The outdoor industry loves numbers. And one of the statistics outdoor recreation advocates love to laud is the $887 billion generated by consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs this industry creates.
At times, however, the absence of metrics is just as shocking. According to our research and inquiries, there are two Black-owned outdoor gear companies and two Black-owned outdoor retail shops in the entire country. We reached out to them so they could tell their stories. We wanted to know all about the highs, lows, frustrations, and joys of being in this space.
These business owners got into this industry because they love being outdoors and saw a hole in the market that they had the creativity, innovation, and resolve to fill. Here are their experiences in their own words.
My grandfather was [American civil rights leader] Whitney Young, and I live as part of his legacy. I know you can never escape the color of your skin. People ask me, “What do you feel like your role is in the movement?” I started to realize my job is to remind everybody I’m surrounded by that I’m Black and what that means.
I try to do road rides during the week, and there’s a thought that goes through my head every single time I’m on my bike when a car is passing me: Is this person going to see me and want to give me a little nudge into a telephone pole? Does anybody else have that thought? No? That’s important. The moment we’re living in is exhausting, but I do feel like this time is different.
Until three years ago, I spent my career in advertising, marketing, and consumer market research, but I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors. I thought to myself it would be cool to open a gear shop, but I didn’t want to open just any gear shop. Our store’s a little bit different, and we’re figuring out the model as we go. Our core belief is that the world’s going to get smaller before it gets bigger; that, over the next couple of years, there’s going to be a lot of empty 5,000-plus-square-foot spaces.
We engender always to be in a downtown, to be part of the community, and to support brands that represent our values. As a business model, we have half our store dedicated to what we call a feature brand. That space acts like a pop-up shop. We don’t own that inventory. A brand will come in and do a 700-square-foot takeover. All of the brands that come into our space have to prove that they belong there.
What Black people bring to the party is a flavor that isn’t there otherwise. We bring the seasoning. It’s intrinsic to all of us to explore, discover, embrace, and share. What’s intriguing to me among the outdoor community is the degree to which people want to participate in parts of our culture—like our music—but look at Black people solely as a business opportunity in relation to their bottom line. We are so much more than that.
I grew up in Southern California. There was not much exposure to snow. There was snow in the mountains around here like once a year. But I went to college in the Bay Area, and there I was introduced to a lot of people who were very different from me and where I came from. I played football there and made friends with folks who would ski when their competitive careers were over. I hated skiing the first time, but I went back, and I liked it the second time. My then girlfriend—now my wife—bought me a pair of boots so I could ski more.
It was the ’70s and ’80s, and there were so many books talking about lower-limb ski injuries. I’m walking through the parking lot with my ski boots in Squaw Valley—a name I hope the resort changes to one with more dignity for Native Americans—and I got this kind of lightbulb moment. I understood what these writers were talking about and the need for a better protective sole. So I invented a product called Cat Tracks, and it took off.
I believe there’s always a path to innovation. Inventors don’t find the invention; the invention finds them. There’s always a path to what’s going to be new in the development of a product, a new product line, or a concept. You don’t go from a horse and buggy to a Tesla; there’s a process.
Our name is Seirus Innovation, and we pride ourselves on coming up with solutions that make it easier for people to participate.
Being the first documented Black gear-maker…it’s a scepter that I am proud to carry. I was the first African American football official to referee the Super Bowl. My parents instilled principles of life in us. They believed scholarship, and community service was the core of our lives. We were taught the most important thing was to be worthwhile to society and to your family. They instilled in us the idea that there was a piece of dignity in us no one could take from us. When I walk into a room, I truly care about the person across from me. They want the same thing I do, to be the best self they can, and I try to project the idea that I care about them and I respect them.
I think it perpetuates a negative image to describe the Black community with words like “underserved” —words that indicate being less than. I think there is a positive way to put a spin on that term: those who deserve more access. Disenfranchised? No. They are those who have not been afforded the access. We’re not underlings. We’re not less than.
I started my company in 2016. I used to be a running coach with the nonprofit Back On My Feet. The organization focuses on helping homeless people gain independence and living skills, and it connects them with essential community resources. It also places a large emphasis on physical exercise.
We would do these early morning runs, and I couldn’t find mittens that worked for me while I was running. I saw one of the guys I ran with wearing socks on his hands, and I thought there had to be something better than that. So I set out to solve a problem lots of us were having. I’m not designer, and I wasn’t going to come up with all of these cool patterns, but I did come up with a prototype and we tried it out. I worked to get a patent, and I had a great attorney. It was a small firm, and I was a small business, and we saw the value in each another. That’s been one of the joys of this journey—finding other small business owners and recognizing the worth in one another.
Most of the things that have happened with this company are just the ups and downs of starting a business—any business. I’ve done business accelerator programs in my hometown and learned more about manufacturing, e-commerce, and the paperwork side of doing business.
I get a lot of nos. I can’t always tell if I’m being paranoid or if it’s because I am new to the market. I don’t know if people always understand what I do, and they decide they don’t want to take a chance on my product because it’s new.
Most of my sales for the first three or four years came from individuals—they still do. Initially, I thought my goal was to be in stores. It’s extremely difficult to break into those spaces, and I didn’t realize that because I’d never done anything like this before. These retailers claim they don’t know who my market is and don’t see why they should take a chance on me, but my reputation shows they should.
Slim Pickins Outfitters
When we started this shop back in 2017, I asked everyone I ran into if they knew of any other Black shops in the nation. For a long time no one knew of another, until I learned about Mark Boles at Intrinsic Provisions. That baffles me. When you’re about nature and the outdoors, whatever passion you’re into regardless of what drives you to be out there, you take in your surroundings and you value the diversity—the plants, animals, trees. There is never an absence of color. Yet when we talk about gatekeepers and advocates of the outdoors, most of those faces are white. It doesn’t make sense to me. They want to diversify the outdoors and become anti-racist if they get to control the narrative and the finances. That’s not how it works.
I think it sometimes gets lost on white people that, for so long, us Black people…we were owned. Or we couldn’t own things like land and businesses. So when you finally have the opportunity to own something, there is this ancestral connection, and this shop takes on a new meaning. I’ll do whatever I can to make it succeed.
The biggest issue we have at the shop is access to capital. We started our business on $56,000 from local investors. I’ve met umpteen times with banks, and when they look at my debt-to-profit ratio, they tell me what I need to change. I do that, but there’s still another barrier.
One thing I love about the outdoor industry is it gets the concept of community. As a Black retailer, I have the opportunity to reach out into these other spaces, places these brands might not think to go. There may not be many of us in this space, but we’re a village. We watch out for one another. We’re starting to talk about our experi- ences with racism and being taken advantage of. I see my job as a being an advocate for the outdoors, as well as being an advocate for my people in the outdoors, to make sure that others can find the knowledge they’re looking for. I’m not Rue Mapp. I am not Melanin Base Camp, and that’s OK. We all have our roles to play.