Carla: Spending time in the great outdoors means something different to everyone. Camping, rafting, and climbing mountains can be fun and rejuvenating. But for many people of color, outdoor recreation and the industry surrounding it feels uninviting.
Patricia Cameron: We’ve had a history of going outdoors. My grandmother, she told me she used to pick cotton for $3 a week when she was younger. So once she got done being out in the field, she didn't want to go outside anymore.
Carla: That's Patricia Cameron. We'll hear about how she's fighting to eliminate economic barriers to the outdoors, especially for people of color and marginalized communities, through her mission-driven organization, Blackpackers. And later, I'll sit down with Dan Kihanya from outdoor clothing and gear co-operative REI on the company’s initiatives to help expand who is able to enjoy the outdoors and economically prosper within the multi-billion dollar outdoors industry.
Dan Kihanya: If we can get more folks bringing diverse perspectives we can have a profound impact on helping the industry to grow and be more inclusive and accessible.
Carla: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I’m your host Carla Harris. On this show, we provide context about racial inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 75% of Americans engaging in adventure recreation are white. This is what we call The Adventure Gap, and today, we're looking at the reasons behind the gap, and the solutions people are pursuing to advance equity within the outdoors industry to be more reflective of the true diversity of Earth’s people.
Carla: Growing up in Maryland, Patricia didn't experience much of the outdoors in a traditional sense such as going on camping trips or hikes.
When she was older, her mom moved her family to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Carla: There, Patricia was surrounded by activities like hiking, mountain biking, and camping. She even lived nearby the tallest mountain in Colorado Springs , Pikes Peak.
Patricia Cameron: And it was interesting because I could always see Pikes Peak so close. Like I could look out the window or walk to school every morning, but just never had the opportunities to get there. The first time I really got into outdoor recreation was when I took myself backpacking.
Patricia Cameron: I saved up a whole bunch of extra money from overtime to buy used gear, and then I Googled how to backpack.
Carla: As Patricia began looking for the right gear to get started, she found the prices to be steep. The gear was essential, but the price tags were more than she could afford at the time.
Patricia Cameron: I'm so used to being a single mother and just working a lot, and just how tough that was because it's kinda just what I do. I made a decent amount of money. It took a while, so it wasn't super easy, but even then I had to buy used gear, my gear wasn't brand new.
Carla: Finally fully outfitted, Patricia was ready for her first solo backpacking trip in the backcountry of Colorado's Eleven Mile State Park. She'd prepared for just about everything...
Patricia Cameron: And then I went out in a snow storm. Because I only have my son every other weekend. So if I commit to something, I kind of have to do it.
Patricia Cameron: When I woke up the next morning and it stopped snowing and you could see like the sunlight glinting off of the snow…
Patricia Cameron: And it looks like little jewels and diamonds and everything still again, knowing I had survived, that was amazing to me that I somehow figured out how to put these things on my back and then wake up and not be eaten, or not freeze to death. That feeling itself was great. That summer, once I got that one out of the way, I spent the entire summer outdoors, backpacking or camping.
Carla: After that first backpacking trip, Patricia was hooked. She wanted to get her Black friends into the outdoors to experience some of that serene morning for themselves - but it wasn't always easy.
Patricia Cameron: I think the primary problem, I stumbled across that that summer was, I had lots of friends who would like to go, but didn't have any of the gear.
Carla: As Patricia struggled to get her friends outdoors, it became clear how different -- and simply put, harder -- it was to get into nature for them. Many of the mostly white, outdoor enthusiasts of Colorado had collected gear over many years, even generations. She even saw this with her ex-husband.
Patricia Cameron: My ex-husband was born and raised in Colorado Springs and so what I noticed when we started dating is that he had this access to all of his family's things, like their camping gear or their fishing rods or their boat, things of that nature. The generational wealth part I've talked about before, too, but have also talked about that knowledge. A lot of things are passed down. A lot of traditions and culture just like we share recipes. He already knew these things because he grew up doing it and his parents were giving him that information. So when it was time for him to go camping, he already had the gear.
