Opinion: The Power of Retail Mentorship
As only the third Black owner of a specialty outdoor shop in the U.S., Mandela Echefu went out in search of a mentor, and found one
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I live in western Maryland, deep in the Appalachian range. When I decided I wanted to open an outdoor shop, despite having no experience in retail, I knew I needed a mentor. As you might expect, the population here heavily skews white, so when looking for mentorship, I was faced with the same barriers many Black people experience in professional settings. We often hear minority professionals in all industries complain about the lack of mentorship opportunities. The reasons range from a lack of access to a lack of available minority mentors. For me, this was certainly true. In my region, there are currently three bike shops and one outdoor shop and I had never seen a person of color working in any of them.
After I created my business plan, I cold-called or emailed each of the four shops, asking the owners for some time to discuss the business with them.
This is where Steve Green comes into the picture. Owner of High Mountain Sports in Deep Creek, Md., Steve is a 25-year veteran of the outdoor industry. In that time, he has worked in, managed, and owned a shop that offers everything from skis and bikes to apparel and experiences.
Over the next few weeks, Steve, in his quiet manner listened, answered all my questions, and sent me many articles and resources. But mostly he just listened. Within a few weeks, I was working part-time at his shop. I would finish up at my day job as a health informatics analyst, then head over to High Mountain Sports to work with Steve, where he showed me what it takes to run a successful outdoor shop.
This all was taking place in the spring of 2020, as the racial unrest surrounding George Floyd’s murder began to unfold. Steve and I had some deep conversations. It’s sad to say that here in the Appalachians, there still remain many pockets of blatant ignorance and unrecognized privilege. The lack of minority business owners became ever more glaring to me during this time and Steve made it his personal goal to support my dream and make sure I had all I needed to open my shop.
He introduced me to all the reps for the brands that I was interested in. He gave me fixtures for my sales floor. He patiently walked me through the confusion of terms used regularly in the business and provided me with all the forms I needed for hiring employees and renting out gear. He put me in touch with an outdoor-sports insurance agency. He invited me to tag along with him to The Big Gear Show, Grassroots Connect, and ski demos. He reviewed my financial records. But, importantly, he didn’t always give me all the answers. He also let me figure out some difficult problems, like employee management, for myself.
The outdoor industry has diversified a lot in a short time, and I see it changing even more every day. The cost of entry to our industry is quite steep, especially when competition is not only against other brick-and-mortar stores, but also against big-box and online stores.
Even with all the talk of diversity in the outdoor industry, getting minorities to engage will remain an uphill battle if more people who look like me are not successful in launching businesses and becoming leaders. In order for that to happen, we need more people like Steve Green—those who have walked before us, learned the hard lessons, and have the generosity of spirit to take us under their wings and share their wisdom. In helping me succeed as a specialty shop owner, Steve is ensuring that I, too, will be able to mentor other entrepreneurs and pay it forward.
I look forward to that opportunity.
Mandela Echefu is the owner of Wheelzup Adventures in Cumberland, Maryland.