Women Outside, Fall 1998
Chances are you know your office PC's start-up rumblings and I'm-saving-now hiccups as well as (or better than) you know the nocturnal sighs of your slumbering mate. Which just might be an indication that you've fed more than enough of your invaluable talents into your employer's insatiable maw. Deep down, you long to chuck it all to do what you've dreamed of doing, what you love: Open a dive shop in Fiji, maybe. Start an organic vineyard. Design the perfect snowshoe. Spotlighted here are five such former dreamers, women who've turned their passions into professions. The consensus: You might miss the regular paycheck, but the view from the driver's seat ... well, it certainly doesn't suck.
Scoping out her competitors at the 1994 World Masters Games in Montreal, Ellen Ferguson had a poolside epiphany. Though she'd been swimming competitively since age six, the Rockport sales exec suddenly realized that athletic swimsuits must be the most dowdily utilitarian, perma-fashion-rut sportswear ever marketed. "There was no sense of fun," she says. "We all looked so stodgy."
Back home in Portland, Oregon, Ferguson (who is now 36) took a week off and cranked out a pitch convincing Reebok, Rockport's $3.6-billion owner, to launch a strategic cannonball into the placid, Speedo-ruled competitive-swimwear niche. Alas, Nike chose that moment to announce it was teaming up with Jantzen to debut a swimwear line in 1995, and Ferguson's Reebok contact stopped returning calls. For a few weeks, she did nothing. Then she realized, "I can do this myself."
Ferguson hired a pattern maker and a small manufacturer and thus her company EQ — shorthand for emotional intelligence quotient, the quality Ferguson believes makes good competitors — was born. She brought in old, favorite suits and stores' current models and pointed out which features she loved and which to modify. Winking at the self-serious tendencies of competition, she chose unconventional styles (neons, tie-dyes) and tongue-in-cheek model names (Gonzo, Geek). So far, so good. Last year, EQ's sales tripled, and in May, Ferguson quit her desk job. She envisions a future of multimillion-dollar sales and rampant brand expansion: antichlorine skin- and hair-care products, even footwear.
Still racing, Ferguson naturally couches business advice in training-tip jargon. "Always expect to win," she says, "but research, research, research the concept. And when you're getting started, take small steps so you stay in your comfort zone." Headaches — like the time her manufacturer sewed women's front sections onto men's back sections and shipped extremely silly-looking, navel-grazing trunks to a southern California men's team — are more than outweighed by the rewards. "The best part," she says, "is going to the pool and seeing strangers wearing my suits. Now that's fun."
Mary Jane Butters
Mary Jane Butters had never heard of Yvon Chouinard three years ago, when at a friend's suggestion she sent him a packet of her lentil soup mix along with a letter describing Backcountry Organic Food, the mail-order camp-food outfit she'd recently started from her farm in Moscow, Idaho. But three days later, the renowned founder of Patagonia Inc. called her at home. "That was really good soup," he said, and proceeded to script a part for himself as fairy godfather in Butters's emerging story. Chouinard sent his CFO to crunch her books, began enclosing her brochure in every Patagonia shipment, and even commissioned a version of tsampa, a roasted-barley-flour Himalayan staple, to debut in Patagonia's catalog next year.
All of this began with the humble Desi aztec, a blackish, thick-skinned member of the garbanzo family. Frustrated by local farmers' use of crop chemicals, Butters started making falafel with the legume after a neighbor told her it was so naturally hardy he didn't have to use pesticides. She soon began expanding her product line, endlessly finessing recipes and weathering disasters large and small (including a chimney fire that gutted her 1905 farmhouse). In time she scored a deal to supply REI stores (under the label Ecocuisine) and launched a parallel catalog business, From Farmhouse to Your House, that ships organic produce, dairy products, and baked goods nationwide.
"I love to feed people, and this business grew out of that," says Butters, who is 45. But despite her unassuming manner, the former construction worker, wilderness ranger, and antinuclear activist has a firm grip on the reins of her venture. Though her husband helps run the farm, she insists on remaining majority owner of the business. "I'm a high energy, jump-off-the-cliff-and-hope-a-rope-appears person," she says. "And you can't expect to do that with someone else along."
If obsession is a prerequisite for entrepreneurial success, San Diego surfboard shaper Shannon Payne-McIntyre has that part all sewn up. Scouting undiscovered wave breaks off the coast of Sumatra three years ago, she got stranded — bobbing in and out on the tide for three interminable days — after her boat's engine died. Finally back onshore, she immediately rented another putt-putt and headed out again. "We found a perfect right-hand barrel," she says, segueing into breathless tales of razor-sharp reefs and poisonous sea snakes encountered during other pilgrimages that have taken her from South Pacific atolls to Bali.