Carla: Patricia recognized that it wasn't just economically that she lacked access to outdoor recreation. While money was one of the most obvious barriers to entry, there were also less apparent, but no less powerful, cultural factors at play.
Patricia Cameron: We've had a history of going outdoors. It could be a big family reunion, or like me and my grandfather on his boat while we're crabbing. And so I think the difference was, culturally, it looks different in how we use outdoors. My grandmother – she told me she used to pick cotton for $3 a week when she was younger. So once she got done being out in the field, she didn't want to go outside anymore.
I think it's a common theme for Black women, especially, but for the Black community that resting, um, if not really seen as part of keeping a healthy body and mind. So when I'm backpacking, you have a variety of breaks you take. One of those breaks is just to stop to catch your breath and you keep your. And other breakers will be called packs off. When you sit down and take the way to the pack off of you and maybe have a lunch or something. And the other one is where you're done for the day. You're pitching your tent and your pack is like put away, but it truly is a revolutionary act, especially for Black people.
Carla: Given the value connecting with nature had brought into her own life, Patricia wanted to do something to help close that gap.
Patricia Cameron: I came up for the idea for Blackpackers about when I started doing that summer and taking people outdoors and they were saying the same thing about not having the gear. And so originally I was buying it myself and then I realized I could not sustain that. And a nonprofit route is a great way to get people to donate gear, and to get donations.
Carla: Blackpackers provides free or subsidized gear, outdoor excursions and outdoor education, like wildlife safety training. To make all of this possible, Patricia has formed partnerships with brands and retailers. She believes that the outdoor industry plays a big role in advancing equity within outside recreation.
Patricia Cameron: A lot of our gear comes through partnerships or donations. I always like to shout out REI because REI is really big on focusing on just helping fund the people who are doing the work already without a lot of strings attached.
Carla: Organizations like Blackpackers are pivotal in closing the gap, but the overall change will require bigger players in the outdoor industry to welcome more diverse faces into positions of leadership and ownership in this space.
Patricia Cameron: We're talking about, you know, getting people into the board of directors, changing how nonprofits look, changing who's running these businesses, the entrepreneurs, changing the faces of leadership, the CEOs. That is what really recirculates wealth into communities, when we're able to really be a part of that economy. The industry is losing out, if they don't want to focus on these demographics. We already know the economic power of the Black dollar. And the outdoor recreation economy is huge.
Carla: Outdoor recreation is a $374 billion industry, and while Blackpackers is working to change the face of it from the outside, some companies are working towards the same goal from the inside. One of those is REI, which has provided gear and grants to outdoor nonprofits with creators of color and other underrepresented groups, including Blackpackers. In 2021, REI also hired Dan Kihanya to help invest $30 million in founders of color within the industry. The program, called Path Ahead Ventures, will offer entrepreneurs grants and potentially direct investment. I sat down with Dan to discuss his commitment to elevating diverse founders, why the REI initiative matters, and his thoughts on closing the Adventure Gap.
Carla Harris: Dan, thank you so much for being here with me today and it's a pleasure to have you on the show sir.
Dan Kihanya: I'm so happy to be here. Thanks, Carla.
Carla Harris: So let's go to REI. What took you there? Why the outdoor industry? And all the roles you could have played, why Director of Corporate Development and Racial Equity?
Dan Kihanya: Well my journey to REI wasn't planned but it's one of those things where somebody sent me a posting on LinkedIn and so I reached out just to find out more about what they were doing and really just got drawn in. First of all I've always been an outdoors person, I think. I grew up in this inner city in Boston but I grew up in this apartment complex that by some blessing had a pond and woods in our backyard like right behind our building. So my friends and I, my brothers, we'd spend hours out there and we would love the escape cause it would feel like we were like in the middle of a forest, even though we're, you know, surrounded by the concrete jungle of their city and then I also became a boy scout. So I developed a lot of confidence and skills around how to do camping and hiking and experiencing the outdoors and as an adult that translated into many pastimes from skiing and mountain biking and hiking and canoeing but I also love just to walk in the park and local trails I find a real connection and it's almost healing to be outside. And so I am not necessarily a person who is very outspoken about equity, social justice and so forth. But again feeling like this is kind of a calling for me now it just fit.
