Obituary: Carol Momoda Dies at 66
The outdoor industry icon dreamt big, worked hard, and had fun doing it
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Anyone who bumped into Carol Momoda was always glad they did. Just the sight of her made people smile and her laugh made them smile even bigger. Described as a larger-than-life personality, Momoda was an icon in the outdoor industry and worked at REI, Lowa Boots, and Smartwool. After a long battle with cancer, she died this week at the age of 66.
“Carol had a big, spirited personality especially in the trade show aisles,” CGPR founder Chris Goddard said. “Her greeting was always full of laughter and incredibly personal. Whenever I had a question or needed to ask for advice, she was incredibly kind and on point. She is part of the industry history, leaving an important legacy rich in kindness. She will be missed.”
The Seattle native was often traveling, alpine skiing, fly fishing, horsepacking, and hiking, so naturally, her career was rooted in the outdoors. She was a sharp and successful businesswoman. Momoda started as a buyer at REI in 1976 and stayed for 25 years before becoming a product manager at Lowa Boots. After a two-year stint, she made the switch to Smartwool, where she worked as a sales manager until she retired about three years ago.
The mood around the Steamboat Springs, Colorado, office was both sweet and sad this week, as her friends shared memories of a woman who embodied the spirit of the outdoor industry.
“When people think of the fun loving, kind, inclusive values that Smartwool is known for, Mo is at the heart and center of that,” Smartwool global communications director Molly Cuffe said. “She is and was the epitome of that in every sense. She’s a true outdoor industry legend and when people get into this industry and what they think about this industry is because of people like Momo. She was kind to every person. She would take you under her wing and teach you the world according to Mo and usually it was right.”
For example, Brie Neppl, a Smartwool marketing coordinator who worked closely with her, said Momoda would take a pedicab anywhere, even if where she was going was just across the street—not because it was lazy, but because it was more fun. And she’d probably get you to go along with her.
Momoda developed a keen eye for gear and new brands during her time as a buyer at REI. Her longtime friend Anne Wiper said when she was in her mid-20s and starting her career at Nike, Momoda shared her honest opinions about the sports brand getting into the outdoor space—both rolling her eyes and understanding there was a place in the market for Nike’s fast and light shoes.
Then, when Wiper was at Salomon, Momoda provided her two-cents when they were developing a new shoe. “It was so clear she also loved working on product and it was so fun to have a fresh set of eyes on what we had been working on for so long,” Wiper said. “She knew the REI customer so well…Carol was that perfect combination of dreaming big, get work done, have fun doing it—just the kind of person you want to work with.”
After Momoda left REI, she went to work for Lowa Boots under Peter Sachs. “One of my favorite interactions with Carol was during her REI footwear buying tenure,” Sachs said. “She called at some point during the buying cycle after meeting with her in Seattle and also at OR. She said, ‘Peter, this is CAROL MOMODA with R-E-I! Why don’t I have a catalog?’ in her strong voice and with lots of emphasis, as if I didn’t know who she was after many years or which account she worked for. To which I replied, ‘You are on a need to know basis,’ and then we both started laughing.”
Sachs said she had tremendous passion for product and wasn’t bashful about setting high goals. However, it took learning from past experiences. While at REI, she bought a mere 18 pairs of the Lowa Renegade—a light hiker—for the Seattle REI store and a sales rep sold 17 to convince her to buy more and help develop a real program through the retailer, Sachs said.
Industry veteran Sally McCoy said Momoda was also instrumental in The North Face’s development and while she could be a tough judge of products, she was also kind with her critiques and feedback. “With Carol, you knew where you stood and knew if you had a good product,” McCoy said.
Whenever Momoda was involved in product line reviews and thought a certain style was a real winner, she would exclaim, “ka-ching!” Wiper said. “I am pretty sure most people coming into the work place do not even know what that noise meant. But it made all of us laugh,” Wiper said. “She had a huge appreciation for quality product, and a trained and experienced eye. There was no one more committed to the integrity of the brand. That meant always working to do the right thing.”
Smartwool’s Cuffe said, “Sitting in our meetings, you weren’t successful unless you heard Momo say ‘ka-ching.’”
One of Momoda’s many gifts was her genuine interest in and care for people. For many, becoming her colleague meant becoming her lifelong friend. Summit Hut founder Dave Baker first met Momoda on a Lowa factory tour in Germany, when he and Momoda representing REI were the only two retailers invited. He says as a naturally anxious person, he was intimidated, but Momoda immediately put him at ease.
Years later and many interactions later, she gave him a small shot glass she’d picked up in Italy. The glass had a line at its halfway mark, and it was labeled “half full” at the top and “half empty” at the bottom. Baker said, “She told me, ‘I want you to think about which side of the line you want to be on.’ She’d taken the time to understand what kind of person I was.”
The Smartwool team had their own share of personal stories: Neppl said Momoda sent a care package to the hospital after she had her daughter; retail director Robin Hall said Momoda was a great hugger; and Jess Feinerman said Momoda helped guide her when she was a newbie in the industry and beyond.
“You wanted to be near her because there was always something fun or funny going on with her,” Hall said. “She brought everyone’s spirits up and she brought everyone a laugh even in low times.”
Norma Hansen, a former Smartwool employee now working for parent company VF Corporation in Asia, said: “I will always remember when I interviewed with Smartwool—I met Carol at Winona’s for breakfast and she asked, ‘Are you sure you know what you are getting into?’ She said all she could promise was that we’d laugh a lot and take good care of each other.”
Dana Davis, who bought Summit Hut from Baker, said Momoda was always someone she sought out for advice, wisdom, and a warm welcome. “I just remember learning so much from her,” Davis said. “I would run things by her about footwear and boots even when she was working for a sock company because she was in the know and so willing to share. She was always nice and warm. Then she’d have some zingers in there too and wouldn’t sugarcoat anything.”
Even when Davis thought she didn’t need to see Momoda, she did. And many others felt that way too. “I never knew how such a small person could make that much happy noise commotion, it just made you smile when you walked into the office,” Wiper said.
Smartwool is still working out details for a service for Momoda, making sure that her spirit is at the center at whatever they do and brings her the highest honor. Maybe it’ll be a pedicab race.