When Dennis Madsen hands the CEO keys over to Sally Jewell during REI's annual meeting on March 28, he will embark on a new journey -- he'll be the director of his new creation, the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund. His new role is one that brings his passion for the outdoor lifestyle full circle -- being able to inspire the hearts and minds of youth through the outdoors, just as he was so inspired more than 40 years ago.
"I was fortunate when I was growing up to have a family that liked to go outdoors," Madsen told SNEWSÂ®. "We did not do adventurous stuff like the industry perhaps thinks of today. We had a canvas tent, I don't recall the brand, and we went camping on weekends.
"In my teenage years, I wanted more edge to my adventures, more adrenaline, and I was fortunate once again to stumble across a volunteer, working through scouting, that gave his time and energy to introduce boys to river running," Madsen explained. "We would go out evenings after school and on weekends and then spend summer months floating rivers. It was that volunteer that got my curiosity up and my interest in the outdoors really fueled."
When Madsen was 17, REI floated before his eyes in the form of a classified ad, a local sporting goods company looking for a part-time stock clerk.
"I got a call from Lloyd Anderson to come in for an interview," said Madsen. "I would not have seriously looked at that ad had my interest in the outdoors not been so inspired through the effort of that one volunteer."
And echoing a familiar theme, one that remains true today -- money was not the motivation for seeking out a job at REI.
"It wasn't the money that brought be into the industry. I was making $1.25 per hour, 10 cents above minimum wage at the time. The same week I was offered a job at the local Kraft paper bag plant at $2.50 an hour, but I wanted to work at REI. It was the gear, the people, the customers.
"And that is our challenge today and has been our challenge all along," said Madsen. "How do we engage young people's imaginations, inspire their enthusiasm, tap into their passions and make the outdoors cool? We as an industry can be very sticky once you get in. There are so many soft factors to being part of the outdoor community that go well beyond any monetary rewards in the process."
Over the last year, Madsen told us he has been privileged to really experience first-hand volunteers and nonprofits that epitomize what that first volunteer meant to him so long ago.
"It really hit home for me at one of our stores in Rancho Cucamonga in Southern California when I was meeting members at community night, and this volunteer from Outward Bound Adventures (no affiliation with Outward Bound), an attorney, told me how much of an impact the outdoors had had on his life. And now he was giving back by volunteering and reaching into the center of the Los Angeles community to take teenagers, ages 15, 16 and 17, outdoors, to places like Catalina Island."
Madsen got a chance to meet with those kids and told us he was overwhelmed by their passion and enthusiasm for the activities outdoors.
"They told me that the outdoors is 'cool' -- their word," said Madsen.
And right then and there, the idea germinated.
"I thought maybe as I leave this industry, I can take some of what REI has given me, put it into a fund, and engage others to contribute to this fund, and then maybe, just maybe, the fund can serve as a resource, a point of light, to help others to inspire youth to get into the outdoors," said Madsen.
Madsen definitely is putting his money where his mouth is. He has personally contributed $250,000 to the fund.
"I am a believer that you have to walk your talk and that if you are not personally invested, then no one else is going to invest," said Madsen.
REI immediately matched Madsen with $250,000 of its own. And, in short order, VF Corp. anted up with $250,000 more. In addition to its original donation, REI has also pledged to donate $250,000 in 2006 and once more in 2007 to encourage the fund's sustained growth.
Madsen told SNEWSÂ® that he already has sufficient pledges in addition to the money already in the bank to launch the fund this fall with over $1 million. It is his plan to establish the fund at $5 million in the next several years so he can then, along with the board, provide an annual $250,000 in funding to non-profits and volunteers focused on inspiring youth to get outdoors.
This fall, at the first full board meeting of the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund, Madsen hopes to be able to offer up at least $50,000 in initial funding to non-profits such as Outward Bound Adventures, Big City Mountaineers, and others.
"I am so encouraged by the response to far," Madsen told us. "We are looking for more money, certainly, and we will also be looking for advisors to help the board with the grant making process."
For more information about the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund, or to make a donation, contact Madsen at 206-713-1821 or by email at email@example.com.