This article is from Edition 05: Adventure Activism
Sam Firman
Written by Sam Firman
Jen Gurecki
Written by Jen Gurecki
Published on 5th November 2020
7 min read

Radical adventure brands are essential to change. Jen Gurecki is co-founder and CEO of Coalition Snow, one of the world’s only female founded and owned snowsports companies - one driven, through a podcast and magazine, by a bold voice and commitment to inclusive adventure.

Business is central to adventure activism. Some companies hide behind progressive veneers, but others embody the demands of campaigners, charities and artists. Built well, adventure brands can elevate marginalised groups, promote ethical business practices and advocate for change. Sadly, money is power. But this means a commercially successful business driven by good principles can be a powerful force for change.

Take U.S. company Coalition Snow, for example: one of the world’s only female founded and owned snowsports companies. Combining thoughtful business practices with a fresh, uncompromising voice has brought meaningful change to a conservative industry. This is why we were stoked to speak with Co-Founder Jen Gurecki.

Coalition Snow was founded by Jen and Lauren Bello Okerman to produce women’s skis and snowboards “that don’t suck.” Even five years ago, recalls Jen, the idea of “a women's specific ski or snowboard was a shortened, softened, watered-down, pinked-up version of their men's models.” These models assumed women as beginners, unserious versus the men dominating the scene. Coalition Snow’s products help correct this message, providing women with cutting-edge performance, meaningful choice and a committed vote of confidence.

Photo Courtesy of Coalition Snow

Women have become much more prominent in adventure-brand marketing in recent years, Jen notes. But welcome as this may be, she refutes the idea it represents deeper change. “I’m calling bullshit on that,” she states. “Because we still haven't seen a significant change in executive leadership or women who are involved on the technology and product-development side.”

Indeed, the struggle for an equitable industry largely unfolds behind the scenes, through gendered business norms and economic systems. Businesses have the potential to embody and entrench the changes demanded in other forms of advocacy precisely because they operate through these everyday, nuts-and-bolts power structures.

Half the challenge, as a company founded and operated by women and designing skis and snowboards by and for women, is simply surviving in these systems. “There has been this very gendered approach to hard goods, or to products,” explains Jen. “Women do apparel and men do hard goods. That means that women have been left out of everything from product development to marketing, executive positions and the media.” Refusing this dynamic of exclusion models a different possible industry. “You can't be what you can't see,” says Jen. 

Photo Courtesy of Coalition Snow

This is not easy. Hard goods are expensive and hyper-competitive, and women simply aren’t encouraged into ski and snowboard companies like men. “We started the dumbest business in the whole world,” she jokes. Even after relative success, Jen is constantly undermined with “offensive” questions - Are your products any good? Aren’t you just a marketing company? - rooted in the gender bias in how we perceive product quality, recently illuminated by Stanford researchers. 

This prejudice manifests structurally. Only financially powerful retail stores like REI, Backcountry and Evo are sufficiently open to the perceived risk of carrying Coalition Snow’s gear. Even success in these flagship stores - repeat orders based on high sell through - doesn’t convince independent retailers. “This rational thinking just doesn't work,” bemoans Jen, “because people aren't necessarily using data to drive their decisions. It comes down to feelings. So when a bias like gender bias or racial bias permeates your decision making, it is really difficult to look at the facts and say, ‘Okay, well, there is actually an economic imperative for why I should do x, y and z.”

Besides, staying afloat isn’t enough. Jen explains the importance of demonstrating ethical, forward-thinking business practices. Coalition Snow works with factories that pay and treat staff well, for example, and for every ski or snowboard it sells it pays women in rural Kenya to plant trees in partnership with non-profit Zawadisha

One contentious but potentially powerful business practice is advocacy. At worst, when at odds with damaging behind-the-scenes practices, advocacy degenerates into cynical hypocrisy. But if aligned with commendable practices, advocacy, while unavoidably remaining an extension of branding, contributes to social and political change by backing arguments with action. “You have to do more than say,” argues Jen. “You have to act.”

Photo Courtesy of Ashley Hutchinson and Greg Johnson

This alignment distinguishes Coalition Snow, which now operates in irreverent but inclusive conversation with podcast Juicy Bits and quarterly magazine Sisu. The team has also just launched the Coalition Clubhouse: a virtual community that brings together social justice and snowsports. “We knew from the very beginning that there was a lot more to what we were doing besides selling a product,” explains Jen.

