A handful of times in your career, you will get the chance to witness or participate in something that is unforgettable. Last week, at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market Tradeshow, I had one of those moments.
I drove up to Park City, Utah, to the headquarters of Backcountry.com where 11 kick-ass, very nervous and completely inspiring women waited to pitch their business ideas to six CEOs and an audience filled with friends, fans, press and oh, yeah, angel investors. No big deal. Except that it was.
This was the inaugural entrepreneurial effort of the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition (OIWC) and was aptly called “Pitchfest.” The idea was born from the realization that in a male-dominated industry, women are not afforded the same opportunities to enter the informal networks where business deals are done. Through the REI Foundation’s Mary Anderson Legacy Grant and the support of multiple CEOs, the industry opened a door for these women to step through. And they stepped large.
The first pitch was Stephanie Nitsch from Pallas Snowboards. She was understandably nervous, but inherently cool. What followed were pitches ranging from athletic hijabs and a reusable sunscreen applicator system to an app that could easily enable women to connect for the purpose of outdoor adventure.
The three hours flew by as woman after woman took her space to share her vision. Judges encouraged, questioned and advised. After much anticipation and deliberation, the judges declared the Pitchfest winner to be a company based in Ashland, Oregon: MaskIT, which makes an eco-friendly disposal system for feminine hygiene items. In addition, Bay Area Trail Mavens so captivated the judges that a spontaneous runner-up category was created to acknowledge the company’s potential.
There was wine, there was cheese, but most importantly, there was transformation. This is the most concrete example I’ve witnessed of the true creation of opportunity. At the conclusion, Jill Layfield, CEO of Backcountry.com, noted that several of the participants should expect to be contacted by one or more of the CEOs. The open door was wide enough for many to step through. Pitchfest will now be an annual event held live every summer at the Outdoor Retailer Tradeshow. In spring, the OIWC will reopen the application process. If you have an idea, get ready. If you know a woman who is building a business, let her know.
As Vice President of the REI Foundation, I am deeply proud of REI’s commitment to transformation for women in the outdoor industry and its support of this entrepreneurial initiative. This is just one effort of the OIWC that REI supports, but it’s definitely a standout.