You’ve been called one of the most influential women in action sports and the snow ambassador. What does this role mean to you?
“I don’t think it’s a role I ever anticipated, but I’m happy to do it. The thing that makes snowboarding so special is that we all grew as a community. We were [a new sport that was] in opposition to skiing. They didn’t want us at their mountains or trade shows, but we were determined. We had this rebel attitude. We grew up as a community, and I felt that women have always been a big part of that community. When we started, we had as many women as men working, as many women team riders, and a woman was just as likely to get her picture on the new snowboarding magazine that started. Then, as the sport grew very quickly, and we were pulling from male-dominated sports like surfing, skate, and even ski, it really started to take on this male-dominated culture.”
The action sport industry is still male-dominated, but you’ve been leading the effort to bring more women into this community.
“At one point I said that we really have to be careful that we are staying open to women and inviting them into our community, because they’ve always been a part of it. I realized that we really needed to be proactive, and Burton can take a lead role in that. We started 13 years ago, looking at how we can recruit, retain, and promote more women internally. We are never going to grow and succeed in the women’s market unless we have internal women making strategic decisions. So, very early on, I made this connection between how making Burton a brand of choice, is connected to making Burton an employer of choice for women.”
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced?
“I think that when you’re in a room full of guys and they’re all snowboarders, it’s really easy for them to develop these informal relationships, saying ‘let’s take a few runs before work.’ You have to be more proactive about it with women. We just recently established a buddy program where if there is a female candidate who is a finalist for a position, we match her with a woman internally, so they can have coffee or lunch together. It’s off the record, not part of the interview, and the woman can ask honest questions about what it’s like to work at Burton. In addition, we have a Women’s Professional Association that organizes a lot of events, including an upcoming surf trip in Maine. We also do three exclusive events for our female employees every season — one of them is a half-day where every woman can just take off and ride, which has the double benefit of allowing the guys to realize how screwed they are without us.”
What would you tell executives and industry leaders they should be doing to help women thrive at work?
“For us, the first thing that we did, and the first thing you have to look at, is your maternity and post-maternity policies to make sure they are as progressive as possible. I always thought that you invest in these incredibly talented female employees in their twenties and early thirties, [and] then they leave and don’t come back? They are at their peak in terms of talent, creativity, and knowing the systems, so I thought, 'okay how do we address it?' You need to have role models — young women want to see that there are women in the company that have balanced both a career and a family, as well as working mothers in high positions, so they can see themselves investing in a long term career here as well. So, as a company, you have to make sure there’s a good culture around allowing high-performing women flex opportunities after maternity. One of the more progressive policies we have at Burton is that within the first 18 months after giving birth, if your job requires you to travel, you can either take a caregiver with you, or we will pay for a caregiver at home.
So, you’re helping women at a macro level, but you’ve also been working to encourage women from within. What’s the one thing that young mothers should feel empowered to ask their employers for?
“Looking at it from the employer’s perspective, they’ve invested a lot in you as an employee, especially if you’re high performing, so know that they don’t want to lose you either. I have the advantage that all of my kids are grown and on their own paths as adults. I never thought that day would come, but it does. When I had my second child I went from a five-day week to four days, and it made all the difference in the world. Everyone has to find different solutions, but know that you’re going into those conversations with your employer as a partner.”
You’ve also been spearheading the effort behind BurtonGirls.com, a community specifically for female riders. What has previously been the barrier?
“We’ve had women team riders from the beginning, we made women-specific products, and we have a great history of providing equal prize money at the U.S. Open, which was unheard of. We have a strong heritage, but the company had become male-dominated, and I realized that the way we were marketing to men was not effective for women. Burton Girls is our way of tapping into that. Snowboarding is about the sport, but it’s also about who you’re with, where you are, how it makes you feel, and the empowerment it gives you. Burton Girls is our way of inviting women into our lifestyle, company, and sport. I think it’s been a success because it’s really authentic female voices with some high-powered women driving it internally. I think we have the right combination there. And, our women’s hardgoods are growing at 7%, which is a much faster rate than men’s right now.”
