The SOLE conference is building future outdoor industry leaders - SNEWS

This new conference is building future outdoor industry leaders

Led by college students, the first SOLE gathering featured a climbing competition, networking opportunities, and a space to open up about sensitive topics.
Publish date:
Matthes Jones at SOLE Conference

Matthew Jones, 22, teaches a group of outdoor students about the gender spectrum and cites a shocking study released in 2018 by the American Academy of Pediatrics: More than 50 percent of female-to-male transgender teens reported attempting suicide, while 29.9 percent of male-to-female transgender teens attempted suicide.

“Coming out is a huge life moment and can be one of the scariest things ever. I cried for 30 minutes….As an outdoor leader, your job is not to give advice on someone’s identity—it’s to help them feel comfortable in the space. Treat them the same as you treat everyone else,” said Matthew Jones, 22, to a classroom of 20 of his peers in early April. 

Jones is a graduate student of the Western Colorado University (WCU) outdoor education and recreation program. He delivered a lecture called Queerness in the Outdoors: Lessons From Those Who Live It to outdoor program group leaders and directors, club members, and students, who gathered in Gunnison, Colorado at the inaugural Student Outdoor Leadership and Education Conference (SOLE). 

Perhaps the most important and unique aspect of this event was the people who ran it: not seasoned outdoor industry veterans, but outdoor education students in their 20s. Connecting with experienced advisors, say, at Outdoor Retailer, can aid someone’s career growth. But some students found that SOLE’s structure provided benefits that are equally key. The space gave them time to teach, constructively challenge, and uplift one another, broaden their comfort zone, and find collective motivation. 

Another young persons’ outdoor leadership program, Emerging Leaders Program, part of the SHIFT conference, is under fire because it’s founder is accused of being unqualified for the justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) work that the group wants to pursue.

The three-day conference featured a wide range of topics, from Jones’ exploration of gender to environmental impact (covered by professional ultrarunner Dakota Jones) to skills workshops on things like stove repair and maintenance or backcountry cooking for allergies.

The jist of Jones’ well-attended session was how outdoor professionals—such as guides, trip leaders, and company or non-profit directors—can establish a safe space, emotionally and mentally, for the participants of organized outdoor programs. Pushing ourselves physically in nature segues to vulnerability, Jones said, and for some, that becomes a space to come out, to give self-disclosure about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet, for the most part, outdoor professionals aren’t trained for that momentous experience.

“I’m gender fluid. I openly identify as a gay male,” Jones told the captivated audience. “I’ve worked in the outdoor industry since I was 17 years old. There isn’t a lot of representation for ‘weird’ people.” He followed with a lesson of terminology—related to gender, sex, and gender expression—a list of affinity groups, how to identify and address homophobia in the workplace, and management of coming-out scenarios.

“Talking about and understanding gender as outdoor instructors is really impactful,” said Sara Hanneman, 22, who was in tears of relief, following Jones’s presentation. “Now that I have a general understanding of gender identities, I feel prepared to approach someone who’s struggling.”

Hanneman is an outdoor program instructor at Colorado State University and an Environmental Health major. “The benefit of SOLE is to have conversations with young professionals in the outdoor industry about the impact we want to have within our communities, what we can do to change the industry moving forward, and to hear different points of view," she said. "Talking to long-time industry professionals can be intimating. It’s easier to talk with people who are at the same educational level."

In other words, SOLE supports an industry and culture shift from the bottom-up. Compared to their older counterparts, collegiate-level professionals carry a different perspective on today’s evolving social norms. And, they’re closer in age to the rising generation, Generation Z, who they’re bound to influence through their work in the outdoors or education track, Hanneman explained. 

SOLE conference

SOLE kicked off with an indoor bouldering competition. Eager climbers were briefed on the open format guidelines prior to ascending as many routes as possible in a 2.5-hour period.

A collective rise

“Peer-to-peer presentations raise the bar of credibility and holds students accountable for the quality, which is great practice for being an outdoor leader,” said Rodney Ley, assistant director of the outdoor program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He attended the conference with 10 of his students. 

