Burton's CEO Talks Gender Inclusivity and Sustainability
Burton is nearly synonymous with snowboarding. It’s one of the largest names in the snowboarding industry and has paved the way for the sport’s popularity through product innovation, athlete sponsorship, and advocating for snowboarding at ski resorts. Donna Carpenter, founder Jake Burton Carpenter’s wife, has been instrumental to the company since its early years and took on the role of CEO in 2016. She is leading Burton, snowboarding, and the outdoor-sports industry as a whole into a different future: one of equality and sustainability.
At the Burton US Open last week in Vail, Colorado, Backcountry employee Jessica Jacobson caught up with Donna to talk about how Burton is leading the charge for equality in the workplace and the company’s focus on sustainability.
Jessica Jacobson: As a leader in the snowboarding industry, why is it so important to you and Burton to focus on diversity, gender inclusivity, and sustainability?
Donna Carpenter: When snowboarding started, women were pioneering equally. Our company had as many men as women. Our first head of marketing was a woman. Our first head of product was a woman and it was sort of normal. As we began to grow, we pulled both participants and employees from the surf, skate, and ski [industries], which were all pretty male-dominated. We took on this culture—both from a community and company perspective—that women didn’t feel comfortable in, so we realized we had to be really intentional and proactive about changing it.
Jessica Jacobson: How have Burton’s and the industry’s values evolved over the last 30 years?
Donna Carpenter: We’ve always been committed to inclusion because we were excluded in the beginning. We became this strong community, and you see that with the female athletes here [at the Burton U.S. Open]. They’re really rooting for each other, they really are friends, and they really want to see each other progress.
We’ve always been committed to the long-term sustainability of the sport. We’ve always put that in front of the short-term profits. It’s been about snowboarding, what’s right for snowboarding. That didn’t include climate change 25-30 years ago, but now the long-term sustainable health of our sport, our brand, our community, our industry depends on us addressing this issue. Our values have stayed very much the same; doing what’s right for snowboarding and women in our community has always been part of our DNA. What’s changed is how we’re expressing our values.
Jessica Jacobson: How is Burton promoting women’s leadership?
Donna Carpenter: In 2003, we started a program to increase the number of women in leadership. When I started this, we had no role models who were mothers. For the most part, women who choose to work in action sports are pretty badass, determined, strong women, so they really inspired me. We addressed maternity and post-maternity, and the second big thing was mentoring.
All the women said they craved a mentor, so we started two kinds of mentoring programs. One was really grassroots, pairing the experienced with the less-experienced on a project or longer-term basis, but I also made every senior manager mentor a director. Twice a year, we would take a look at all the female directors and spend half a day talking about what we could do to help develop their careers and lives. It became so popular that the men wanted to be included, too. So we made it a co-ed program and there’s always a female and male co-chair. We’ve become a mentoring culture.
The other thing we focused on is hiring. We said that for every leadership job opening, there has to be a female finalist who has the same qualifications as the other top candidate. When you have two options, one male and one female, you’re 50/50, so that really helped change the numbers.
Jessica Jacobson: How is Burton leading the way in women’s design and technology innovation?
Donna Carpenter: Hiring female engineers is something we’ve been very mindful of. We have an internship for female engineers that we pay for every year, and we hopefully hire from there. Men’s and women’s creative—both product and marketing—are now separate, too. Having at least 30-35% of the people sitting around the table being women drives that strategic decision-making. Otherwise, you get technology and information that women don’t relate to.
Jessica Jacobson: What advice would you give brands, leaders, and women in the outdoor industry?
Donna Carpenter: Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture and the longer term. That means taking care of our planet and prioritizing diversity. We have to start thinking about not only gender diversity, but racial and ethnic diversity, and really being intentional about what we want this sport to look like 10 years from now, who we want participating. I would encourage brands in the industry to think bigger, join together, and support the important movements around climate change and diversity. To women, make sure your values match the values of the company you are going to work for and then be part of the change you want to see for your brand or for the women in your community.