Beyond the Press Box is a regular feature profiling the folks who color outside the lines of sport.
Interview by Andrew Pridgen
You know those really really good ideas? The wake up in the middle of the night kind. The it’ll change the world as soon as you’ve finished your Cinnamon Toast Crunch and rinsed off…and take the dog out kind. The jot down on the notepad of your phone on the way home from work and scare up the business plan after dinner and dishes and a load of laundry kind. And, oh—hello wine. Hello Shark Tank. Hello bed.
Tahoe entrepreneurs Jen Guerecki and Danielle Rees didn’t let it go. They made time and they made it happen. The pair managed to start a company that manufactures skis and snowboards made for women, by women. An industry first, Coalition Snow is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign for next year’s production run.
CEO Jen Gurecki resides in Truckee, CA where she is still “waiting for the snow to fall” this season. She is pursuing a PhD in sustainability and “when not tackling the shrink it and pink it problem in the ski industry”, Gurecki is working on climate adaptation and financial inclusions for women in East Africa with the organization Zawadisha.
CFO Danielle Rees moved to Tahoe to teach snowboarding for “just one winter” in 1999. The Carnelian Bay, CA resident blends her “passion for empowering women and girls with being active outdoors at my day job at Girls on the Run and at Coalition Snow.”
Death of the Press Box: Thirteen companies, most of them based in Europe, dominate the ski biz and they manufacture huge numbers of skis in China or Austria with R&D and design departments that rival big auto manufacturers. But they’re often seen as out of step with what’s happening on the mountain, especially when it comes to women. Jen, is this over-simplifying or is this the problem you want Coalition to solve?
Jen Gurecki: This is definitely one aspect of it, but it extends beyond R&D. There need to be more women in executive positions in these companies. Without more opportunities for women to hold leadership positions in the industry, you have to wonder if their increased focus on women is another case of girl-washing or if they are truly committed to eliminating the insulting “shrink it and pink it” mentality that permeates the industry.
DPB: Agreed, your company’s motto: “Putting an end to shrink it and pink it once and for all” is part of the zeitgeist. Meaghen Brown and Axie Navas wrote an editorial for Outside last month entitled No More Barbie Gear saying, “giving us products with cutesy names and drenching ads in My Little Pony colors isn’t the way to inspire today’s women.” Is this a reflection of Coalition’s ethos?
JG: Absolutely. They nailed it with their critique of the gender stereotyping that happens across industries—it’s not just in skiing. We know that there are some women who may be drawn to this type of aesthetic design, but it’s not representative of all women. And that’s the problem—you can’t put us all in one box. Women are diverse and should have more options available to them.
DPB: Female athletes, if they’re going to garner mass appeal, still have to sell themselves as hard bodies and hair whips. When the camera lights dim, I know that’s a shitty feeling. It’s tough to reconcile, “Well I’m the best at my sport and yet I’m baking under heat lamps like a rotisserie chicken in a fucking bikini with spray sweat to sell my wares.” What’s your company’s role in changing this?
JG: Women should have more of a say in how they are represented in the industry. There are going to be women who want to show off their hot bods, and it’s not for us to judge them or say that they shouldn’t. Other women are going to want to have their skill showcased. Our role is support women in having a voice and making decisions that are best for them.
DPB: Danielle, I know you’ve been an integral part of growing Girls on the Run which pairs girls with women who take themselves and their fitness seriously. Your volunteers are part coach/trainer, part mentor. Is this philosophy crossing over to Coalition?
Danielle Rees: Yes, Girls on the Run is about discovering girls’ authentic selves and celebrating their strengths. Our volunteer coaches serve as role models of collaborative leadership and instill confidence and competence in the girls while training for a 5K run. We named our ski company Coalition Snow because it builds on the strengths of a team of women. At Coalition Snow our goal is to design gear that will give women confidence to rip…I know it has for me.
DPB: The aforementioned Big 13 have (actual) rocket scientists engineering their skis. Some of the better BroCo.s are spending more money on R&D than on the design of their top sheets these days. You’re a startup that is staking its claim on engineering skis specifically for women’s bodies. Jen, how much are you investing in this technology and who’s doing it for you?
JG: We aren’t making gear for women’s bodies, we’re making gear that women want. There’s a difference in that statement. The former opens itself up to all sorts of bullshit pseudoscience, which is in part responsible for the copious amounts of short and soft skis on the market. The latter is inclusive and responsive, and it’s filling a huge gap in the industry. We’re not investing all of our resources into technology; we’re investing in women by actively engaging with them to understand what it is that the advanced/expert skier/rider wants in her gear. We pair their feedback with what we know as women who’ve been skiing and riding for decades. It’s not rocket science. It’s authentic listening and action.