Juicy Bits sees Jen and Ambassador Jillian Raymond in candid conversation about politics, sex, equity in the outdoors and more - conversations revolving around improving outdoor culture that “start on the trail and on the chair lift.” Sisu provides a broader space, around similar issues and beyond, designed to platform “more underrepresented voices controlling the messages and images we consume.” Sisu is profitable despite facing considerable distribution challenges and rejecting advertising (although it does work with sponsors to identify compelling stories).

Both projects grew from a need to discuss issues around gender, race, class and industry access beyond the limiting parameters of even an irreverent business. All three outlets supplement each other by drawing on the same strong voice revolving around a “take-no-shit-fuck-the-patriarchy ethos.” 

Together, Jen’s work skewers the conservative idea that adventure sports are inherently subversive. She takes issue with how people in the snowsports industry often champion themselves: “You know, they're the underdogs, they’re core, they fight against the establishment. And I'm like, ‘Hey, guys, you are the fucking establishment! Wake up to what's happening in the world. You're so exclusive. You have alienated women, people of colour and people who identify outside of the gender binary. So you know what? You are the man now.’”

“The outdoor industry, whether it meant it or not, has made so many people feel small,” says Jen. “Because people have felt small and insignificant, they have shrunk themselves, when there are ways we can rise. One way to rise is to say: ‘This is who I am. This is how I exist. This is the narrative about myself, and I'm not sorry for it. I'm not going to apologise for it, I'm not going to tone it down, I'm not going to be what you want me to be, I'm not going to fit into this neat little box that makes you comfortable. If you're uncomfortable, that's your own thing. I'm just gonna exist here.’”

Some industry allies have expressed discomfort at this iconoclasm, but Jen is unapologetic. “We call things the way that we see it, no one gets off the hook,” she states. But this iconoclasm is driven, and tempered, by a commitment to inclusivity. It doesn’t involve calling individuals out or vilifying entire groups. “I do a lot of work behind the scenes with, you know, white men in power to build alliances and actually look at how can we move these things forward.” Besides, she says, there are many intelligent men in the industry supportive of change. 

Neither does Jen absolve herself or the team on this front. She readily acknowledges that they must do more to check their own privilege, and counteract potentially exclusionary labels like the ‘man-women’ binary. “We cannot continue down this path of bougie-ass white women,” she acknowledges. “If we just continue to fly this flag around gender, and not look at how race and class and all these other things intersect, then we are actually part of the problem.” The need to do something more inclusive and intersectional “was really the impetus for the magazine, which I think is a reflection of our growth,” she says. 

Photo Courtesy of Coalition Snow

Coalition Snow, Juicy Bits and Sisu have also met external criticism, from both left and right. Alongside predictable barbs from defenders of a prejudicial industry have come more constructive criticism from people inside the industry pushing for  more inclusive outdoor culture. Support has likewise been diverse, uniting those also feeling alienated by industry norms with conservative supporters admiring of Coalition Snow’s commercial success. Support has not, however, been guaranteed among women. “Look at how white women were almost single-handedly responsible for voting in President Trump, and you realise this whole concept of sisterhood is just bullshit,” reflects Jen. 

But commercial sustainability, a growing community of supporters and an active role in forcing industry change amount to considerable success, and validation of the alignment of bold, ethical business foundations with strong advocacy. This combination means Coalition Snow, supported by Juicy Bits and Sisu, doesn’t just make moral arguments, but provides a living organisation embodying those arguments. This, in turn, supports the steady work of moulding economic incentives to moral principles. “If you can't figure this shit out,” says Jen, “you're going to be irrelevant really soon.”

Jen envisages an adventure culture comprising equal humans, not unequal genders - a culture that would also harness “the huge collective power of people who could actively be helping to impact environmental law and environmental change” but currently feel excluded from snowsports and adventure generally.  

This vision, which we share, depends on transforming our economic systems - an enormous task. But modelling new types of business that help bridge the moral-economic divide is an important piece of the puzzle, and one the adventure world can contribute to. To do so, we must learn from, support and one day ride beyond our pioneers.