You’ve had many roles at Burton besides co-founder — from snowboard builder to CFO to currently president. What have you learned about being a leader from your unique trajectory?
“Someone just asked me to give a talk on my leadership style and I said it [my style] was three words: I don’t know. I started very accidentally. Back in the '80s, my husband was convinced that snowboards, which were only a wooden plank with a rope on the end and some waterski bindings, could be made like a ski — something that was only happening in Europe at the time. [When we moved to Europe] I had lined up another job for a year, and the next thing I know we’re setting up an office, warehouse, and distribution center. I was in my early twenties, a political science major with no business experience, so I really approached the business differently. I asked questions, I was curious, and I was open to learning. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I had humility — I approached everything that way."
Owning a company with your husband must come with a particular set of challenges. How have you made it work?
“It was in part because what we were doing was something so much bigger than ourselves. We wanted people to try snowboarding because we knew they would fall in love with it. It was a new way to go down the mountain, and it was spiritual for us. We did keep our areas very separate. He was laser-focused on product and marketing, and I was really focused on sales and finance operations, so that helped. I’m not saying it wasn’t ever hard, but I think it [worked] because it was bigger than us. It was the hardest when things were tough. He would be having a product problem and I would be having these finance problems, and we’d just make each other sick at night talking. So, we instituted this rule that we could not talk business after 6 p.m., and that was for about a year when we [the company] went through a tough time, but we got through it.”
What advice would you give women who are continuing to develop their careers?
“I’ve cultivated a lot of mentors over the years. As an entrepreneur you sometimes think that you’re the first person to ever go through this, and chances are, you’re not. It’s always comforting when someone else says they’ve dealt with it as well. It gives you perspective. So, one thing I always tell women to do, is to create their own board of directors. I have people around me that are interested in seeing me succeed and give me candid feedback. I think that sometimes we develop blind spots, so [to] have people that will really call bullshit on you, and get you to look at the stuff that maybe you don’t want to look at, is helpful.
You’ve also said that taking care of yourself is immensely important. How do you find the time?
“It has to become a priority. I think about it as the people that work for me, they want me to show up, be present, and feel good. That’s how I can be of best service to them, not coming in dragging and tired. I think we’ve all learned that the hard way, myself included. We’ve all worked too hard and made ourselves sick. The older I get, the more I realize that my emotional, physical, and spiritual health have to come first, before I can take care of anyone else. Maybe I did hear that advice as a 25-year-old and just didn’t follow it.
You’ve also been the driving force behind the company’s global sustainability efforts. What do you think about the recent People’s Climate March and the UN Climate Summit?
“I wish I could have been there. Our director of sustainability was at the march and there was a little bit of a Burton presence. When you have a company you sometimes feel like you have to be careful of the political positions you take — customers might not like that you’re saying a certain thing. We weren’t really speaking up, but we also thought that we hadn’t really cleaned our own house, so how can we be out there talking about global warming? So, once I felt like we made some progress, I said we really have to start speaking up more. We have joined different business groups, and are really trying to speak up and speak out, and see how we can get our demographic more involved.”
How are you spearheading the campaign in a way that is authentic and meaningful?
“Quite honestly, I think the action sport industry is a little behind the curve, especially when you look at the outdoor sport industry. So, within our own company I looked around, and there were things that we were already doing in different areas: For a long time we’ve had a partnership with Mountain Dew where we made jackets out of their recycled materials, and we had a grassroots employee group that was working to green our building, and encourage biking. I kind of just brought it all together. We made a three-year commitment (we’re in the second year now) to audit 100% of our factories, to know exactly what’s in our product from a chemical point of view, and we’re on target to reach that goal next year. It’s been a great learning experience. I wouldn’t say that we’re leading the way, we still have a lot of work to do, but we’ve made incredible progress.