How Burton’s Owner and Chair of the Board is carving a path towards greater equality and diversity in snowsports
Above: Donna Carpenter. Pic: Jesse Dawson.
The Luminaries Series is about shining a light on some of the most inspirational people in our industry, documenting their rise in their given professions, and sharing some of their insights from along the way.
For more than 35 years, Donna Carpenter has helped build the most successful snowboard company in the world. Together, with her late husband Jake, Burton Snowboards has become synonymous with the sport. They have provided a platform for millions to discover snowboarding for the first time, and to push the limits of what is possible within the sport.
“As leaders in the snowsports industry, the impact of decisions made at Burton ripple throughout the entire snowboard community”
As leaders in the snowsports industry, the impact of decisions made at Burton ripple throughout the entire snowboard community. After attending a meeting in 2003 with all the Global Directors at Burton, Donna and Jake noticed how male-dominated the industry was. This is when they realised something needed to change.
Through proactive company policies that push for progressive change, Burton has, in many ways, set the bar for the rest to follow. We sat down with Donna to learn what it took to get here and where she hopes to see the industry going forward.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. To start with, could you just tell us about what you do?
Well, let’s see. I’ve been involved with Burton since pretty much 1985. I married Jake in 1983 and at the time I didn’t plan on getting involved in the business. I had graduated from college and he started looking at how he could manufacture a snowboard like a ski, and the only place that was done was in the Alps ski manufacturing. So, he visited quite a few factories and finally found one that would make it for him. They’re now the largest snowboard manufacturer in the world (located outside Salzburg, Austria) and they were the only ones who agreed to try and make this “thing” like a ski.
“I held different positions: I ran Europe, I opened up the whole European market for us, I became the chief financial officer, I became chief international office”
I went over there to go and work for a non-profit that got Austrian students to come study in the United States and Jake said, “Hey, there’s been some inquiries. Some people are interested in snowboarding in Europe.” The next thing I knew I was twenty-two, setting up an office, setting up a warehouse. It was like the demand exploded.
I held different positions: I ran Europe, I opened up the whole European market for us, I became the chief financial officer, I became chief international officer. It was always my husband Jake who pushed me, and I’ve heard this from a lot of successful women that they always had a cheerleader in their partner, and it was really always Jake. When I was twenty-two, he said, “You should run Europe”. I was like, “Are you out of your mind?!”. And then when we came back, he said, “You should be chief financial officer, we need one.” And I was like, “I can’t do that”. He was like, “You just ran Europe for five years with budgets and forecasts and we need that stuff here.”
Every step of the way, including CEO, I never saw myself as a CEO. Jake was CEO off and on, and we had outside CEOs as well, but I never saw myself as CEO but Jake really pushed me into that role. I did it for about eight years until I was co-CEO with John Lacy, who is now the sole CEO. I’ve stepped into the chair of the board role. So that was my career in a nutshell.
That’s very impressive.
I always say there was a moment that we had. Snowboarding was different from skateboarding and surfing in that there were a lot of women involved from the beginning. Our global team always had women on it.
There were real pioneers of the sport in the eighties, and then when the sport and the company grew really quickly, we were pulling both employees and participants from the surf industry, from the skateboard industry, from the skiing industry which were all very male-dominated. There really was this moment, in 2003, where Jake and I were sitting in a meeting with all our global directors from around the world: Asia, Europe, US. Out of twenty-five people, there were two women in the room.
“We never intended for it to become a male-dominated culture, but it had”
Jake turned to me and said, “This is a problem”. I think he knew at a gut level that this does not bode well for the future of our sport or our brand. I kind of went, “Oh my god, you’re right”. We never intended for it to become a male-dominated culture, but it had.
I’ve spent the last seventeen years working on that and I am proud to say we’ve made incredible progress. Right now, my CEO’s senior team is 50/50. It’s half male, half female. Our board of directors is very balanced, our director and VP level are very balanced. We’ve made progress in participation, although not as much as we’d like. It’s been a long journey on that front.
You’ve done a lot for Burton even though it wasn’t really your initial plan to become part of the industry.
As I said, I really didn’t have any intention to get involved in the business and then we went to Europe. Jake was focused on manufacturing, and all of a sudden, I realised that there was demand there. I found a distributor in Switzerland and I found a distributor in France and that’s kind of how I started.
I always say we were successful in Europe because we didn’t know what the hell we were doing so we were very humble. We didn’t come in there like, “We’re gonna teach the Austrians a few things about the ski industry!”. They had a couple of hundred years of it. We really went in with the mindset of, “Hey, how do we learn?” But there were some real women pioneers in Europe back then. There was Christine Rauter from Austria, and there were women in Europe in the eighties that were really helping us pioneer the sport.
