Wild Woman: Coalition Snow and SISU Founder Jen Gurecki
Jen Gurecki has been described as a “serial entrepreneur,” a fitting moniker for the founder of Coalition Snow, a company that makes skis and snowboards for women “tired of watered-down and pinked-up men’s equipment, and Zawadisha, a social enterprise based out of Kenya that finances the livelihoods of rural women. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of SISU Magazine, a quarterly publication that tells untold stories of the outdoors, and the co-host of the podcast Juicy Bits. The Arizona native is a one-woman powerhouse working tirelessly to make the world a better place for women and those voices less heard. Before she started her Coalition Snow empire, Jen worked in the outdoor industry at Arizona Snowbowl in the repair shop tuning skis. After leaving Arizona for Lake Tahoe, Jen worked as a guide and outdoor educator for the California Conservation Corps and UC Berkeley. Since then, she’s been working on her many ventures which magazines of note—Ski, Outside, Entrepreneur—have featured in profiles on her.
Tell me about starting Coalition Snow and SISU?
Jen: The idea for Coalition came to me in 2013. So, if we think back to 2013, no one gave two shits about women; there was no female-founder-girl-boss bullshit, women weren’t trending yet, and you could say the same thing about women in snow sports. Women were just not relevant and/or the industry wasn’t relevant to them. I started noticing on Facebook actually that professional female skiers were talking more and more about the industry failing them in instances like representation in the media. It’s always been a conversation between myself and my friends because we’re old. I’m 43 and we’ve been skiing and snowboarding a long time, so we’ve had lots of conversations around women’s equipment being watered-down versions of men’s. My whole thought on that was, if you make women’s equipment as watered-down men’s, then what does that say about what you think about women? How are women meant to be taken seriously in this industry or meant to be respected and valued as a significant demographic if the gear you make for them is a joke? It’s insulting for multiple reason—why do you think we don’t deserve something better? Having that experience and friends having that experience and seeing these athletes talk about representation, I thought it’d be an interesting social experiment to see if women made skis because they don’t. How would the industry handle it, what would people think, would people buy skis, would no one give a shit? I don’t know, it was sort of this big experiment. Now here we are 7 years later, and I would say that what has changed in the last 7 years is that women are trending. Women have been trending—that started a while ago—and the industry started to pick up on oh, we should acknowledge this so women became front and center in marketing campaigns which I think is fundamentally different from true representation and true power because we don’t see women in leadership positions enough. I don’t care if they’re in magazines and photoshoots, if they’re not in leadership positions there’s not a huge amount of change. And manufacturers were like ‘we don’t shrink and pink our gear’ but I don’t believe that. Manufacturers and brands are speaking much more to women and trying to address them as a real group of human beings so we’re seeing a lot of marketing, but I don’t think that we’ve necessarily seen any true parity in the industry which is why I think Coalition is important.
Those questions you asked when you started Coalition—how the industry would handle it, what people would think, would they buy skis—what did people think and did people buy skis?
Jen: Enough people have bought skis, obviously we’re still here. We have distribution with REI and Backcountry and Evo, that doesn’t happen without brand awareness which is a testament to what we’ve done as an indie brand in a short number of years. I think it’s too early to know how the experiment played out. Snow sports is a really difficult industry for anyone involved in it. It’s seasonal, it’s quite expensive when you’re on the hard goods side, there’s a lot of competition, and a few big brands that dominate the market. The rest of us are fighting for crumbs. It’s not an easy industry for anyone to be in. What I find is because we’re still around there’s a legitimacy to Coalition that wasn’t there when we first started. We’re not industry insiders, we’re not athletes, we didn’t work for other brands. I think that the outdoor industry as a larger umbrella of snow sports has really embraced Coalition because the outdoor industry at large is more diverse and more progressive. Even though it’s still really white, it’s more progressive while snow sports is still almost exclusively cis-gendered, straight white men and there’s a lot of confusion and fragility and unawareness amongst that population. I think there’s plenty of people in the industry that still think we’re a marketing company rather than people who know how to make an exceptional product even though if you didn’t you wouldn’t be making sales year after year. We’re also really good at the way we say what we say because it’s just 100% real. There’s no marketing team sitting around the table deciding what a campaign is gonna be. We’re just real humans making things for ourselves talking like we would to other people, it’s natural to us. I think there’s definitely more acceptance and acknowledgement in the outdoor industry. We’re just so outside of the snow sports industry, we don’t really fit in. I think to the general snow sports participant, women in particular (and there’s also plenty of men who support us too), I think they’re just really pumped to see someone doing something different. I think that’s valued quite a bit.
Tell me about starting SISU?
Jen: Little known fact, I have a degree in print journalism. I went back to my roots over anything. I did this cycling trip where I cycled from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa which was a 70-some-odd-day cycling trip and had a lot of time to think every day in the saddle. Going into the trip in March 2018 at this time, Coalition was 4 years old and it was becoming really obvious to me that we were evolving from a product to a platform. Lots of people were engaging with us in a really positive way, but they might never be people who were going to buy skis and snowboards. Or maybe they’re the type of person who bought a pair of skis 10 years ago, they weren’t necessarily people who were all on our equipment, but they were heavily engaging with the brand. It became obvious we had sort of grown into thought leaders in the industry in terms of how we spoke about things, it was different than what other snow sports brands talked about. I realized if we really want to be true to our mission like moving people out of the margins and moving into the center of snow sports and the outdoors and honoring all people who love to be outside, as a company we had a responsibility to contribute to that. It just felt important to have a magazine where you could just literally have blank pages you could turn over to people to provide something really relevant and valuable to our community. It also created ways for us to create other avenues for people who may never be featured in mainstream media. It also seemed like something sort of complementary to the brand so we just went for it. There was research and plenty of work that went into it and we launched our first issue in Dec 2018.
