance of power and distribution of wealth in the industry is not something that I as a person of color, a female and an immigrant can set aside. In fact, this pivotal moment sheds light on what the future looks like for me as an entrepreneur in the outdoor industry with my aforementioned demographics - the fight to be included in this huge multibillion dollar industry is a daunting uphill battle.
It isn't the first time that I witnessed and experienced such a phenomenon. Prior to being an entrepreneur, I practiced law in Washington, DC. With that profession came years of fighting for inclusion from the very start beginning with the law school experience characterized by my being one of the only few minorities to get admitted at a liberal leaning university in Seattle, Washington. Back then, affirmative action was a hot topic. Opponents of it were as loud as its supporters. If you were a woman or a person of color who managed to enter a college or graduate program, the validity of your entry into higher education was constantly questioned. That questioning follows you beyond your studies and into your career, and frankly, even after years of proving yourself to be legit, you're still singled out based on race or gender, whether it's done openly or discreetly. But in a city like Washington, DC, progress in the legal field caught up eventually and in our government office, plenty of women and persons of color dominate the practice and the court system. Diversity became ingrained in the profession and in the psyche of the institutions, leaders and individuals in the industry. Those opposed to it became more of the minority.
So, what is happening with the outdoor industry? Why is there a lag in terms of its inclusion? My best argument, albeit a presumption, is money. It isn't necessarily because the industry is full of racist or ignorant stakeholders, rather it is about the bottom line and the question of, "What do I get out of it?" After all, we're not dealing with lawyers, many of whom are trying to establish a career. We're dealing with business people who are in the industry to create and grow their wealth without limits; hence, we’re looking at a multibillion dollar industry.
When I began to explore and understand how women managed to create a loud voice in the industry and mobilize change, I soon realized that their movement towards equity was accompanied by statistics that happen to be in their favor. In one of the panels led by some of the women who have been responsible for the recent changes, one topic that was raised involved the effort to cater to women who wore sizes 14 and up. It was openly shared that 67% of the female population in U.S. consisted of such type of consumers. I don't doubt that the women leaders on the panel believe that there should be equity in catering to these consumers and that they truly want to create change although I question why it took them a long time in the first place to finally include a line of products that cater to this group of women. Having said that, I must give credit to one company at the panel – Columbia- as it’s one of the very few companies that has been catering to the plus size communities long before women empowerment became the biggest buzz word in the outdoor industry. As I continued to attend the panels that addressed the issue of women empowerment, it became more obvious that the efforts made by companies were mainly driven by the fact that they benefit financially from catering to the marginalized segment of the market; hence, the point being, don't fool yourself into thinking these efforts are being done out of morality or altruism alone. Ultimately, it's the shift in the makeup of consumers that created the motivation for companies to finally give in as doing so translates into yet again accruing more wealth for themselves.
Touching upon the women empowerment efforts at the Thought Leader Keynote and Lifetime Award Celebration, CEOs from various outdoor companies spoke about the experience and progress toward the efforts to increase the number of women in leadership roles. The two females on the panel displayed sincerity in their desire towards equity and it rather follows logically that they would care about the issue being females themselves. Hence, I was more curious on the positions taken by the male CEOs and their thoughts about the initiative to take the so-called CEO pledge to actively recruit women in management roles. Jim Weber, the CEO from Brooks Running noted in the brochure that was handed out at the event, "What's driven us at Brooks Running more than anything else is the need to match our customer base as well as to match the culture in our sport and the lifestyle that we connect with. There are as many men as women who run, but women are more avid and enthusiastic about the sport, especially in races. When you look at all race participation, there were 17 million people that finished a timed race last year. I think it was upward of 60% women." It's quite understandable as to why these CEOs are concerned about the statistics whether you agree or disagree from an ethical point of view. Business is business. The systemic issue behind the inclusion problem is rooted in the desire to make more money.
I was perplexed sitting in this huge auditorium that has been described as a moment to celebrate "inclusion" when the only part of the population they're including is the women. None of the panelists who happen to all be white mentioned the need to include other minorities. If these CEOs can sit comfortably and speak about "inclusion" which was at best "selective" while not even mentioning any hint of obligation on their end to also work towards inclusion of other minorities, then the desire to genuinely include is simply not there. I, as a person of color and an immigrant, didn't really feel included. To the extent this event was truly a celebration of inclusion, only a limited number of people along with these CEOs celebrated in reality. The rest of us continued to sit in the cloak of invisibility and silence.
I proceeded to try to understand the systemic issue and decided to approach one of the panelists to gain clarity. One of the stakeholders at the keynote event that I spoke to could not verbalize a willingness to create a CEO pledge to include more minorities in their management akin to the CEO pledge they made to include women. He quickly tried to dismiss the topic by directing me to ask a particular female CEO from the panel to comment on the next steps. It remains unclear whether that unwillingness to commit is due to fear of addressing the issue of race or just ignorance in terms of how best to proceed in addressing the issue. Either way, the lack of verbal commitment, let alone action, and the dismissive tone were frustrating to witness in person. This dismissive approach is symptomatic of an industry that has been sheltered from critical changes for far too long.
