In 1938, a group of outdoor-loving friends had a problem: They couldn’t get the quality gear they needed for their adventures at a price they could afford. They formed REI Co-op as a different kind of company, one that serves its community and shares its values.
For the 85 years since, community-oriented entrepreneurship has been a foundational force at REI, and that’s why the co-op makes significant effort to partner with brands that set out to empower with their products.
We’d like to introduce you to nine brands that are doing just that: putting people at the forefront of their visions, designs and contributions to make a better, more inclusive life outdoors. Whether they’re addressing the little details that matter or the systemic issues that create lasting barriers for marginalized people, these founders all started out by asking the same question of their communities: “What do you need?”
Let’s meet the future of the outdoors.
Many Voices, One Goal: Making Innovative Gear
Some high schoolers mow lawns to make pocket money. Sean McCormick, however, was already tanning leathers and selling fur when he was a teenager. He was a young Métis entrepreneur, and spent a lot of his childhood in Northern Manitoba visiting family, fishing and hunting. McCormick saw a future in the traditional hand-crafted footwear his First Nations neighbors and relations were making, an art passed down from their ancestors. Eventually, he started a trading post where fur and leather materials could be traded for finished moccasins and mukluks, but he soon realized the artisan shoemakers didn’t always have the stock they needed to meet the growing demand.
“I was very naive as a young person,” he says—but he was determined. Though he had no business background, he took a nine-month crash course for Indigenous entrepreneurs, convinced the bank to lend him money and started Manitobah Mukluks in 1997, when he was just 23. While McCormick might gently tease himself about his young ambitions now, he knows that he had set out to make good on a lifelong belief that Indigenous people should be in control of their own fate, culture and economy.
Now, Manitobah has grown into a thriving company with Indigenous roots that celebrates the beauty of Indigenous culture, selling traditional and traditionally inspired mukluks, moccasins, and other footwear and apparel. “We have tens of thousands of years of history in this footwear,” McCormick says. “I think we’re sharing some of the best footwear in the world.”
For Manitobah, it’s just as important to share and uplift Indigenous arts and culture. The company’s Manitobah Storyboot School, for example, offers youth free Indigenous-taught courses about ancestral trades and arts. Manitobah also hosts an online Indigenous Market platform, where Native artists can sell art directly and receive 100% of the profits.
“One thing we’re always taught as Indigenous people is the importance of relationships with the land, people and all living things,” says Daman Morissette, director of social impact at Manitobah. “We have a responsibility to create opportunities and empower the next generation of Indigenous change-makers.”
The brand is planning for that future, working toward formal mentorship programs and educational workshops for both employees and Indigenous entrepreneurs. It’s also committed to continue adapting to Indigenous artists’ needs. These aren’t just side projects for the Manitobah team—they’re the brand’s driving force. McCormick himself recently shifted his title from CEO to chief impact officer as he focuses on those efforts.
“The business was always an Indigenous entrepreneur working with Indigenous footwear with a whole bunch of other Indigenous people,” McCormick says. “That worldview has always informed all of our decisions. We couldn’t separate the two.”
Manitobah exemplifies the spirit and significance of community-centered entrepreneurship and joins eight other new-to-REI brands all built with a similar mission of creating gear with a values-first approach. The proof is in the products: high-quality items meeting needs that have too long been ignored—and doing it with style.
Finding the Missing Pieces
Designing gear based on customers’ needs is common sense, right? But it’s not necessarily common practice—especially when your customers are not your own community. Case in point: Companies producing everything from pens to cars have long been known to “shrink it and pink it,” simply downsizing men’s products and marketing them to women in more stereotypically feminine colorways.
Brittany Coleman spent years working with apparel brands, where she saw plenty of shrinking and pinking. Frustrated and seeking something more genuine, she left the corporate climb to start something new. She dreamed of involving women from start to finish in developing the products that they need, so in 2019 she launched the sock brand ToughCutie, selling comfort-focused hiking socks by and for women.
