Burton Snowboards CEO is funding employee trips to Women's March on Washington

Winnie Au

Burton Snowboards president and CEO Donna Carpenter has championed several women's initiatives at the Burlington, Vermont-based company.

Nestled within the 166-word bio of Burton Snowboards president and CEO Donna Carpenter is one sentence that, in the coming months and years, may prove to be defining of her 40-year career with the company -- if it hasn't already. "In 2003," it reads, "Jake asked Donna to make Burton a brand of choice and employer of choice for women."

Jake, of course, is Jake Burton Carpenter, who founded what has become the largest snowboard brand in the world in his barn in Vermont in 1977. He's also Donna's husband. Over the past 14 years, she has answered the call to employ and empower women at Burton, a company where politics and social activism are weaved into the fabric of the hoodies and snowboard pants it manufactures.

In the past decade, Carpenter has overseen the implementation of the company's mentorship program, its Women's Leadership Initiative and its bi-annual Women's Leadership Day in Vermont, as well as the launch of BurtonGirls.com, an online community "for girls by girls."

So it comes as no surprise that Carpenter, who has served on espnW's advisory board, plans to travel to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, the morning after Donald Trump's inauguration, to join an expected 200,000 people at the Women's March on Washington. Carpenter is taking her commitment to the protest a step further. On Jan. 5, she sent an email to all of Burton's female employees, offering to fund and lodge anyone interested in joining her in D.C. She closed the email by saying, "Thanks for being the most inspiring women in the world to me."

We asked Carpenter about what's motivating her to attend the march and the message she hopes to send to her employees and the new administration by, as she says, "showing up in numbers to make a difference."

espnW: Why are you attending the Women's March?

Donna Carpenter: It felt like an imperative. I've spent the last 15 years of my life working on getting more women leaders in our company, more women in the snowboard community and supporting female athletes. We've had an amazing gender diversity program here at Burton, and I was a very open Hillary [Clinton] supporter. That even got me into some trouble here in Vermont and at Burton, which is Bernie land. But I've supported Hillary for a long time. Doing what is right has always been in our DNA at Burton because we've been trying to promote a sport as much as a brand and make women feel important and part of it all.

espnW: Burton had a close connection to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Until recently, his stepson, Dave, was your global team director. How involved were your employees in the election?

DC: We had more than two dozen employees volunteering for Bernie's campaign, including my vice president of human resources. The election was devastating. I can't guarantee you there are no Trump supporters here at Burton, but as a whole, Bernie and the Democratic Party in Vermont really reflect Burton values and the values of Vermont.

espnW: Two weeks ago, you sent an email to the female employees of Burton offering to fund their travel to Washington for the march. Why was it important to you to support your employees' attendance in D.C.?

DC: I've been working for a long time on these issues with an amazing group of women who inspire me every day. I wanted them to have the same opportunity to attend the march because I know they were as upset about the election as I was. Vermont's pretty far from Washington, D.C., so I knew they could use hotel rooms. I offered flights, as well, but everyone is carpooling. There are about 25 women confirmed and maybe 10 more considering going. We're going to meet up Friday night at the hotel. Once they got over the initial shock, I've seen people rally.

Look, you can't choose your government, and you can't choose your family. But you can choose your tribe and your values, and we've defined what our values are at Burton. And they are in stark contrast to this new administration.

espnW: You mentioned Burton's gender diversity program. What strides has Burton made in employing women since the start of that program?

DC: We started as a small company and we were diverse; the sport was diverse. But we grew quickly and we were pulling talent from the ski industry and surfing and skateboarding, which were male dominated. We looked up and were like, "How did we get so male dominated?" We put our nose to the grindstone and worked hard and went from being really behind the curve to leading the industry. Thirteen years ago, we had under 10 percent female leadership, and now we are around 45 percent and my senior team is four men and four women.

The Trump election felt like a slap in the face. We were getting ready to celebrate our first female president. We had the champagne picked out.

espnW: How important is social activism to you? To Burton as a company?

DC: It's in our DNA. Businesses see the impact of climate change. Obviously we do. I'm on the board at POW [Protect Our Winters] and they are amazing because they use the athletes to leverage the senators. We also belong to BICEP [Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy]. We are leading our industry in sustainability. But you can only do so much as one company. We haven't passed a toxic chemical law on the federal level in 30 years or so. On immigration, we need workers.

There is such strong evidence that gender diversity makes a company better and companies get that, so they won't let the federal government take these big steps backwards. Look at North Carolina and businesses that are saying, "We won't move there if you are going to discriminate." It's going to be businesses driving these social issues.

espnW: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, people were sharing on social media one of his most famous quotes: "If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward." How are you moving forward?

DC: We are going to continue to be a voice that works to improve women's leadership and sustainability, and serve a large immigrant population through our Chill Foundation that gets kids snowboarding who otherwise wouldn't have a chance. We've got to double down on our efforts to protect the climate, ensure gender equality, make a point to say women's rights matter, climate change does exist, inclusion matters. That was my message to the company at a meeting in December, that we might live in "grab 'em by the p---y America" now, but we can treat each other with respect and tolerance and be more aware of doing so than we've ever been. My last two words to them that day were "f--- Trump," and it seemed to resonate.

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