The great business icons who have gone down in history have one major thing in common: they’re enormous risk-takers. They don’t give a f*** about coloring inside the lines. They break new ground without permission. Sometimes they fight the system.
In the IDGAF interview series, I chat with business people who aren’t afraid to swim against the current or speak against the status quo. Together, we explore the downfalls, reality and hard truths in business today. In this interview, we’re talking about why playing it safe is one of the worst things you can do — and we’re not holding back.
Today’s conversation is with Jen Gurecki, who has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the 50 Most Daring Entrepreneurs. What makes her so bold? Put simply, she shapes her business around what believes in and puts women out in front.
Jen is a firecracker in the business universe. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Coalition Snow, a women’s ski and snowboard company that’s both made and operated by women. She’s also the founder of the social enterprise Zawadisha, which provides small loans to women in rural Kenya.
In addition, Jen is a co-host of the Juicy-bits podcast, a show that addresses the topics that women avoid speaking about in public, as well as the Editor-in-chief of Sisu Magazine. And, to top it all off, Jen is an adventurer, an activist and a risk-taker.
Jen has been in business for a little over two decades and has never sunk to playing it safe, even if that means shocking other people. And her history proves it.
In her early 20s, for instance, she started a company called Pantyline Productions. “Anybody who’s old enough,” she tells me, “will remember the Bush administration and the war. There was a lot of protesting. So, I started this activist business of screen printing panties that said, ‘the only bush I trust is my own.’” This was Jen’s first experience with sales — sending a message that speaks against the president of the United States.
Later, Jen started a social enterprise overseas called Zawadisha, which provides women in rural Kenya with lifesaving renewable products that improve quality of life. Zawadisha was her first formal business.
“Through my master’s degree, I was working in Kenya, and I was looking at the bottom of approaches to social change,” she recalls, “I always stayed connected to the group of women there who were part of my research project. I ultimately went back [to Kenya], and we discussed starting a microfinance program together.” Today, Jen still works closely with the team back in Kenya, maintaining her leadership role as the board president for Zawadisha.
In spite of Jen’s academic success, she ultimately dropped out of her PhD program to risk everything and start a ski company — Coalition Snow. The motivation was sparked when she noticed a significant shift happening in the snow sports industry.
“For the very first time,” says Jen, “professional women athletes were being very outspoken about the way that the media were representing them. If you think back to just six or seven years ago, a lot of women in snow sports were represented in bikinis or as models. And women athletes were saying, ‘we don’t want to be represented this way.’”
Jen explains that unlike apparel or accessories, hard goods companies, including skis and snowboards, aren’t usually launched by women. “Snowsports is a very male-dominated industry. Almost every single ski and snowboard company in the world has been started and run by men,” she says, “but we thought it would be this grand social experiment of what would happen if women stepped outside of their lane and did something that no one else did in the industry.”
Jen decided to fight the system and gave the brand a name that embodies a sense of movement, community and banding together: Coalition Snow.
“We thought it would be this grand social experiment of what would happen if women stepped outside of their lane and did something that no one else did in the industry”
Although Jen didn’t create a totally new product, she found a new take on an existing one: “What’s really fundamental to the success of launching a business is having a company that stands for something, has a personality, has a voice, and is more like a human being than a corporation.”
Coalition Snow’s demographic primarily consists of women between the ages of 24 and 44 years old. Their lifestyle is “active outdoorsy”, they’re college-educated, and they mainly live on the West Coast, East Coast and in the Rockies.
“They tend to lean more toward a liberal perspective on social issues,” Jen emphasizes, “I know my demographic, and I’m going to talk to them. I’m not going to be afraid about posting something about feminism, or talking about politics, or talking about social issues because I know that that’s something that my community actually wants to engage in. So, it’s not that you’re purposely trying to alienate people as much as you’re really trying to speak to the people who are your community.”
“I know my demographic… I’m not going to be afraid about posting something about feminism, or talking about politics, or talking about social issues…”
I ask Jen to provide some examples of not playing it safe and not being afraid to upset anyone in her business practice.
“Today is October 11, and if you look at our Instagram post from October 10, the image says, ‘Bitch, you got this.’ We’re using the word bitch as the main feature of our Instagram image. And yeah, a lot of brands will not use what they consider to be offensive language, but my community doesn’t see it as such, they see that as empowering. They’re empowered by that term. And they’re empowered by that messaging.”
Another way Jen doesn’t back down? Her company’s ‘free the nip Friday’ Instagram posts. “We’ve always been a feminist brand, we’ve always been outspoken, we’ve always promoted the equal treatment of women. We can take the risk with photos of nipples because the messaging is true to who we are as a brand.”
Although “freeing the nipple” on Insta resulted in many people unfollowing Coalition Snow, their engagement shot sky-high. “I looked at that as if we were ‘cleaning house’. We gained a lot of new followers, and those people, I believe, are more core to our brand than the people who unfollowed us. So, posting images of nipples was a risk, but we knew why we were doing it.”
Many companies struggle to find their company’s voice or understand what they stand for (My guess? They’re playing it safe). But Jen believes that knowing what your brand stands for is incredibly crucial to success. And in fact, it’s due to their voice and authentic message that Coalition Snow manages to stand out from its competitors. After all, their messages not only emphasize who they are, but that they’re also “super real and come from a place like absolute truth and honesty.”
#daring #entrepreneur Jen Gurecki @YoGurecki: “We’re comfortable with making other people uncomfortable”
Even though people get pissed off about the things Coalition Snows does to the point that the brand is frequently told to f*** off, Jen stays truthful to herself and is frank in stating her opinion.
“It’s one of the risks you take to always come from a place like elevating the status of women.” After all, risk-takers aren’t afraid of getting negative feedback or unfortunate outcome. “We’re comfortable with making other people uncomfortable,” she tells me.
According to Jen, if you’re comfortable with playing it safe, then you shouldn’t be in business: “If the risk isn’t inherently part of your person, your makeup, your DNA, then you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur.” She asserts, “We no longer live in a time where you can be agnostic to the social and environmental issues that this world is facing. With a business, you have an incredible opportunity as a platform to make a positive change in this world and you should be doing that.”
If you’re a business person and you feel that you’re pushing boundaries in your company or daring to do something against its system, then send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and make your voice heard.