You have had a very successful career as a businesswoman. What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced on this whole journey?
As far as sort of trying to change the numbers and the gender balance or whatever? Ultimately when you start you get a backlash, you just do. I remember guys saying, “Oh, are there gonna be quotas where a certain number of women need to be hired? We’re not gonna get promoted.” You get the crap, right? But because it was coming from me and Jake, I think that that was probably the single most important thing that made it successful.
“I don’t think you can be a player in the women’s market without women making the decisions”
But after you address the issues for women in a company… We started doing things like subsidising day-care and subsidising child-care. We started giving not just maternity leave but paternity leave for the guys. We have a very progressive travel policy when you have young children. All of a sudden guys are like, “Oh, this is a better company overall. They’re treating me as a whole person, as a parent, and they understand that I have obligations outside of work.”
There tends to always be a backlash when you say we’re gonna change things here, but then it opens up incredible opportunities for the women’s market. I don’t think you can be a player in the women’s market without women making the decisions. We learned that the hard way. When I first stepped in in 2003, I realised all the people sitting around the table making decisions about women’s products and marketing were men. Maybe they were getting feedback from the female riders but somehow that feedback wasn’t being handled the same way, and we were pinking and shrinking right? We were taking the guys’ jacket, making it a little smaller and turning it pop pink and saying, “Oh, why aren’t you buying that?”.
We had a woman who was in charge of all of our children’s outerwear, and she said, this was quite a few years ago, but we had just started making snowboards for little kids. We had something called ‘the Chopper’ and it was basically for boys and she said, “I think there’s a market for a little girl’s board”. So, I said, “I think you’re right. Let’s look into that.” The guys in hard goods, took the Chopper which was green with robots, and they made it purple with robots. We were like, “Girls aren’t gonna buy it because it has robots, and the boys aren’t gonna buy it because it’s purple.” We literally had to say, “We’re gonna put butterflies on this damn thing!” It exceeded pre-season numbers by 250%.
That was a lesson for the organization that you really have to have women in strategic decision-making roles. You need them everywhere! But you especially need them with women’s product and women’s marketing.
Have you personally come across any discrimination as a woman in your job?
Yes, mostly in Asia.
How do you deal with it?
I’m in the position of being an owner, and I don’t tend to hold back. I feel like it’s happening and I feel for the women in my company. I have a woman who’s in charge of our whole global supply chain, and she had a meeting in Asia where the owner of the factory wouldn’t look at her and would only look at the guy she was with. She was the guy’s boss!
“If you’re in a group where you’re the only woman, it’s really hard to develop that kind of informal mentoring relationship”
The gender roles, especially in Japan, are much more traditional I’d say than they are in the US or Europe. I do tend to get it in our factory supply chain sometimes. Once I was signing a big deal in Korea and I was the CEO and my husband was the chairman of the board, and when we went to their CEO to finally sign the deal after I had spent months negotiating, he said, “I want CEO, not wife!”. I remember my husband was like, “Oh boy, nobody tell her that or this deal is off!”. So again, I had a real cheerleader and believer in Jake, which helped.
You mentioned back in 2003 you kind of realised that there were more men than women in the company…
Yes and we started something we called and still call the Woman’s Leadership Initiative.
How does that work?
Well, it was really less than 10% of our leadership that were women, and now senior leadership is 50% women, other areas are like 45%. We had to accommodate maternity and post-maternity.
I realised high-powered women in product marketing and sales have to travel. So, for example, for the first eighteen months of your child’s life, you can travel with a caretaker. We pay for a caretaker to come with you or for a caretaker to be at home to allow women to travel internationally. And then the second after being accommodated for maternity and post-maternity, the number one thing I heard was that they craved a mentor.
“We had special boots, bindings and boards for women, but really, women didn’t feel like a part of our community”
If you’re in a group where you’re the only woman, it’s really hard to develop that kind of informal mentoring relationship. The guys go out for a beer or they go for a few runs in the morning or whatever. So, we started a couple of different types of mentoring programmes. One was for women; pairing experienced women with women who were coming into the company. And the other one was every senior manager had to mentor a director-level woman for six months at a time.
Let’s say we had a woman in marketing, a director who we felt was really strong, but she needed help in understanding the finances more. We would pair the CFO with her for six months to give her that education. Those programmes were so successful, especially the more company-wide ones. After two years, about half the women who had participated had either been promoted or had moved into a department more aligned with their goals. It was so successful, that the guys said, “Wait a minute, what about us?”. After a few years of really incubating it and making it work, it is now co-ed and it is chaired by a man and a woman. Now women can be mentored by men and we have a real mentoring culture at Burton. We have something like 200 employees who participate, and that never would have happened if it hadn’t been for this small group of women who said, “We want mentoring.”
