This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
There were times when Natalia Ospina felt as if she had to pick between her beloved outdoors and her hair.
The Denver resident loved climbing and trail running. But she loved her hair, too. It reminded her of her mother, the only other one in her large family who had the same thick, luxurious curls she recognized as part of her Latina heritage.
Yet the climbing helmet scrunched it into a hot mess. When she ran, she had to pull it back to keep it out of her face. Sometimes it felt as if her hair belonged on Medusa, a ball of frizzy snakes that dinged her self-esteem, a hard price to pay for activities that would otherwise be uplifting.
Yes, these are hair problems, but consider this: Ospina’s mother never let her hair down because she tried to hide her ethnicity. Times are different now, and Ospina sees her hair and all its Latina glory as a big part of her identity. She doesn’t want to hide. She wants her hair to be free and flowing.
She searched for help and found nothing save for one article. YouTube, a place with dozens of videos on how to apply stylish makeup, had nothing. She is not a hairstylist — she works in public health for a small company as a director — but she invented Elder Hair, a product that’s easy to apply and meant to nourish crazy curls, keeping them flowing and free of tangles. She uses it, too: She’s training for a 20-kilometer race this fall in Montana and can wear her hair the way she wants it during her runs. Even the helmet is no longer a disaster.
She was skeptical that her relatively small problem would resonate with others, but when she asked other Latinos for feedback, she got so many responses she had to turn off the automatic calendar that was filled with people eager to share their story.
She eventually interviewed more than 100.
“The coolest thing for me, and the thing I’ve been so shocked by, is the response from the Latino community,” Ospina said. “They want to see products that represent them, and there’s no market to serve that.”
The chances are low that, say, a white guy would have come up with that kind of innovation, even if he had hair plugs. He probably also wouldn’t have thought of hijabs for active Muslim women, or backpacking food for Latinos, or hydration packs for fuller figures like those on more than two-thirds of all women in the U.S. He may not have even thought of a baby bottle that collapses or activewear made for women’s shapes, not just their sizes.
But these were the kinds of inventions on display at the Big Gear Show in Denver. The above retailers, including Ospina’s Elder Hair, are a part of REI’s Path Ahead Ventures, a key part of the show’s efforts to introduce more BIPOC businesses to the outdoor industry. BIPOC is a buzzword for Black, Indigenous and people of color, or the kind of entrepreneurs who struggle to crack a retail industry that tends to be homogeneous, affluent and (usually) unintentionally exclusive.
“I’ve been in the outdoors industry for 13 years, and we keep talking about being more diverse and inclusive,” said Dave Petri, director of marketing and communications for Lost Paddle Events, which puts on the Big Gear Show. “We can continue to talk about it, but why not show it in action?”
No longer niche
REI Path Ahead Ventures partnered with 18 people of color this year to advance their innovations in the outdoor industry. REI provides them with funding and support, such as making space for them under their banner and even selling their products in their stores. REI has put more than $30 million toward the effort during the past several years.
There’s still a long way to go, Conor Hall, the director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, a division of the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said last week during the Big Gear Show kick-off event.
“We need to do a much better job diversifying this industry,” Hall said. “There’s still tremendous work to do.”
In fact, nearly a quarter of the booths at the Big Gear Show, or more than 25, were BIPOC gear-makers, nearly a quarter of the total number of booths, Petri said. REI was a big part of that, granted, but Big Gear also recruited some businesses and hosted a panel discussion on inclusion that kicked off the four-day show.
They aren’t doing it just to be nice or progressive. Large groups of marginalized communities do not feel comfortable outdoors, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and those anything beyond a size 12. And yet, white people will be the minority in the U.S. by 2040, Petri said. The marginalized few who do love the outdoors are making it easier for the many others waiting to discover it by solving misgivings specific to their size, race or gender.
“They had barriers,” said Dan Kihanya, the director of REI’s Path Ahead. “Why not help people like me to overcome them?”
Only some of the Path Ahead businesses displayed under REI’s banner are ready for prime time (including Elder Hair), but they will be by December, and if they can bring new people to the outdoors, they have a chance to capitalize on a huge, untapped market.
“We’ve recognized for years that we need to open up,” Petri said. “We’ve had a slowdown after the COVID-19 boom. We have to reach out to others and show them the outdoors.”
Even if those in the outdoors industry want to be exclusive, experts believe they can’t afford it anymore.
Raquel Vélez used to tell people she was allergic to snow, so she still finds it funny that skiing was her gateway to the outdoors.
