Burton President Donna Carpenter on Sustainability & Building Women’s Snowboarding
Burton Snowboards gathered approximately 60 of its most valued women riders, industry contacts, and retailers during the second evening of the SIA Snow Show in Denver to partake in a casual meet and greet and learn more about the brand’s Winter ’15 collection, featuring some of the most exciting women’s gear we’ve seen from them yet, like the new Burton x FRYE collaboration boot, and new women-specific boots, bindings, and boards technology.
As a company co-founded and headed up by one of snowboarding’s most influential women, Donna Carpenter, Burton has been making a push for creating more female leadership roles within their company and throughout snowboarding for more than a decade. After taking the reigns as president in 2011, Carpenter has continued to build momentum around promoting women’s snowboarding at a product, personnel, and community level, and hearing her speak several months ago at espnW’s Women + Sports Summit, it’s clear that the company is just as passionate as ever about delivering quality product and design to female customers, and supporting and fostering the “Burton Girls” lifestyle.
TransWorld Business had a chance to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Carpenter inside the buzzing Burton booth during SIA, and hear from the busy executive on several important initiatives for the company moving into 2014, including the culture of sustainability Carpenter is continuing to build upon, her take on women’s product and leadership, the brand’s constant product innovation at its R&D facility, and her overall take on the state of snowboarding as the Sochi Olympics get underway.
Take a look at the photos from Burton’s recent women’s gathering at SIA:
Tell me a little more about what Burton is working on around its sustainability efforts moving into 2014?
We’ve really consolidated our efforts. It’s always been really hard for us because we do make a petroleum based product. We never wanted to come across as inauthentic or green washing. I realized some great things were already happening within our organization and we really just needed to consolidate it. The other big thing is, I think this generation of consumers is really demanding transparency. They are demanding, ‘Okay we want to know where you produce and whether that factory is treating its workers humanely, what’s the social audit score, and what chemicals exactly are in your product, and what are you doing to remove them?’ and those kind of things.
I think we’ve gone from really taking a reactionary stance to regulations, to really trying to be proactive. What you see here is the connection between sustainability and product innovation. It’s really exciting. When you go to these engineers and you say make me a more sustainable product, they start thinking in ways that they never have before. So if you look at the top sheets on our Family Tree board, they were all made with recycled material. They are working on a board that’s not going to use any glue. We actually just ran a four month contest at the company where we got together ten teams of four people to make the most sustainable board they could. We gave them access to the engineers and everything. So for me, the exciting thing is, often times when you say I’m here for sustainability, I’m here to help, people go,’Oh god, whatever.’ But it helps if you can make it part of the culture, and make it fun to find less harmful ways of doing things that could be cheaper and could be better for the consumer – and higher performance. It’s really been a cultural shift for our company.
“I think this generation of consumers is really demanding transparency. They are demanding, ‘Okay we want to know where you produce and whether that factory is treating its workers humanely, what’s the social audit score, and what chemicals exactly are in your product, and what are you doing to remove them?'” – Donna Carpenter
Will we start seeing more of this in 2015?
You’re seeing more and more of it. We have our partnership with Mountain Dew, where we turn bottles into jackets. The other partnership we are really proud of is Bluesign, which is a company out of Switzerland. If a jacket is Blue Sign certified you can really be sure that number one, there are no harmful chemicals—they have a pretty comprehensive list—and number two, they are using energy and water as efficiently as possible in the factories. They are trying to help them build that standard. It’s really a matter of making all of our products more sustainable, rather than having ‘these are our sustainable products.’ I think there will always be products we highlight, because we are doing something new technologically, but like I said it’s becoming much more of a mindset. It’s put into product briefs before the product even gets made. It’s something that people have embraced as being innovated.
Do you work on any of these manufacturing processes on-site at your facility in Vermont, or is this done elsewhere?
Yes, some of it is done overseas. Most of our boards are made in Austria actually. What we have in Vermont is an R&D facility that allows us to do small runs of product, like we do with some of our Family Tree product. But more importantly a rider can call us up on a Monday morning and say I want this board, with this flex, and we can have it to them the next day on snow. With things like sustainability, we don’t have to depend on our suppliers to try something new. So we can say, ‘oh there is this new sap resin instead of glue, let’s try it and make sure it meets our quality standards.’ We just opened a softgoods facility within our R&D, as well, so we can do the same thing and make a jacket overnight; we can try new sustainable materials and things like that.
I think it’s so important, speaking of your outerwear, that you have the ability to create and test such innovative product right there at your facility, especially with the Olympics and the team uniforms. Were those created using the same process, and did team riders’ have input?
Yes, they did. I think it’s all about listening to the riders and what the riders want to wear. We did the prototyping in our facility. The material comes from Japan, it’s a tape-seam material and a very technical garment, but we did all the prototyping. And the design was based on a Vermont quilt.
On the topic of women’s snowboarding, I’ve heard you speak very eloquently at several events now, and I agree it seems companies can work toward better addressing that demographic by bringing more women to the table when it comes to designing and building the product.
To me, I’ve been involved from the beginning and I can tell you that women were an incredibly important part of the history. They were driving it as much as anybody, and they have always been a part of the community. I think as things kind of grew and we were pulling from surf, and skate, and ski, it took on this male dominated aspect. So I see my job as making sure that women feel welcome in this community, and know that they can be a part of it, and that it’s fun. It’s more fun than almost anything you’ll ever do.