But not only that. The industry is so detached from what inclusion really means. The same CEO argued his position as an ally by blurting out that his company funds many of these [POC] organizations, as if that is all that is really necessary to help in the efforts to genuinely include. That appears as a valid solution on the surface but if you dig deeper into this, merely funding POC groups or organizations with no other effort to include at a management level vis a vis a complete overhaul of their policies on hiring and retaining diverse individuals leads to continued suppression of marginalized group as funding ensures the power dynamics remain. It's an idealogy related to colonialism and imperialism in which money is the tool that is utilized to maintain the desired power dynamics by those in leadership which normally leads to depriving marginalized groups with the ability to gain power and a real voice.
Now, as a female and a person of color who aims to be a leader in such an industry in my role as an entrepreneur, how do I take all this? I see vileness in it and yet I managed to see a little bit of good. As a lawyer who practiced in the civil rights realm, I find money as the motivation behind the efforts appalling as a matter of principle and ethics. As a female, a person of color and an immigrant, it's insulting. And yet, the best good news in this scenario, (assuming we can at least tolerate the industry's greed over money), is that some form of leverage is available to the marginalized groups who wish to gain visibility and leadership in the industry. That leverage is in the form of being consumers in the outdoor industry. Knowing that to be the case means we can take matters into our own hands and affect the change we want. If marginalized groups consume at a significant enough level, then chances are the stakeholders will finally take real measures towards making real changes in the industry. We all agree that the racial minorities will grow tremendously in the next few decades but the growth the corporations are looking for is specific to the output they will gain directly from such growth of said population. Minorities must show proof of an increase in profits to change the minds of these stakeholders. And when they do make that change as a result of the market changing, can we as minorities really call them true allies? I leave that for you to answer personally.
You see, what differentiates this scenario from the legal profession is that the legal world has a well-established set of procedures for making organizations, whether public or private, accountable. That is done through laws at state and federal levels to prohibit discrimination against protected groups such as women and people color. At the academic level, systemic issues on inclusion were drastically remedied by affirmative action. These efforts that were supported by laws and policies carried over to the profession itself. As individuals from any of the protected groups, you are afforded a platform to sue should there be an instance of discrimination based on your race or gender. The mechanisms have gone so far as imposing requirements by law, especially in the public sector, to institute mandatory diversity training - a mechanism that is completely discretionary in the outdoor industry dominated by powerful stakeholders that are private. It’s important to note that the success in increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession was due to a concerted effort from different fronts – changes in case laws, statutory mandates, local policies and the open discussions at an individual level that included the decision-makers. In the outdoor industry, the mechanism for marginalized groups to use at their disposal to protect themselves from any unethical acts by any, and all, of these outdoor corporations is minimal to none. There is no real remedy nor an established process for creating change. Accountability is sorely lacking in this industry. Hence, the obstacles turn out to be greater than I had anticipated originally.
This leads to the question, "what do you do then?" When I attended the panel on the issue of inclusion, leaders from various minority groups spoke about ally-building and how such efforts have been to date. While the speakers readily shared their experience working with allies and their vision for the future of the outdoors in a clear manner, the answers provided to the question pertaining to steps we can take to overcome the barriers in the outdoors were in contrast devoid of clarity. Naturally, efforts to promote visibility via social media were noted as a worthwhile endeavor. Building communities through actual meetups and participation was also noted. But as to dealing with the stakeholders themselves and gaining access to management roles, the suggestions became rather unclear. I don't blame them. After all, raising the question as to how to combat the lack of minorities in positions of power is a systemic issue within an industry that lacks a way to measure or monitor accountability.
Unfortunately, the lack of clarity persisted as I joined a couple more panels and discussions on inclusion. The takeaway really is we need to continue to have the discussions on the issue of inclusion until we’re able to establish a clear set of tactics. Implicit in that is the fact that many of the members of the marginalized groups have varying opinions on the topic at hand and the means to overcome the barriers. Within the group are subgroups from the Asian, Black, Latino, Native American, immigrant, LGBTQ, and individuals with disabilities communities with varying sub-issues to further contend with - a quite familiar aspect that I once became a part of almost 20 years ago when battling the inclusion problem in law schools and the legal profession in general. What fascinates me is that no matter what industry you're in, the inclusion problem brings forth with it the same set of challenges as it pertains to breaking down the boundaries within a flawed industry and the nuances within the minority groups that oftentimes serve as a barrier to creating a collective approach to the problem.
As someone who worked on diversity issues in the past, I wish I can impart a concrete set of tools to help alleviate the inclusion problem in the outdoor industry. But the issue at hand is rather unique and however similar the dynamics maybe between the two industries from the outset, the specifics within the outdoor industry compel me to conclude that the industry is unique enough that the change makers must find their own unique way of addressing the problem inherent in such scenario. In the legal field, the inclusion problem wasn't necessarily due to money; rather it was more due to people's convictions including their stance on equity. I can honestly attest that back then the root of the problem was truly more centered on racism and sexism. In the outdoor industry, I'm inclined to think that the leaders are more influenced not by their personal convictions on the issue of race, gender and others (as in some instances, they may even be aligned with the belief systems held by the minorities) but by money. Accordingly, most critical decisions are being made as dictated by money, not by his or her own beliefs on the matter. As a well-established approach, however, building allies, safe spaces for discussions, and presence in major outdoor industry gatherings such as OR are all critical steps towards a solution. Certainly, there is hope. It’s just going to take a long while. So, endure the prolonged pain and learn to enjoy the bittersweet journey towards inclusion.
Want to learn more? Listen to Episode 16: The Outdoor Retailer Experience via the podcast series, From a Lawyer to a Mountain Nomad.