Throughout his three-decade professorship, Ley has attended and co-directed several conferences with integrated student leadership including, the Intermountain Student Outdoor Leadership Symposium, which in part inspired SOLE co-founders Hunter Grant, Eric Phillips, Kevin Fox, and Rachel Kym—four students at WCU—to launch a conference that was completely student-led and inclusive to a greater number of campuses.

“The purpose of SOLE was to bring students from across the mountain west, and across the outdoor industry’s collegiate level, together to share knowledge, ideas, passion and stoke,” said Phillips, SOLE marketing director. Beyond peer presentations, networking opportunities were woven throughout SOLE including a climbing competition and a career fair, as well as a gear swap. Thematically, this year’s event was tailored to four topics: Gender & Diversity, Environment, Transference, and Future. 

SOLE's founders want the conference to be annual. Representatives from several universities expressed an interest in hosting future gatherings and have a vision to expand the size, which could lead to growing pains. “The singular most important part of SOLE’s uniqueness is that it’s student-run,” said Ley. but also, “Students need a lot of back up. How should [outdoor campus recreation programs] support SOLE without taking it from being a student-led conference?”

Though questions of SOLE’s evolution remain, and a representation of diversity has yet to match the intention of inclusivity, the immediate benefits achieved from a student-led conference are clear: “SOLE was amazing. My students got power…they felt empowered to make a difference on their terms,” Ley said.


High Mountain Hut in Telluride, Colorado

This Colorado women's leadership summit is getting even bigger in 2020

Up until July 2018, the last time I'd been around 16 other women in the woods was as a teenager at Girl Scout camp. So when I was invited to the Project16x women's leadership summit in Telluride, Colorado, needless to say I felt a little self-conscious about being new to the more

Downtown Telluride Colorado

Why your mountain town could be the next Silicon Valley

“The questions that we are asking ourselves in small rural communities are ubiquitous globally,” said Luis Benitez, Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC), as he kicked off the three-day Mountain Ventures Summit in Telluride, Colorado, this month. The more

Yeti Cycles campus drawing

Would you move your business to this outdoor lifestyle hub?

A business hive in a mountain bike haven with a watering hole and holistic health care: It sounds like an ideal recipe for productivity and fun. Pending zoning approval, Yeti Cycles will build a brand new headquarters and factory in Golden, Colorado, with adjacent acres that more

Colorado Convention Center

Mark your calendar: Outdoor Retailer announces show dates for 2019 through 2022

Outdoor Retailer has announced dates for its 2019-2022 tradeshows in Denver, Colorado. Here are the dates for Outdoor Retailer’s three trade events: Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, and Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. 2018 Outdoor Retailer + Snow more


Industry Buzz: Rock and Ice publisher resigns, Trump appoints climate denier, rival bike conferences, Vail harnesses wind, TGR's new location

Industry headlines: Intriguing reads from around the web Rock and Ice publisher steps down: A shocking admission by the publication’s leader precipitated the resignation. Anti-environmentalist heads Bureau of Land Management: William Perry Pendley, a noted climate denier, was more

Wind turbines in sunflower field

New report: Benchmarking the outdoor industry’s sustainability efforts

The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) debuted the first-ever sustainability benchmarking report on Day 1 of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.  “We can’t ignore how our products are made and how that impacts our communities,” said Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable more

Outdoor Blogger Summit

Outdoor Blogger Summit

As a professional in the events industry for over twenty years (Curious? read my bio here), I’ve followed many and led a few trends in this space. I’ve seen major shows rise and fall, even entire trade shows collapse for various reasons. I’ve helmed shows that took market share, more

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Denver mayor to Outdoor Retailer crowd: "Welcome home."

It was not an easy process. Emerald Expositions, parent company of Outdoor Retailer, was propositioned by many cities and states bragging about their outdoor cred. And the city of Denver, which lobbied hard to secure the show, had to have tricky conversations with organizations more

An aerial view of Grand Junction's River District Masterplan

Welcome home: Colorado debuts outdoor industry neighborhoods

Imagine this: The Uncompahgre River flows beneath the balcony of your new home. After breakfast, you walk five minutes to the office. Your lunch break includes fly fishing on the Uncompahgre’s Gold Medal waters. Post work, you drive fifteen minutes—with zero traffic—to uncrowded more