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REI Launches New Program to Invest in Bipoc-Owned Outdoor Startups

The retailer is dedicating $30 million to two initiatives that will aid BIPOC entrepreneurs in scaling their outdoor businesses

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Seattle-based retailer REI announced last week the launch of a new program called Path Ahead Ventures, which seeks to help BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry. Through the new initiative, the company will invest $30 million in two programs to help selected startups grow.

The first part of the program, called Embark, targets entrepreneurs with early-stage ideas. Recipients of grant money from Path Ahead Ventures will receive equity-free seed capital and a virtual course in best practices for starting a business. REI partnered with Founded Outdoors, a multiple-industry support program for diverse founders, to develop the three-month course. Applications for the first Embark cohort run through November 28.

The second part of the program, called Navigate, will ​​support entrepreneurs  who are ready to scale their businesses. Planned for launch next year, Navigate will provide funding as well as resources for production, distribution, publicity, and networking.

Along with these initiatives, REI has set itself the goal of adding 200 new BIPOC-owned or -led brands to its lineup by 2030. These additions would increase the number of brands on REI shelves with ethnically and racially diverse leadership from 1 percent to 15 percent.

“Retailers, including REI, have sourced products in ways that have made it difficult for smaller, newer companies to compete—which has had a disproportionate impact on founders of color,” said Dan Kihanya, REI director of corporate development, in a statement. The new program aims to fix that problem.

A Year of Progress for REI

The news comes on the heels of several other diversity, equity, and inclusivity initiatives pursued by REI in recent months. At the end of last year, the company updated the product standards for its more than 1,000 members, with a focus on climate- and DEI-related expectations.

This past September, REI appointed Wilma Wallace to a new C-suite position as the chief diversity and social impact officer. Wallace had previously served as the company’s general counsel and chief secretary, while also working outside REI on a number of nonprofit boards for organizations focused on equity and human rights. 

“The co-op is uniquely positioned to lead in transforming the outdoor industry into a more diverse and inclusive space where all can thrive outside,” Wallace said at the time of her appointment. “This is a moment for the co-op to make a difference, and I am grateful to be able to bring together my life-long commitment to advancing equity, inclusion and justice, my love for the outdoors and my own lived experience and passion for social change in my work.” 

Soon after Wallace’s appointment, REI announced the launch of its Cooperative Action Fund, a DEI-focused 501(c)3 charity. The $1 million fund’s purpose is to support “nonprofit organizations promoting justice, equity and belonging in the outdoors.” It has so far invested in 19 nonprofits, but the company plans to scale its support accordingly as contributions roll in over time.

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