Starting out, Coleman’s team surveyed women about hiking socks: what works, what doesn’t and what the current sock market is missing. They drew on their own expertise to start filling the gaps. “We really see ourselves inventing on behalf of our customers,” Coleman says. The resulting hiking sock lineup aims to give women exactly what they want, like a flat toe seam that doesn’t rub and moisture-wicking merino wool, plus technical details they didn’t know they needed: targeted cushioning, mesh ventilation panels through the top of the foot, constructed ankles to prevent the socks from slipping down and 360-degree arch support that Coleman says “feels like getting a hug on your feet.” Her innovative approach and women-led supply chain helped her secure a spot in this year’s REI Co-op Path Ahead Ventures Navigate Program, which provides funding, mentorship and curated programming for emerging Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x and AAPI communities entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry.
Another victim of shrinking and pinking has been women’s running shoes—but there, it turns out, the mold needed to be broken altogether.
Allyson Felix, the most decorated female track and field athlete in Olympic history, left longtime sponsor Nike in 2019 when the brand threatened to cut her pay by 70% and refused to offer contract protections after she became pregnant. Upon leaving, Felix built a design team and set out to make a new racing spike, but discovered that many women’s running shoes are based on men’s lasts, the foot-shaped mold around which a shoe is built.
Many things can go wrong without specifically designed lasts. For example, women tend to have a narrower foot and heel than men, and using a male last can create extra room, causing slippage, blisters and hampered performance.
In response, Felix and her brother Wes established Saysh in 2021, to develop women’s shoes made on appropriate lasts. Lauren Phillips, vice president of partnerships and merchandising at Saysh, says women are always shocked when they learn that most of their running shoes are often just downsized from men’s versions. “It stopped us in our tracks,” she says.
Products created without considering customers’ unique needs can have real consequences. Studies have found that women are twice as likely to be trapped in crashed vehicles because crash test dummies are often based on men’s average builds. And women are significantly underrepresented in medical research, which can cause them to be overlooked or mistreated not only in medical settings, but also when it comes to health and wellness products.
Mitchella Gilbert learned this while playing rugby for the University of Chicago. After suffering from recurring yeast infections, she visited a gynecologist who told her that athletic leggings were the problem. Lay off wearing leggings as a college athlete? That seemed impossible.
Now, with years of experience as an inclusive designer on teams at Lululemon and Nike, Gilbert is making it possible. She recruited 20 doctors and 200 women testers to collaborate on a legging design that takes vaginal health into account. This research led her to start Oya Femtech Apparel, whose leggings feature breathable, silver-infused fabric and ventilation panels that discourage bacteria and yeast growth. They also have a thin insert in the crotch to absorb additional moisture.
While she wants her patent-pending leggings to fill a gap in the market, Gilbert also seeks to supply customers with knowledge so they can make informed decisions. Just as a lot of women probably don’t know their shoes aren’t made specifically for their feet, many don’t think how leggings might affect their vaginal microbiome, due to shame or subpar education. Gilbert considers an open dialogue about vaginal health key parts of the Oya mission, whether through pop-up meet-and-greets or an exceedingly thorough FAQ. (Examples: “How does it feel to wear an insert?” and “Should I wear underwear with my leggings?”) Her dream, she says, is to obtain grants to continue collecting data on vaginal microbiome issues like bacterial vaginosis, which remain understudied. Gilbert also participated in the REI Co-op Path Ahead Ventures Navigate Program in 2022.
“At the end of the day, our goal is just to help as many vaginas as we can,” she says.
Going Beyond Gear
The outdoor and fitness industries have historically failed to think of their customer base beyond white men. While many companies are currently catching up on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, only about 1% of retail brands in the American outdoor industry is currently owned or led by people of color, and only 10% to 20% of outdoor businesses include women in top leadership positions. For potential founders from those communities, it’s often extra challenging to secure funding, find mentorship or build support in the industry.
“Any entrepreneur who’s a person of color knows that this is kind of a battle of willpower,” Coleman from ToughCutie says. “Just keep showing up. I’ve certainly felt that we are trailblazing for people coming behind us to not necessarily have to prove out the value that we bring to the table.” She aims to run an inclusive company internally and externally, hiring diverse models and “making sure you don’t have to hunt for the token person of color” in the brand’s team and marketing materials.