How do you think that we can to our best ability, promote equality in snowboarding?
What we realised was that it wasn’t enough to just say, “Oh, of course, we welcome women into our company. Of course, we welcome women into our community. We always have.” What we realised is that we had to be proactive, right? We really had to say no.
In order to get more women into this company and more women in the sport, we’re going to have to have special programmes for them, special training, special marketing, special products. I think it’s not enough to say, “Oh yeah, we believe in equality”. I think snowboarding is unusual, you know. In the first snowboarding competition in the mid-eighties, a woman competed. Two women competed; I think. It was a downhill; you just went straight down. It was like the scariest thing ever! I remember saying to Jake, “What are we gonna do about prize money for the women?” He was like, “Well, why wouldn’t we just pay them the same as the men? They’re doing the same crazy course!”.
“You need people from diverse backgrounds in order to be innovative”
If you looked at us on paper back then, you’d say, “Oh, they have equal prize money for women. They have team riders who are women. They’re developing special products.” We had special boots, bindings and boards for women, but really, women didn’t feel like a part of our community. It was much harder for them to feel part of our community and company. So, I think you really have to say, “We are being proactive here.”
As a woman, have you ever found it difficult to be a part of such a male-dominated industry?
I get frustrated that we talk about women’s leadership and I don’t see a lot of companies moving. I think certain industries are a lot worse than ours. Like the bike industry and things like that. I think they’re really missing out; you know. They are not going to be innovative. You need people from diverse backgrounds in order to be innovative. I always say, “If you’re only hiring men, you’re only pulling from half the talent.” You’re missing out on a lot of talent!
I think I get frustrated at the lack of progress in our industry. I think a lot of ski resorts are still very male-dominated. I think a lot of our big retailers are. I mean they’re getting better, and some are really good examples, but we are part of an ecosystem where you have brands, resorts, retailers and some of those things are very male-dominated. You’ve got to approach it holistically.
What changes would you like to see in the industry going forward?
I would like to see more females running companies. I really would. Running and owning companies.
More females to get involved in general…
Yeah! You know, I love women who get involved in action sports. They’re fucking badass, right?! They have a high tolerance for the dude stuff; we like the dude stuff!
It’s interesting though. I’ll tell you, if you interview any guy at Burton, they will tell you that we are a better, stronger company because of what we have done with women’s leadership.
“I love women who get involved in action sports. They’re fucking badass, right?!”
I think it’s great to see how much it’s changed in the last few years as well. I guess for me the frustrating part is, you know, kind of the rest of the industry.
But you know what’s cool? I think that women in this industry really go out of their way to mentor women who are coming in. It’s not about competing for jobs. It’s about, “Hey, let me help you.” I see that in my athletes too. I see it in the older, more experienced athletes really taking some of the young women under their wing and things like that. I think that that’s incredibly rewarding.
Have you got any advice for the next generation who would like to get involved?
I think it kind of has to do with what we are talking about with mentoring. What I like to say and what I realised at some point is that I had created my own, personal board of directors. I had people outside of my company, so they had no skin in the game, but they knew me, and they knew the company. Somebody that I could go to if I needed help with marketing. I have a couple of guys who I say to, “Have I taken the right direction in marketing here?”. I can bounce it off them. Somebody else who is really good at organisational structure and things like that.
I always advise women to kind of consciously ‘Create your own board of directors’ that you can go to for advice. I always say, “When my ass is on fire then I know who to call!” Because they’ll know me. I’ll say, “Hey, does that sound crazy?” and they’ll say, “Yeah, you know what. That sounds crazy”, or “Remember last time you did that?” Finding those mentors. Finding those people who understand you, who understand your values. That’s also my first piece of advice for women joining a company, or an organization is to make sure their values align with those of the organization. Because, even if you like the work itself, if you don’t feel like the company is aligned with what’s important to you, it’s always going to be a kind of mismatch.
It’s hard to represent something you can’t believe in.
Yeah. I feel like with my career I really did wake up every day and say, “How can I contribute to Burton?” I was able to find where my strengths match Burton, but it was always about, “What does Burton need right now? Where might I be able to contribute?” I think that getting out of your head makes you a happier person. Rather than always saying, “What’s this going to do for me?” really focus on thinking, “How can I uniquely help this organization?” That’s where I get meaning out of work, you know?
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