Talent in our industry is hard to define, but easy to spot. The 26 people featured in this series show it in the way they approach their work, their lives, and above all, in the passion and authenticity they bring to the industry and beyond.
This story is the second in a series of articles about the industry’s most talented folks, of all ages.
40, Category Manager for water and cookware, MSR
Owen Mesdag is the kind of guy who can’t help but improve everything around him. He designed an early waterproof “gadget bag” for the first generation iPhone—before it even hit the market—and it was so successful that Amazon brought on Kindle-specific versions, and Cascade Designs spun it off into its own brand [E-Case, now part of SealLine]. “Owen is a tinkerer,” says Joe Mc Swiney, CEO of SOG and former Cascade Designs president. “He’s looking at everything around him all the time and he’s thinking, ‘How can I do this differently, what’s a better way to do this?’” Among his other successes? Halving the weight of the MSR Gravity Works filter by replacing protective rubber with lightweight foam, lightening the Basecamp Snow Shelter Saw by ditching the plastic handle, and using fabric panels in place of metal on the Snow Fluke anchor.
61, Owner, ApparelTek
If there’s a product design version of the triple threat, then Jane Ruth is it. As a designer who can draw someone else’s idea and also come up with her own, a prototyper, and a gear tester, she’s got a whole team’s worth of skills. Her clients include Patagonia, Cabela’s, and Carhartt, but she does military gear, too. “She can build any garment,” says Ruthann Brown, marketing services manager for Polartec—another of Ruth’s clients—who knows prototyping well. “There are a million designers who can draw a picture for you, and that’s the fun part. But there are very few who can actually make the garment, too.”
51, Co-founder & CEO, Good To-Go
For chefs at the top of their game, there’s perhaps no better skills throwdown than the TV show Iron Chef. In 2005, Jennifer Scism, who co-founded a four-star NYC restaurant (Annisa), was part of a team that topped the legendary Mario Batali. But it was backpacking—and its attendant meals—that changed the course of her career. In 2010, she took her culinary skills to Maine, where her husband, David Koorits, had been living. Determined to make a better “just add water” dinner, they started whipping up dehydrated meals with colorful vegetables; toasted, whole spices; and bold, ethnic flavor profiles—a far cry from most of the competition. “From the outset, she was a culinary star,” says Anita Lo, who co-founded Annisa in New York City with Scism. “But she has developed an incredible palate over the years. She’s a perfectionist and deeply passionate, and Good To-Go can’t even really be fairly compared to the competition.” Full stomachs at campsites everywhere agree.
83, Co-founder, Sierra Designs
Bob Swanson was such a prolific and influential tent designer that in some corners he was simply known as “The Tent Guy,” as if there was no other. As a co-founder of Sierra Designs, he was one of the pioneers of the outdoor industry, and his influence can be found in nearly any tent on the market today.
“He had a very creative mind,” says Sierra Designs co-founder George Marks, adding that nearly all tents used to look identical with only slight variations. “They were homogenized,” he says, “But Bob was able to maintain a sense of originality.”
After Swanson and Marks sold the company, they founded another one: Walrus Tents, which was later sold to REI and then MSR. Swanson finished his career as a freelance designer for Big Agnes.
Even into his 80s, Swanson never showed or acted his age. He was never too old to rough it. And he was always the life of the international trips the Big Agnes team took together.
“He was a wealth of knowledge and humble about it,” says Bill Gamber, co-founder of Big Agnes. “And just, flat out, fun. He was one of our buddies.”