The sock company is also 70% women-led, and Coleman made a point of working with as many women collaborators as she can throughout the production process. The result: ToughCutie’s production chain is majority non-men. Coleman and others we spoke with for this story say that putting their values to work like this usually costs more and takes more time. But it’s worth it, Coleman says, not least because “100% of ToughCutie’s sales go back to supporting women in business.”
When values are the product’s raison d’être, it only makes sense to run the brand accordingly. For Saysh, daily operation goes hand in hand with systemic change: Felix’s departure from Nike prompted multiple companies—including Nike—to change their parental policies. But she built family-friendly policies into her brand’s playbook from day one, both for customers and employees.
“One thing Allyson truly fights for is equality for women in the workplace and support for moms,” Saysh partnerships and merchandising VP Phillips says. Baked into the company philosophy is a recognition that “just because you had a child doesn’t mean you should be at a disadvantage in life, your career, your finances, anything,” she says. That means flexible working hours and a generous, paid parental leave policy.
Saysh customers can also enjoy the brand’s first-of-its-kind Maternity Returns Policy: Anyone who’s bought Saysh shoes—directly or through REI—can exchange them in a larger size during or after pregnancy. “We know your body changes. All these women, including me, know you have a whole closet full of shoes that were your pre-pregnancy size,” Phillips says. “There’s this pressure to go back, but life goes forward. We’re looking forward.”
With more founders entering the industry to meet unmet needs and put actions to values, who would want to look back?
5 More Brands Putting Community First
alder: Hikewear designed by and for women in XS–6X.
The alder mission is to make outdoor apparel for women that’s better in every way, from size inclusivity to community-informed design to sustainability efforts in production. National Geographic explorer Mikayla Wujec and fashion marketing leader Naomi Blackman teamed up to make sweet styles—from fleece to leggings to dresses and skorts—with fabrics sourced from sustainably managed forests and bluesign®-certified suppliers. The brand even has a ReCreate Market where customers can buy gently used, traded-in products at discounted prices. In June 2022, alder was the first recipient of direct equity investment through REI Co-op Path Ahead Ventures, which is part of the broader REI commitment to build a more inclusive, affirming and welcoming co-op, industry and society.
ALES GREY: Footwear that marries Italian craft and bio-based materials.
Founder and global footwear expert “Sneaker” Steve Patiño put his years of experience into creating shoes that honor traditional craftsmanship and modern innovation. The old: durable and carefully constructed clogs with ergonomic footbeds and classic profiles made in Italy. The new: super-lightweight recycled foam materials made in an ISCC PLUS sustainably certified factory with zero water waste.
Beautifully Warm: Satin-lined headwear for natural and curly hair.
Winter hats can wreak havoc on natural and curly hair by causing frizz, excess drying and ruining carefully created styles. Why should anyone with natural or textured hair have to choose between being warm or having neat-looking hair? Amy and Michael Peters were frustrated by the lack of curl-friendly hat options for their daughter, so they created a range of hats that care for natural hair, including satin-lined beach hats and beanies that protect moisture and reduce friction that can damage strands, and backless sports caps to accommodate voluminous and curly hair.
Pescavore: Responsibly caught and easily portable seafood snacks.
Co-founders Clarice and Matt Owens found inspiration while traveling in Micronesia, where fishing families dry and season locally caught marlin as a nutritious, portable and more-sustainable snack. Upon their return home, they developed a line of tasty, whole-cut ahi tuna jerky strips in flavors like Caribbean jerk and island teriyaki. The fish jerky addresses the couple’s concern about the rapacious state of the global seafood trade: It’s made of wild-caught California tuna that’s carefully sourced to avoid overfishing, human rights and safety violations, and other unsustainable practices. Like Oya, ToughCutie, and alder, Pescavore is a member of the REI Co-op Path Ahead Ventures network.
Roam Loud: Premium activewear that puts brown skin first.
Roam Loud makes athleisure-focused apparel in comfy fabrics and bold colors, and the company encourages an equally bold life. Founder Toyin Omisore puts brown skin at the forefront in everything the company does, with fabrics and fits that complement darker tones and a variety of bodies, and design and marketing strategy that actively reflects the outdoor experience of people of color. Roam Loud donates like-new apparel to fitness, health and wellness organizations that primarily serve Black and brown girls, as part of its own social initiative called Handoff.