DPB: At a backyard barbecue in Truckee in the summer of 2008, I was talking to Casey and the Moment guys about how they’d pressed too many skis that year and pretty much didn’t have enough in the coffers to fill orders for the upcoming season. They survived, barely, but I think that’s the conundrum which runs all the way up the ski biz. One bad/off year and you’re screwed…yet you’re still expected to come out with the newest and most innovative every fall. How are you going to try to sidestep this big supply-and-demand elephant?
JG: Our vision would be to move far, far away from the annual production schedule. It’s expensive for both the company and the consumer, and it’s not an environmentally sound practice, either. At the stage we’re in as a company, not producing a new line every season could be disastrous because at some level you have to play the game or else you’re not taken seriously. But ideally in the next few years we’ll have a strong enough brand and a strong enough following that we’ll be able to take those risks and we will be rewarded for being part of changing a broken system.
DPB: Many start-ups press at least their first run in China and then, if successful (DPS in Salt Lake) are eventually able to move ops and manufacturing stateside. What’s Coalition’s plan look like as far as turning out skis and boards goes in the context of year one, five and ten?
JG: When you’re in start-up mode, thinking about year ten is a luxury, and a projection at best! Our immediate plan is to blow up our Kickstarter and finish production for next year’s line. After that, we want to introduce more ecologically sustainable materials into our gear. Our five-year plan is to grow into a multi-million-dollar company which not only requires attention to production costs, but also identifying key partners to work with.
DPB: After a decade of getting fatter, wider, more rocker, the ski biz seems to be shrinking its product a bit, or maybe just not over-engineering it as much. It’s kind of like microbrews, you can only take so much hops and after awhile you just want a nice session beer. Where does Coalition come down on its shapes and camber especially in the context of how it relates to women’s bodies?
JG: We’re just going to keep doing our best to make what the advanced/expert female skier and rider wants. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not about dissecting women’s bodies, it’s about listening to them and acknowledging that they are experts when it comes to what they want. We have introduced one new shape into next season’s line up that respond to different tastes (and changing conditions) around width underfoot and rocker profile.
DPB: Building on the above a bit, I know women who shred always say, my body’s not engineered like a boy’s so why am I riding boy stuff? And yet, when they do get goods made especially for them, they’re like, don’t patronize me, this is the flimsiest shit ever, I’m switching back to my boy gear. I know manufacturers kind of throw their hands in the air and say fine, what DO you want? I call it the boyfriend problem (damned if you do, damned if you don’t). True or false?
JG: Perhaps the problem is that we continue to lock ourselves into this black and white thinking. Your statement is neither true nor false because it’s more complex than that. Historically, the industry (and society) has placed women and men on opposite ends of the spectrum. There are two choices long and stiff, or short and soft. Of course we’re not happy with either because we know that if you can send a man to the moon you should be able to design a high-performance ski for women that doesn’t suck. Just because women want something for especially for them doesn’t mean that we want a watered down version of a man’s. But that’s been the approach by a lot of companies who don’t understand women (because they are a bunch of men). Although the issue is complex, the answer isn’t. Rather than trying to design gear for us, let us do it for ourselves. There’s enough savvy women in this world who are competent, driven, and skilled enough to take this on. You just have to believe in them.
DR: We have some great team riders: Sierra “Sisi” Sawyer who took 1st in the Crested Butte Freeride world tour qualifier event, Sandra Dejin of Mammoth, and a new team rider 17-year- old Tatum Whatford from South Lake Tahoe. Our ambassadors played a key role in developing our new line of skis: Tahoe locals include Jillian Raymond of Tahoma, Jenn Sheridan of Squaw Valley, Brit White of Truckee, Justeen Ferguson of South Lake Tahoe and Jenn Callahan of Reno. We also have ambassadors on the East Coast, Colorado, Washington and Whistler.
DPB: When I lived in Park City, my roommate was an avy forecaster and backcountry guide. One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was when hiring a guide, always get a woman because they “don’t have the asshole gene.” Care to comment on this?
DR: There aren’t that many women in the guiding industry, so I do like the idea of supporting female guides. When I was guiding on the Gauley river in West Virginia I didn’t have the same upper body strength as the male guides so I couldn’t just muscle the raft through the class V rapids. I had to utilize my strengths: reading the water to anticipate where the boat might end up and ultimately teaching my clients how to paddle as a team. I relied on my communication and leadership skills to keep our boat from flipping. Maybe this is why having one woman in your group reduces your chance of getting caught in an avalanche.