At 24, Payne-McIntyre is arguably the first woman shaper in the custom surfboard biz, a venture she dived into in 1996 with customary alacrity after her husband, Shayne — a talented shaper himself — suggested she shape and decorate a board for her college art final. Local surfers who came to the student exhibition gravitated to her shortboard, tricked out in purple flames and yellow glitter, and a word-of-mouth business had begun. In its first year, Shannon Surfboards has sold about 100 boards, mostly to young women just starting out. Her favorite part of the two-day shaping process is painting bright acrylic images — mermaids, devil girls, floral patterns, ocean scenes — onto a board before sending it off to get fiberglassed.
While sales keep rising (her boards sell for $300 to $500), Payne-McIntyre admits that launching a company with only a few hundred dollars in savings and no business plan has made cash flow tricky. But rather than follow the path of many shapers, who design models for computerized mass production, she recently hatched an unconventional plan that she hopes will buoy her nascent enterprise and subsidize her taste for exotic surfing at the same time. In July, she started as a part-time flight attendant for American Airlines, a carrier carefully selected for its Southern Hemisphere ports of call, in particular Trinidad and Tobago. "The money isn't quite there yet," she says. "But I feel very rewarded. If I can keep shaping — and surfing and painting and traveling — all my life, I'll be happy."
After finishing Dartmouth business school and before starting as a foreign-bond trader at a Wall Street investment bank, Ashley Korenblat squeezed in a three-week Grand Canyon raft trip with friends. "At the end, I was riding in the back of a pickup, filthy and tan," she says. "I remember thinking, 'I don't want to go to New York. I want to keep driving around the desert.'" After a 12-year detour, Korenblat, now 37 and the head of a Moab, Utah-based mountain-bike touring company called Western Spirit Cycling, finally got her wish. "I do a lot of that kind of thing now," she says.
At least the Wall Street phase was brief; Korenblat fled to Boston in 1987 to manage a start-up company that made leather belts. A year later, she agreed to write a business plan for Merlin Metalworks in exchange for a $2,000 titanium-frame bike and ended up as company president. In five years, Korenblat helped pump up the company from four employees to 40 and $4 million in sales before the board of directors decided to sell in 1994.
After weighing some tantalizing options — jobs at Ben & Jerry's, Tom's of Maine, Patagonia — Korenblat decided to "free-float in the universe for a while." By now an accomplished mountain-bike racer, she soon met a man who'd started a little tour company in Moab but had no inclination to expand it. In 1996, Korenblat bought Western Spirit, raising capital by offering a group of loyal clients two free trips a year in exchange for a modest loan. With a rough-and-ready staff of 20, Western Spirit now runs trips through the backcountry of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, with some uncommon campsite extras: gourmet chow, solar showers, chaise longues. When she's not out on the trail, Korenblat also chairs the International Mountain Bicycling Association, a 50,000-member advocacy group.
While Western Spirit grew 40 percent last year and is expected to do the same in '98, one of the rewards Korenblat most cherishes is watching clients undergo the same metamorphosis she did more than a decade ago. "People show up pale and nervous, still thinking about work," she says, "and when they come back from the trip, they've forgotten what it is they do for work — they have this special beam going. It's definitely worth it."
Bethany Stevens and Melissa Longellow
January 6, 1995, The day Bethany Stevens and Melissa Longfellow met, has taken on a semimythical glow in their memories, partly because they pulled an all-nighter hashing out what would become Fresh and Tasty, the first and only women's snowboarding magazine. Within days, the Cambridge-based duo sold their first ad, and two months later they were at a Las Vegas trade show, handing out 10,000 copies of their glossy, 36-page labor of love.
It all started when Stevens, 27, a classically trained flutist and competitive in-line skater who was working on an addiction to snowboarding, got fed up with existing magazines' paltry coverage of kick-ass women riders. She began stopping female boarders on the slopes, asking if they'd buy a women's book. Soon someone hooked her up with a rider who did graphic design. "That's my dream job," was Longfellow's characteristically muted response. "I must be involved."
But it hasn't exactly been an easy run through fresh and tasty pow-pow. Putting out only four seasonal issues, the publishing neophytes are just breaking even, and struggle through low-income summers. (Longfellow, 29, does freelance graphic design; Stevens works as a legal secretary, teaches in-line skating, and recently wrote a book titled Ultimate Snowboarding.) The articles come from Stevens or freelancers willing to work cheap, and the magazine's design changes nearly as often as the founders' ever-evolving hair hues. Somehow, it all happens from the first floor of the house Stevens shares with her chef husband, Jack, and two Chihuahuas.
With 60,000 readers and counting, F&T now plans to expand its coverage to other board sports (skateboarding, wakeboarding, surfing) and its frequency to bimonthly. Stevens and Longfellow have also jokingly floated a name change of the magazine in response to complaints that Fresh and Tasty sounds pornographic or "dirty." Among their suggested new titles: PMS (Powder Mountain Sisterhood), FAT (Frozen and Tasteful), Goddess on Board!, Frosty Momma, and a personal favorite, Snow Flakes.
Susan Enfield is an associate editor of Outside.
Photographs by Philip Newton, Michael Llewellyn, Morgan Henryk Daniella Stallinger, Sue Bennett