And tell me about starting Zawadisha?
Jen: I started Zawadisha about 10 years ago, long before Coalition and SISU so I’ve always had this second life in Kenya and east Africa as I’ve been there working for over a decade. A lot of people wonder why I don’t just run the organization and the thing is I was committed to hiring an all-local Kenyan staff and making sure that they were managing the daily operations and the leaders in the business and that they were the ones essentially owning it and managing it. I didn’t want to be the white lady in the United States that went to east Africa and ran an organization when there are fully capable and competent people there. I built Zawadisha to work myself out of it. I’m still the founder and on the board of directors. The work we do is essentially being a rent-a-center for renewable energy, water, and household products. We distribute things like solar lamps and rainwater tanks into rural areas, specifically for women, and they pay for those items over time, like a loan for a product and when they’ve paid it off, they own it.
Tell me about your relationship to the outdoors?
Jen: I grew up in the desert of Chandler, Arizona. Where I grew up at the time it was very rural so I had an outdoor experience, but I don’t have the traditional narrative of what it means to be in the outdoors. I was in elementary school in the ‘80s which meant I could roam freely. There was lots of farmland and cotton fields so I just played outside. We would ride bikes, roll through fields, and try not to get bitten by rattlesnakes. We rode horses, we just played outside and in our neighborhood. I spent a lot of time outdoors but I didn’t start skiing and snowboarding until I was 16. Maybe I’d gone camping a handful of times. My dad and my brother hunted a lot, I didn’t go but I don’t think I’d want to go. Beyond that, there wasn’t a strong outdoor focus in the family. But in high school I joined the ski and snowboard club because it sounded fun and they’d take trips. We went to Sun Rise in eastern Arizona and I fell in love with it. I knew I was gonna go to state school so I decided I’d go to university in Flagstaff at the base of the San Francisco peaks and got a job at Arizona Snowbowl and worked in a rental shop and learned to tune skis when I was 18. I just snowboarded a lot and learned how to mountain bike and climb and lived in Flagstaff and fell in love with being in the outdoors. Most people would move to Colorado or Tahoe and for someone who lived in the desert, I was like, I’m gonna live by a lake. I moved to Tahoe in 2001 and spent 15 years there before I moved to Reno.
What outdoor activities do you like to do?
Jen: I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I don’t need to do every outdoor adventure to be a whole human being; I can do the things I like most. I road bike, mountain bike, gravel bike and then I snowboard and it’s cool. Reno is 25 minutes from Truckee so it’s not far from anything, I’ve got trails not far from the house. It’s definitely a bit of a shift from living in Tahoe and mountain biking out your back door, but it’s also really nice to be in more of a metropolitan area that has some diversity. The reason I moved to Reno is that I couldn’t afford to live in Tahoe. After that cycling trip, I lived in Cape Town for a while and I came back and had everything in storage and I had been gone 6 months and there was nowhere to rent for less than $2,000. I didn’t want a fucking roommate because I’m like, 40. But I had friends in Reno, Coalition is based here, and it’s a cool, happening place. I moved to Reno because I didn’t have a lot of alternatives and the last few years I’ve realized how nice it is to be in a place with a little more going on. But I’m also 20-30 minutes away from the mountains.
Where do you see Coalition and the brand going in the future?
Jen: There’s one new thing we’re going to launch this winter. Everything’s an evolution so we’ve had this Sisterhood of Shred Facebook group for years. There’s regional groups and I don’t know, I’m just kind of over Zuckerberg and Facebook so we want to divest in Facebook and get off of it as a platform so we’re going to be sort of launching a new form of community group for snow sports enthusiasts. There’s going to be a couple different groups. One thing that’s really exciting to me is we have a few ambassadors who identify as people of color. One person, they came up with the idea of wanting to have a specific affinity group for black, brown, indigenous, nonbinary women in snow sports. It was their idea to do this and I said, let’s do it. Another ambassador is an instructor at Steamboat. We’ll probably launch at the end of October. On the same platform there’ll be a different button for an advocacy group for people who are committed to increasing diversity in snow sports and are really excited to learn and act and be a part of making change. I don’t know how many hundreds or whatever people are on the Facebook groups. I imagine when we launch these we’ll be lucky to have 25 or 30 people come on because it’s a new thing. We’re not doing it to bring in tens of thousands of people, it’s to have a space that’s really focused and intentional and to work with people who feel the same way that we do about snow sports like, yeah, we love a powder day and love skiing and it’s fun and want it to be a better place for everyone. I’ve got some other things up my sleeve I won’t talk about yet. I just hope we have a good winter and the capacity to do some new things. The money and energy, I’m sure everyone’s feeling from COVID and our dumpster fire of a country, it’s just hard to have the energy sometimes.
What’s your favorite trail snack?
Jen: I try to eat a vegetarian diet so of course my favorite trail snack would be beef jerky or sausage because it’s greasy and salty and so good but I’m gonna tell you that this man friend of mine just turned me on to these portobello mushroom jerky things that are meant to be like beef jerky and they’re good. I might spend more time eating those although I don’t ever feel bad about eating some beef jerky or sausage because it’s delicious. That and a flask of whiskey.