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The Real McCoy: Outgoing CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy shares advice for women in outdoor industry

CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy wins OIWC honorary lifetime achievement award at Outdoor Retailer, shares tips for lifelong success in outdoor industry

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Sally McCoy womansplains the outdoor industry

When Sally McCoy was 10 years old, her father asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. “A ranger,” she told him, because it was the only job she knew of at the time that would let her work outside.

“‘That’s good,’” she recalled her dad saying at the time, “‘because it’ll probably still be a man’s world when you’re grown up.’ That pissed me off.”

CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy was the keynote speaker of the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition breakfast at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2016. Photo…
CamelBak CEO Sally McCoy was the keynote speaker of the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition breakfast at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2016. Photo by Lauren Danilek.

She never did become a ranger, but at 23, after a barrage of rejection letters from outdoor companies (some of which she still has), she landed her very first job in the industry as a mail clerk at The North Face, “at a below-poverty-level wage.” Five years later, she was vice president.

“She picked an industry, she picked a company, and she got in the door,” said Ann Krcik, The North Face’s senior director of brand communications. Jan. 9, Krcik presented McCoy with the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition’s first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award at the nonprofit’s standing room-only breakfast.

Few people have done more for the betterment of our industry than Sally McCoy. She’s held leadership positions at nonprofits like The Conservation Alliance, the Outdoor Industry Association and the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition. And although she’s too humble to applaud her own success, she has been a brilliant fixer and grower of companies. She turned Sierra Designs around in the early ’90s, in part by launching an innovative line of women’s technical apparel and sleeping bags built from the ground up, instead of the “shrink it and pink it” stuff that was common then. Both were firsts for the industry at a time when “women’s” and “unisex” meant exactly the same thing. Some at SD accused her of “ruining the company” with her new women’s lines, Sally recalled, “but when we made better women’s clothing and gear, we got better at men’s, too.”

Perhaps more importantly, Sally has had a profound impact on the people and cultures with whom she’s engaged her considerable energies. After nine years as CamelBak’s CEO, where she achieved the goals she set for herself—to grow the company and start innovating—she announced her resignation early this week during one of her companywide Town Hall meetings. “I started crying, and pretty soon almost everyone in the room was crying,” she said.

“It’s her personal approach to leadership,” says Shannon Stearns of CamelBak. “She makes an effort to connect with, understand and relate to every single person on her team.”

But don’t let those warm-and-fuzzies trick you. McCoy’s no-BS approach is legendary.

When McCoy was a sales director at The North Face and found out a male colleague was being paid more than her and not performing as well, she went to the president of the company and called him out. He explained the wage gap was because her colleague “has to provide for his family.”

“‘I can’t believe you just said that,’” McCoy said she told him. “’Do you realize that’s so unfair? And besides which, his wife’s a law partner. She makes more than all of us.’”

She got the raise.

“I was probably young enough and dumb enough to be direct like that, but if you know me, you know that’s sort of typical,” she said. Offering advice to women at the OIWC breakfast, she noted that you don’t get what you don’t ask for—so demand what you’re worth.

Sally McCoy. Photo by Andrew Bydlon.
Sally McCoy. Photo by Andrew Bydlon.Andrew Bydlon

“You always say what you mean and mean what you say,” Krcik said to McCoy. “I think we’d all be better off if [everyone] did that.”

McCoy spoke of barriers she faced decades ago and the immense amount of work yet to be done. The outdoor industry has made progress, but still falls far short of goals to have truly equal gender representation in leadership, marketing, advertising, targeting customers and building solid gear made outside of the “shrink it and pink it” mindset.

Studies show it could take 118 years to close the wage gap, McCoy said, and it’s an issue men should care about just as much as women. She recalled a recent editorial in British magazine OCC Outdoors, in which the editor called a panel discussion about the state of women in the outdoor industry a waste of time. It was “hogging some space that could have usefully been given over to a real issue,” he wrote.

McCoy was on that all-female panel, at the European Outdoor Summit. An innovation panel was made up entirely of men. When she brought up that dichotomy, no one commented. But then a man made the same observation, and everyone praised him.

It happens to many women, she said, both well-known women and those in entry-level jobs. She joked, too, about being “mansplained.” When she talks about climbing Mount Everest, for instance, men frequently give her advice on the best way to climb it—men whose only experience on the mountain comes from sitting in IMAX theaters with buckets of popcorn on their laps.

McCoy encouraged companies to take a hard look at the experience they require for promotions and hiring, because many managers (herself included, she admitted) demand more than necessary. These demands are a barrier in finding good talent, no matter the gender. She shared a quote from Yvon Chouinard: “I hire dirtbags, because I can take a dirtbag and teach him business,” she quoted. “But I can’t take a businessman and teach him how to be a dirtbag.”

McCoy closed by saying that she doesn’t want to be known as a woman who speaks for women, and offered seven steps to anyone looking to build a long, satisfying career in the outdoor industry (see below).

“It’s a time of incredible change and a time of great potential out there,” McCoy said. “We can only drive our industry forward with great talent.”

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders: Sally McCoy Edition

1. Leave everything better than you found it.

2. Know who owns your company, and what their goals are.

3. They can’t say no if you don’t ask.

4. Choose the company culture wisely.

5. Network. It’s OK to be transactional.

6. Set goals.

7. Care about what you do and how you do it.

We’ll be adding stories from Outdoor Retailer Daily over the next several weeks. This feature can be found on page 23 of the Day 4 issue.