DPB: It’s challenging to make it as a female free-skier or free-rider. Even your Elyses, Ingrids and Jackies have some kind of day job or other source(s) of income beyond their sport. They get to travel and shoot with the boys but the pay grade doesn’t stack up. Can a company like Coalition affect change here? Can they build on the work of the Unicorn Picnic crew? If so, how?
DR: We want to build on the work of Unicorn Picnic to change how the industry views female skiers and riders. Coalition was the first ski company to back Lynsey Dyer’s Kickstarter for Pretty Faces. It’s especially tough for female free-skiers and riders and we want to change that. Our goal is to truly support our team riders with funds to travel and compete.
DPB: I know you just got back from skiing the French Alps. That doesn’t suck. Describe a typical day/week/month in the life as a CFO of a ski start up. And does being a woman in charge charging on a mountain full of boys have its perks…its pitfalls?
DR: Well, I try to get outside to ski as often as possible. But, starting a ski company while running a nonprofit means a lot of early morning emails and late night bookkeeping around my job that pays the bills. Anyone who has ever started their own business knows you have to put in a couple years without pay before you get a return on your investment. I’d rather work five 12 hour days so I can still get out and ski on my days off. Most of us have juggled multiple seasonal jobs to make ends meet in a mountain town so this feels like a more sophisticated version of what I did in my 20s.
This year I had the opportunity to go back to Chamonix where Zach and I skied the winter before we got married. As a pre-wedding gift, he bought me the “women’s model” of his favorite big mountain ski. I could ignore the pink graphics but could not imagine the women’s 100 underfoot ski would not be suitable for all conditions as it was just too soft. Going back to Cham with my Coalition Snow SOS skis was priceless. Trusting my skis to hold an edge in variable snow conditions gave me the confidence to embrace my fear of heights and push myself beyond my wildest dreams.
DPB: As full-time residents of the Tahoe Basin, you’re seeing first-hand what global climate change can bring. It’s not pretty. A lot of folks are stressing not only about the upcoming seasons, but their livelihoods and viability in the mountains in general. And, perhaps most importantly, the future of what their home at elevation looks like. I’m not going to go down the what are you doing to protect the environment road, but what are your thoughts about what winter and the ski biz looks like as Mother Nature continues to revolt?
JG: We should actually all be talking about what we’re going to do to protect the environment. It’s a pretty big deal, and part of the problem is the lack of accountability about how our actions are significantly impacting the environment and contributing to climate change. We don’t need to feel guilty about this, we should feel emboldened and empowered to challenge out-dated business as usual practices. Not only do we need to do things differently (like maybe not produce every year, produce with environmentally friendly materials, offset our entire carbon footprint), we need to adapt and embrace change. We’re starting immediately with an amazing new line of unique soft goods that don’t require any snow to operate and a new freestyle ski that I have jokingly called our “climate change ski.” It kills it and is so much fun on the conditions we’ve experienced the last four years in Tahoe. Granted, the more it snows the more skis we sell, but we’re committed to finding other ways to live and love in these challenging times. We want celebrate our vibrant mountain communities that have so much more to offer than just powder days. It’s going to take some create thinking and business acumen, but we know that we’re not in this alone.
DPB: All right Jen, Danielle, you’ve been very kind with your time. I know you’ve got that Kickstarter going so please let us know how to get involved.
DR: Thanks. We reached our $25,000 crowdfunding goal in the the first 2 weeks, but our Kickstarter campaign is open until April 24. I’d love for you to spread the word! Anything we earn over $25,000 will help us meet future demand, support our ambassadors and team riders, and allow us to innovate around sustainable manufacturing.
Here are the tiers:
- $35,000 — Increase our production by 30% to make more skis and boards available.
- $45,000 — Increase our production by 50% ad expand our ambassador program.
- $55,000 — Increase our production by 50%, expand our ambassador program, and pay our team riders.
- $65,000 — Increase our production by 50%, expand our ambassador program, pay our team riders, and bring demo days, clinics, and other events that bring women together on the mountain.
- $75,000 — Increase our production by 50%, expand our ambassador program, pay our team riders, come to a mountain near you, and invest in sustainable R&D. We know that there are so many eco-friendly alternatives out there like bamboo, basalt fibers, and resins. We want to be able to test these out and make them available in future lines.
Find Coalition Snow and learn more:
Photos: Coalition Snow
1) Danielle Rees bootpacking in Chamonix
2 and 3) Danielle Rees enjoying the Vallee Blanche in Chamonix
4) Jen Gurecki, Lauren Bello, and Jillian Raymond searching for snow on the East Side.
5) Coalition Snow team rider Sierra Sawyer.