Over the years, Utah has become an outdoor industry hub, acting as mission control while providing pristine backdrops that bring gear to life with the ultimate field test—from backcountry boots to climbing quickdraws. Hosting everyone from ski junkies in search of that powdery white stuff to cyclopaths hunting red rock playgrounds, it’s no wonder—though often a surprise—that our state has birthed some brag-worthy companies.
We talked to four founders who’ve stuck around to watch their trailblazing ideas disrupt the industry. With dogged determination, they’ve busied themselves crafting snowboards with more pop, mountain bikes with more grit, pants that won’t ride up and packs that don’t sink down. They live by credos worth contemplating—whether it’s sticking to one’s roots, combating world poverty, cleaning up the planet or making gear affordable for amateurs, these founders have maintained course and refused to compromise their vision.
Creating the first venture capital-backed Benefit Corporation and Certified B Corp, Davis Smith not only admits there’s profit in this digitally-driven new age of activism but preaches that mission-based companies build trust and value. He says his (modest) raison d’etre is to change the face of capitalism. “Right now, it’s fashionable to fix things,” he says. “I hope it stays that way. We’re making money and we’re helping to alleviate poverty. It shows other companies what’s doable.”
Getting On Board
Niche Snowboard founders Ana Van Pelt and Kirsten Kolter shared a grievance regarding the industry’s harmful environmental practices, describing the toxic resins and non-recyclable plastics that make up a typical board. They thought it ironic that, while celebrating the outdoor lifestyle, most snowboard companies seemed to care little for their impact on the planet. “We knew our boarding community was made up of many like-minded people who were passionate about the environment and the outdoors,” says Van Pelt. The plan for Niche over a decade ago was simple: make boards that perform, look beautiful and love the planet.
The Ride of a Lifetime
In 2005, Chris Washburn went to work creating Fezzari Bicycles, a web-based company specializing in custom-designed, high-end bikes for both road and mountain riders. “We won’t enter a category unless we can make the best-in-class in a product,” Washburn says. “We knew we were going to be competing against behemoths, so we decided we’d offer really good products that make that elite, custom experience accessible to even the weekend warrior.”
while everyone wants in on KÜHL’s “technical sportswear”—high-performance casual clothing that moves effortlessly from ski runs to sales meetings—KÜHL remains purposely small-staffed, locally-run and committed to doing business with outdoor retailers over mega-companies. That it’s still independently owned and operated is due to one simple fact: it’s not for sale. But what else would you expect from a fiercely independent powderhound who found salvation on a pair of skis?
Who’s missing from the outdoor industry?
Researching outdoor companies both in and outside of Utah, we noticed it too—a glaring lack of representation where people of color are concerned. This is true not only in the boardrooms but also on the bike trails and among the boulders. Research shows people of color are far less likely to engage in nature-based activities thanks to a history that locked them out of national parks and structural deficits that keep many feeling out of place. Pushing back takes many forms, including Utah-based Backcountry.com’s new “Breaking Trail” program, a commitment to supporting organizations like Latino Outdoors and Native Women’s Wilderness that improve access and promote exposure to the outdoors for the underrepresented.