This C-level, African American, female executive landed in the outdoor industry almost by accident
But now she’s home.
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Victoria Payne describes herself in 2006 as a non-athletic, African American single mom who was trying to climb the corporate ladder as a number cruncher in corporate America. Her closet was filled with colorful silk tops, pant suits, and pumps. She sat in a cubicle and she was happy putting her newly-earned college degree to work. But her life started down an entirely new path when a friend of a friend called her about an opportunity as a controller at a startup company called Mountain Khakis. More than 12 years later, she’s certainly moved up the ladder and is the outdoor brand’s new chief financial officer.
We caught up with Payne to talk about her journey to the Jackson Hole-born brand, the importance of an open mind and inclusivity in the workplace, and her top goals as an executive.
What was it like to make the switch from a stable job to a totally unknown startup and industry?
That decision was really based on me saying to myself that if it didn’t work out, there was a high probability that I could find another nice cubicle job. I knew the pumps and suits would still be available if the startup thing flopped. I decided to take a chance on the Mountain Khakis job.
When I got there, I knew nothing about the outdoor industry. It’s not like I didn’t know that The North Face sells jackets. But I didn’t know that the outdoor industry was a thing. Making the switch was one thing and then figuring out how I fit in with this group of people that I never really knew existed was another. As a military brat with a mom who retired from the Army, I grew up around a very diverse group of people, but I had never considered myself an outdoors person. A lot of times, people at Mountain Khakis would—and still do—get together at their desks and just talk about skiing, climbing, and other things I didn’t know much about. I asked myself: How do I fit in with this group of people who I really don’t relate to that much?
What did it take to feel like you fit in?
The one thing that people never realize or are honest with themselves about is how much they play a role in making other people comfortable. While I was open-minded, it was also a big deal that the people at Mountain Khakis did not treat me as if something was wrong with me because I hadn’t ever been canoeing before. As I got to know them, sometimes I was the subject of a joke or two, but not in a bad way. They’d joke, “Let’s see if we can get Victoria to go whitewater rafting,” and I’m like, I’m not getting in a raft. It took me being open-minded and it took them saying, “Hey, we think this would be a cool experience for you. Come try it. We’ll sit you next to the guy with the most experience and we promise you’re going to be ok.” Being around a group of people that embraced me really helped. There I was, the only African-American at the company, the only person who didn’t know anything about outdoorsy things. They could’ve had a totally different attitude, but they didn’t. They were very welcoming, which helped me to be successful.
What kinds of outdoorsy things do you embrace now?
I’ve been whitewater rafting at the whitewater center in Charlotte, North Carolina—close to where I live. Last year, we had season passes. My youngest daughter was four or five when I started working at Mountain Khakis. She likes to hike and I like going with her. We have a big Labrador Retriever who also comes with us. I’ve also been a Girl Scout leader and done some camping, so I’ve definitely opened up to doing certain things, like going out with the Mountain Khakis team for volunteer projects to clear trails. I would never have considered going trailwork as a company event. But that’s something I’m now planning and enjoying with my coworkers. While it’s still not my thing to sleep outside in a tent, I appreciate the outdoor industry and the things the industry stands for much more than I ever knew I would.
We often hear how uninviting our industry is to people of color. Do you agree? What can other companies do to be more inviting?
I’m not sure what other companies are doing. I see a lot of people talking the talk, but I’m not close enough to know if they’re actually walking the walk. One thing companies should be doing is being more intentional about how they hire employees. People hire people that they relate to and if the industry is not diverse and the people that are in charge are not diverse, they are going to keep hiring people that are just like them, that have the same background they do, that went to the same colleges that they did, and enjoy the same types of activities that they enjoy. There’s a lot of talk about fitting into a company culture. The industry leadership has to let that go.
Then the other side of that is how these companies are relating to people of color or to the LGBTQ community. Everyone at Mountain Khakis is very inclusive, but when you looked at our website a year ago, there were no Asian Americans or African Americans or members of the LGBTQ community represented. If I go to Mountain Khakis website and I don’t see anybody who looks like me, I think that the clothes are not made for me and I think that the company would not hire a person like me. Now it’s much better. But it was because we were having our photoshoots in Boise, Idaho, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where there are less people of color. The scenery is great, but you’re attracting non-diverse ambassadors by putting out an ad in those communities. Companies that are intentional will budget a certain amount to fly in the people of color to Jackson Hole or other places that aren’t diverse. Saying, “Hey, I want to take you to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to be in my photoshoot because I really don’t think that there’s anybody that looks like you and you look amazing.” I don’t think anyone would take offense to that.
Merrell President Sue Rechner wrote an op-ed about how our industry needs to lean in to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion).
When you think about the future of the outdoor industry, what do you envision?
When I think about the outdoor industry, I think about women and African Americans and Asian Americans and everyone else that makes our country diverse. I think about Levi’s. They do an amazing job of being inclusive of everyone. Patagonia has also taken great strides. I think about the industry being more intentional about how we diversify. How many outdoor industry companies are at historically black colleges and universities or at all-girls colleges during recruiting events? Those are real questions that people in the outdoor industry should be asking themselves. Are we trying to recruit more of the same? As the industry puts more of a focus on diversity, I think that those practices will come into existence. I think as Camber Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, and other organizations become more prevalent, there will be more pressure on the industry to do better.
What goals do you have as CFO?
I would like to see Mountain Khakis become a more data-driven organization. Sometimes decisions are not based on actual data as much as they could be. The company has done a really good job of growing. When I started, we had eight employees and the company that rented our office after we left actually used my office as a broom closet. To come from that and be part of the company growing—we our own distribution center and a retail store—has been amazing.
Thinking as a small business is different than the way you think as a mid-size organization. Our new president, Jeremy Hale, is pushing Mountain Khakis to forget mid-size; instead, he wants us to consider how we become a global brand. My goal as CFO is to help us to think like a global organization and make sure that we have the resources in place to get us there.
What are a few Mountain Khakis initiatives that excite you?
We’re focusing more on how we give our resources back to land conservancy. We’re adopting a bison in Jackson Hole to help a museum. You’re going to see us be more pointed and more focused in how we support our lands. It’s been great to be able to support all these different organizations but you’re going to see us go from being kind of supportive of 15 organizations to being really supportive of five. We won’t be spread out so thin.
Mountain Khakis’ design and inspiration are native to Jackson Hole, so the West is typically represented in our advertising. What you’re going to see going forward is Mountain Khakis appealing to the rest of the country as well. You’re going to see Mountain Khakis on some beaches, people wearing Mountain Khakis just sitting by a fireplace in their house in the suburbs because those people are also wearing outdoor lifestyle brands. What does Mountain Khakis look in Florida or Texas? But we’ll always stick to our roots.