Carla Harris: I haven't heard of another title called Corporate Development and Racial Equity. So you know, talk about the problem that you all are trying to solve. It's not your everyday outdoor retailer.
Dan Kihanya: No yeah I mean as many companies did REI went through a lot of introspection in 2020 about where the company stands in terms of it’s progress along racial justice and racial equity. And as a part of that we took a deep look at the companies and the brands that we carry in our stores and what was the representation and equity across the ownership of that. And by most estimates that we were able to come up with as an industry we really only see 1% of founders and and owners and leaders in the industry who identify as people of color
Carla Harris: Wow.
Dan Kihanya: Yeah 1% and so we said well there's an opportunity if we can get more folks as creators influencing and bringing diverse perspectives into what we call our our assortment the that we carry in our in our in our stores that we can have a profound impact on not just serving folks of color who are customers and who want to participate in activities outdoors but helping the industry to grow and be and feel more inclusive and accessible.
Carla Harris: So in one of our earlier segments we heard from a nonprofit that mitigates gear and expedition expenses for people of color to experience outdoors. So where do these disparities in access to the outdoors come from in your view? In my view, Dan, it's really about the economics, right? Because for a long time you didn't see a lot of people play golf because it's expensive to play a round of golf. It's expensive to own clubs. You know I know I remember when I first started playing how much money I spent in the space. Same thing with skis. You know it's not easy to buy a pair of skis. It's not easy to get to a mountain. It's not easy to buy a lift ticket. So in my view it's about your economic background or your economic circumstances as a barrier but how do you think about this?
Dan Kihanya: That's a great point and the economics bears itself out in a couple of other different ways that I think about. One is access. One is how we define outdoors. And another is a sense of belonging. And so you rightly pointed out about access to nearby nature. I mean there's millions of Americans including ones that are in marginalized communities who are in locations that don't have green spaces. I read one report that said communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in a place that's nature deprived meaning lack of green spaces, vulnerable to pollution and climate and weather impact, and so that's pretty telling right there.
And in terms of definition, this is something that we've been working on internally at REI but the outdoor industry really has focused a lot in creating the connotation of outdoor activities meaning hiking, backpacking and camping. But, we've challenged ourselves at REI to
think more broadly of the outside versus outdoors. And this gets a little bit more to your point about how we think about the cost, you know the outdoors could conjure, you know, I'm climbing a mountain, while outside could be a garden in the backyard, it could be the local city park. Right and we're focusing a lot on more inclusive of activities like outdoor socializing like picnics and backyard gatherings, trail gating is a term they use now. And then more broadly adopted activities like running and biking, which are activities that actually have pretty high participation among people of color.
And then in terms of this idea of belonging, again we need to sort of call it what it is. The outdoor culture has not been as welcoming to all people and it carries very different meetings and different history for underrepresented communities.
Carla Harris: Ah good point. Very good point.
Dan Kihanya: And some people just don't feel welcome. They don't feel a sense of safety or belonging in the outside. So I think some of those are the things that I see as some of the challenges that the outdoor industry has faced in terms of accessibility and welcoming.
Carla Harris: Well said, well said. Let's talk a little bit about Path Ahead Ventures. Who is it meant for and how can it help?
Dan Kihanya: So we are specifically focused, with our new initiative and our $30 million fund, again, to invest in founders of color who are launching and growing companies in the outdoor industry. So what does that mean? We're focusing on both aspiring and current US-based entrepreneurs who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American or Pacific Islander and those founders are working on compelling products or solutions in a category related to the outdoor sector. So we offer grants and an option for investment but we also bring other assets that REI can leverage including a community network access to partners and experts and peers to give advice and guidance. We have capability and infrastructure. So we have product development capability. We have supply chain networks. We have the distribution engine, marketing reach. And so we can bring all that to help founders grow and scale their businesses. And so we think for this industry we can really make an impact and powerfully move the needle for founders.
