Diversity success lessons: Three steps companies could take now

Find out a few practices that have proven successful for fostering ethnic and gender diversity in the workplace and consumer base.
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This is part of a series of stories previewing Rendezvous, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) annual leadership forum, which will be held Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at the Loews Coronado in San Diego, Calif. This year’s line-up will feature three tracks to help you tackle your business challenges: Innovative Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion and The Consumer Revolution. Register for the event here

Outdoor companies are working to attract more diversity in their employee and consumer bases, but they face some challenges other industries don’t.

“We are an industry that is made up primarily of small businesses relative to other industries,” said Lori Herrera, COO and vice president of the Outdoor Industry Association. “The ability to provide dedicated resources can be challenging.”

But, she added, there are things outdoor companies can do to increase diversity, which is essential to growth. As Fast Company reports, companies that support ethnic and gender diversity are 15 percent more profitable than companies that don’t.

Three practices to increase the number of ethnic minorities and women in the workplace and as customers include: being less intimidating in advertising and marketing materials; reaching out through diverse organizations and events; and developing mentoring programs or fostering mentoring relationships in the workplace.

Frankie says 'Relax'
John Sanchez at Zeal Optics said having a laid-back advertising and marketing strategy has brought more women and those from the coveted 25-35 demographic on board as loyal customers.

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“We’re not radical,” Sanchez said. “You don’t see a lot of people jumping off cliffs,” in Zeal’s advertisements.

For Zeal, it’s about experiencing life and telling the personal stories to make its customers feel like their product is not solely for hard-core athletes. In fact, Sanchez said, Zeal’s products are more popular among women who use them to do things like grab a coffee after yoga class.

“We’re a brand that’s not about, ‘Go out and win first place,’” Sanchez said. “If you get out and go for a two-mile walk, you’ve essentially won.”

The IDEO Consulting group, which is working with the Outdoor Industry Association to do a deep dive on the future of outdoor retail, found in its research that showing images of people doing extraordinary things like climbing mountains or skiing double black diamonds can scare off a viable customer base.

“If you just gaze at outdoor imagery, a lot of it communicates people in sophisticated gear doing pretty extreme outdoor sports of one kind or another,” said Clark Scheffy, associate partner and designer for IDEO. Images like that could be considered terrifying by some, he said.

Reaching out to communities of color
The outdoor industry “has got to be willing to learn from people and communities of color,” said Dr. Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in racial and ethnic studies, women’s studies and urban political economy. “Surely somebody is smart enough to go in and figure out what communities of color want.”

Indeed, somebody is. REI has been doing this for two years through its diversity and inclusion program. It’s reached out to organizations like Outdoor Afro and the National Brotherhood of Skiers. It’s also done so through sponsoring events like Adventures Denver, which took place in September 2012 to encourage Denver’s ethnic minorities to try fly fishing, climbing, stand-up paddling and kayaking.

“There are many vibrant organizations and events,” said Laura Swapp, REI’s director of diversity and inclusion.

REI recently sponsored a program along with the National Park system and American Latino Expeditions. The New York Times recently reported on the National Latino Heritage Fund blogging project, which gets bloggers of color out to experience national parks and write about it to encourage more ethnic minorities to utilize the parks systems.

Jonathan B. Jarvis, the Park Service’s director, told the New York Times the program is designed to encourage, supply and understand the minority market.

Mentoring for success
Every year, the magazine Diversity Inc. determines the top 50 companies for diversity. One thing all the companies on the list have in common is that they have a mentoring program in place.

If your company can’t or won’t provide a mentoring program, industry nonprofits are stepping up. OIWC recently announced it's launching a pilot mentoring program, which will kick off in 2014, to provide women in the workforce career support.

“I’m … thrilled the organization is encouraging formalized mentorship programs,” Kristen Carpenter-Ogden, owner of Verde PR, wrote in a recent blog post. “I understand the value, because I have a mentor in my professional and personal life who helps me track as a leader and business owner, despite all of the many challenges and facets to balance in my own life.”

Since the industry has many small businesses with limited resources, we probably can’t all be successful case studies like Burton, but we can reach out to those we want to learn from or whom we think we can teach to foster growth and success.

“As a teacher you get to teach but you also get to learn,” Sanchez said. “How wonderful is it for you to mentor your team? But mentorship goes both ways because I, in turn, learn a lot from my team.”

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