Vélez’s parents lived in Puerto Rico, which isn’t exactly known for ski resorts. They were poor enough to sleep on the ground, so it confuses them why people would want to camp, she said and laughed. Vélez, however, was born in New Jersey and had a good living as a software engineer. Her then boyfriend, now husband —“some white guy,” Vélez said — wanted to go skiing.
Vélez reluctantly agreed and was embarrassed when she went to a ski shop and couldn’t find a pair of pants that fit. She was a healthy, strong woman, a size 16, not a circus act. She learned how to sew that same weekend and made her own. She then founded Alpine Parrot after learning 68% of all women are size 14 and up.
Her own experience didn’t deter her. She loves to hike and backpack and, yes, camp, even if her parents worry. She also loves to ski and now lives in California with her white guy. Her company uses outdoor terms such as coastal and forest to assign shapes to women, not just their sizes, and she starts at size 14.
“Honestly it’s really not that hard of a problem,” Vélez said of women’s shapes. “But no one wants to tackle it.”
She doesn’t mind sharing her story to sell her products.
“It’s important to explain the ethos of it,” Vélez said.
Muna Mohamed formed Kalsoni after she played basketball: Her traditional hijab got in the way. She would overheat, trip or, at times, face discrimination when referees made her sit because it wasn’t part of the uniform. She was born in Minneapolis after her parents moved there from Somalia.
She took part in a University of Minnesota study that found clothing was the No. 1 barrier to women participating in sports. She could relate.
Her hijabs offer the same cover required by her religious beliefs but in breathable fabrics and the same functionality and look you’d find for skiing, running or hiking. There are smaller sizes for young girls and different colors and styles.
“It’s nice that I don’t have to sacrifice my beliefs and values for a piece of clothing,” Mohamed said. “But for me it reduced my level of stress. I don’t have to shop at the men’s section anymore. When you feel confident in what you wear, you can do anything.”
REI wants to help BIPOC business innovators because they tend to be free thinkers. Many aren’t in their product’s field for a living. But that’s what allows them to think in such a different way.
Vélez came up with her unique shape chart to fit women’s bodies to solve a problem, and it was mostly just a personal problem.
“And yet, that is something that could benefit the whole industry,” Kihanya said.
A problem that chafed
Charlotte Young-Bowens of Tempe, Arizona, had severe depression, a body that couldn’t go more than 2 minutes on a treadmill and a health scare bad enough that an ER nurse warned her that she’d be dead soon if she didn’t help herself.
A year-and-a-half later, she completed her first 50-miler. And yet chafing, a relatively tiny (but extremely painful) aliment common among ultrarunners, threatened to sideline her: She couldn’t find a water backpack large enough to accommodate her body, and the straining straps rubbed against her sensitive skin.
This was not a small problem: Aid stations are miles apart in most ultramarathons, so much so that races require runners to carry water and supplies, and hydrating is the key to finishing, perhaps even more than determined legs. When Young-Bowens realized companies weren’t going to make something for her, she did it herself. Now she offers extra-large packs through her company, Conscious Gear.
“I loved being out there,” Young-Bowens said. “I found so much healing. I want that for others. Your bigger body doesn’t have to be a deterrent.”
Young-Bowens is Black, but her product isn’t necessarily driven by race (and in fairness, neither is Vélez’s sizing chart), although it speaks to her: The Office of Minority Health reports that 4 out of 5 Black women are overweight or obese.
Kihanya wants to emphasize this point: Not every product touted by BIPOC businesses or showcased in REI’s Path Ahead program needs to be a savior for people of color. Or, more specifically, it doesn’t have to benefit JUST people of color.
Qudsia Khan and Sana Jafri of Chicago, for example, developed a collapsible baby bottle because they are mothers, not because they are Muslim (although Khan was eager to check out Mohamed’s products). Khan has four children; her oldest is age 8. Jafri has three, including one who was born in early June. They call their company Baby Gami, and the bottle can also be used by toddlers as a snack cup.
Jafri had the idea, and Khan, a self-proclaimed “baby-gear nerd” and engineer by trade, designed the collapsible bottle. There are water bottles that collapse, so you’d think a baby bottle would already exist, but that’s yet another reason why the world needs mothers.
“It doesn’t exist,” Khan said in exasperation. “I’m an avid traveler, and it was a sore spot for us.”
Even if their products aren’t designed for people of color, Kihanya wants to support them as business owners.
“We still believe they have their own perspective and they can be leaders,” he said. “Their voices will resonate in those positions.”
Ospina hopes to launch Elder Hair in November. She’s encouraged by the great interest shown by Latinas as well as other groups, including Black women with their notoriously difficult hair, Latino men asking for their daughters and white women with long or curly locks.
“A lot of people love to be outside,” she said, “and when you are, hair is not a priority.”