Carla Harris: Wow, that's quite a valuable package. I'll tell you that is very much our philosophy as well. That it's not just about introducing you to an investor but it's about thinking about how you develop from being a founder to a CEO because that's a whole ‘nother conversation, Dan, we could have that's very different. You know, especially young founders, they don't know how to build a team. They don't even know how to really interview. And as you know, if you make a bad hire in the early stages of your company it can be catastrophic, you know, not just from a cultural standpoint but a financial standpoint from a legal standpoint, so there's so many different things that they need in a very short period of time.
So, alrighty you know, I know there've been some innovation in the outdoor space, so talk to our listeners and to me about what's happening out there.
Dan Kihanya: There's some great stuff happening. I mean, if you think about things like e-bike, e-bike is making biking really accessible. The whole car-camping renaissance that's happening with car top tents. But one of the big things, I think that's very transformative about our industry is this idea of buying and selling, trade-in, upgrade used gear. And so this idea that you don't have to drop lots of money on new product to try an activity. And it's so pretty powerful, particularly amongst younger people who want to experiment with different activities. Maybe they've never been kayaking. Maybe they've never been in the snow, maybe they have never had, sort of, a biking experience that isn't just like riding to school or to the local store. And so this idea of re-commerce, I believe is the term that they use, of being able to buy and sell and trade in equipment. I think it’s going to be a powerful transformation for the industry.
Carla Harris: Yes, I can attest to that. Cause I grew up as a bowler and when I first started bowling, I would go to the lane like everybody else and rent shoes and get the ball and, as you said, as I became better and better as a bowler and really got competitive, then of course I had to have my own ball because I didn't want to expose or subject, my game, or my ability to bowl a 200. I didn't want to subject that to the availability of the ball at the bowling alley. So I got my own. So you're right, that could very well open up access and interest. So I'm looking forward to seeing that re-commerce in that space grow.
So we have something called a lightning round where we ask you a few rapid fire questions and you answer the first thing that comes to your mind so that our listeners get an opportunity to know you a little bit more. So are you ready?
Dan Kihanya: Okay, let’s do it!
Carla Harris: Twitter or Instagram?
Dan Kihanya: Twitter.
Carla Harris: What's your personal mantra?
Dan Kihanya: Stay humble.
Carla Harris: City or countryside?
Dan Kihanya: Countryside.
Carla Harris: I was about to say as an outdoors man come on!
Dan Kihanya: I can't be too far from the city, I gotta tell you.
Carla Harris: Okay. Coffee or tea?
Dan Kihanya: The last five years has been coffee.
Carla Harris: Yeah I was about to say Seattle Seattle has some great coffee. All right If you had a talk show who would you want to be your first guest?
Dan Kihanya: Arlan Hamilton.
Carla Harris: Ah yeah she's fun, I had the privilege and the honor of interviewing her at one of our conferences and that was a fun time. Alrighty, one word to describe your legacy?
Dan Kihanya: Service.
Carla Harris: Dan Kihanya thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today sir.
Dan Kihanya: Thank you, it was tremendous fun. I really appreciate it. I feel privileged and honored.
Carla: What an energizing conversation that was with Dan. I loved hearing about his own journey to become a more intentional voice for his community. And it's great to see how he's using that to fuel his work at REI as a person of color leading the charge on real change. What he and Patricia are doing to close the Adventure Gap is really two prong. Of course, they're tackling the financial side of things with Patricia helping to gear up her community and Dan, funding for diverse founders -- and I'm definitely excited to keep my eye on how both of these initiatives progress. But, I have to say, it's the ripple effect of what these two are doing that's going to be the most exciting. As founders of color succeed and more people of color participate as consumers, the industry will become stronger. It will be more inclusive and it will be more welcoming to reflect the true diversity of people who love, protect and share life outside.
What did you learn today from Patricia and Dan? Send us your thoughts at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you. Subscribe to Access & Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.