It’s interesting that you mention making women feel welcome. What would you say in response to people who think snowboarding’s marketing alienates some demographics, like in the recent article published by Outside Magazine? Do you feel like this could be the case with women’s snowboarding?
I like to say we stand sideways; we look at the world a little differently, and part of it is an irreverence. Part of it is doing it differently, being an individual. Snowboarding saved skiing for this generation. Snowboarding is what breathed new life into skiing with terrain parks—not that we didn’t take from skiing in the beginning, right? We took from skiing the technology, and the steel edges. So we should be rooting for each other in some ways. Why are we rooting against each other? And not seeing snowboarding’s contribution to skiing is really pompous and elitist.
But I think you are absolutely right, we need to read that and say, okay, are we being a little too juvenile in our marketing? I’ve been talking about marketing to women for the last 15 years, and it was always about making an emotional connection and being a part of a community. And now I hear that’s what the men are talking about, too. That’s what this generation wants. They want it to be meaningful, they want their purchase to mean something and not just be crass materialism, or status: ‘I get to go to Aspen,’ or whatever. I think that we have different values. I think if there are too many guys in a room it can start to sound like a frat house, and that’s why I am so committed, not only to getting women to participate, but to getting them to see themselves having careers in this industry, because I’ll tell you it automatically brings a level of maturity.
It seems like on a communication level, they also might be better positioned at bringing both sides together, like you mentioned earlier.
I just heard an interesting stat. You are 20% less likely to get hurt in the backcountry if there is at least one woman in your party. We have a female VP of Marketing, Anne Marie Dacyshyn, so automatically I know I don’t have to worry that women are a second thought. And we just promoted a woman, our boot manager, to Category Manager Women’s Hardgoods, Clarissa [Finks]. We picked her for a reason, because we knew she would succeed in that role. It’s the first time we’ve ever had that position and we felt it was time to have somebody who could really drive that business—and talk about male dominated, hardgoods can really be that way. She knows her stuff, and she is so respected. I want women to know that they can have a career—whether its marketing or sales, finance, operations—in this industry and that it has a lot to offer. It has so much to offer women. You can be yourself.
That’s the difference between this generation, and the early days. I remember talking to some female team riders and we were really starting to push our women’s product and I was like, ‘you are wearing like men’s X-large and all black.’ And this is again going back to our team 15 years ago, and they said if you want to play with the big boys you have to look like the big boys. To be taken seriously, they thought they had to look like that. You see now it’s just not the case. What I love about the Olympics is that there is so many different personalities, from Hannah, to Kelly, to Arielle. We never want snowboarding to lose that individuality and women are such a big part of that with bringing a different perspective. There is so much evidence that companies with diversity in leadership are more profitable and better run.
Do you feel that companies have come a long way since you got started in this industry?
I do, I think just by walking around this show [SIA Snow Show] and hearing women talking about it. I picked up an SIA Daily today and it was talking about how women’s hardgoods sales are up, and I kind of thought I’m not sure I would have seen that. We’ve got a long way to go as an industry. I would like to see more women CEO’s.
I think overall, we’ve gotten better at reaching out to people, like through Burton Girls— that’s something that you wouldn’t have seen two or three years ago here. It’s really acknowledging that women have different interests, and snowboarding is part of it, and it’s a lifestyle. The women’s stuff looks great, with the Frye Boot collaboration and the WM1 Magna Tech goggle, and there are good things happening with our boards with the addition of Clarissa.
“Our industry is very much made for people who go for those opportunities. It’s not the type of industry that you can sit back and earn your promotions. You have to go for the opportunities and convince everyone around you that you are really adding value.” – Donna Carpenter
What would be your words of advice or encouragement to women who would like to make this a career or move up to those top level roles?
Where I’ve seen women be successful is finding good mentors. I tell women to create their own board of directors—your personal board of directors. I have that. If I have a finance question, I’ve got somebody I go to, or if I have an employee issue I want to run by someone. I spend a lot of time talking to our former CEO who works for Spyder now. Really, it’s having that mentor, and people who can see your blind spots, or see where you have an opportunity that you might not be able to see. That’s the other thing— I think that our industry is very much made for people who go for those opportunities. It’s not the type of industry that you can sit back and earn your promotions. You have to go for the opportunities and convince everyone around you that you are really adding value. I see women who say, ‘I have these really great ideas.’ And I say, well prove to your company how that’s going to add value to them. How is that going to contribute to the results, or bring more women in. And be persistent and be prepared. What I see is, the women I work with are ten times more prepared because I think they feel like they have to be.
I was just in a meeting with a very big retailer and the hardgoods buyer is a woman, the GMM is a woman. Our VP of marketing was there, our VP of operations was there, who are both women, and she commented, and said ‘Wow, I would not have seen this a few years ago.’ And she said, ‘I don’t see this from all my brands.’
I think the team you have built really reflects in the product you are showing here, too.
Yes. And getting kids involved, too. The way we are going to get more kids involved is getting moms involved. My greatest joy in life is riding with my family.
Anything you want to add overall on the state of snowboarding, being at SIA and the vibe here, and going into the Olympics?
Things feel really good. Obviously, everything is a mixed bag. California hasn’t had a lot of snow so I think that’s been tough on the retailers, but the Colorado retailers are really happy. I’d have to say the state of the industry is good; it’s healthy. I mean look at what they are hyping at the Olympics? They are hyping the snowboarding events. That’s going to be their draw.