Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert is the first to admit he’s “the last person you should ask for career advice,” he said in conversation with Katie Couric at the conference South by Southwest in Austin, TX recently.
He describes himself as having grown up as a skateboarder in Cocoa Beach, Florida, surrounded by people focused on their passions: surfing professionally, opening surf businesses, or serving as a bartender to cover bills and spend their free time surfing. Gellert did not share the interest but made it his mission to find his passion and make it his life’s work.
Over time, Gellert managed to go from being uncertain about his future to packing boxes in a warehouse, to becoming CEO of a $3 billion brand and one of the biggest companies in the world. the fight against climate change.
His best career advice: ask yourself these 2 questions
Gellert says he wasn’t sure what kind of career he wanted for himself, but studied finance in college and later earned a business degree at the Florida Institute of Technology. He moved to Salt Lake City and took up skiing, then one day dropped off his resume with Black Diamond, a climbing gear company based there.
When he received a phone call a week later, Gellert was “convinced” that as an MBA graduate they would match him with a corporate job. “And they said, ‘No, we’d be happy to give you $6 an hour to come and pack boxes in the warehouse. And I thought about it for a long time. And at the end, I said, ‘Yes, I will.'”
As Gellert sees it, “The only consistent thing in my career is that I’ve always wondered what the next opportunity is for me: does it look interesting? Is it related to what really excites me?”
He was passionate about the outdoors, especially rock climbing, and believed that by staying with Black Diamond he could learn on the job and move up the corporate chain. Gellert ended up staying with the company, building his presence in Asia, taking it public and serving as the brand’s president before moving to Patagonia in 2014.
What he learned from the founder of Patagonia
Gellert became CEO of Patagonia in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic and racial justice protests erupting across the country. He recalls his first face-to-face meetings with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard a few months into his new role.
Gellert describes Chouinard both principled and entrepreneurial, “which, to be clear, can drive you absolutely insane when trying to lead a large, complex, global organization, but it’s so inspiring.”
“If he has an idea,” Gellert explains, “the first thing he does is take a step in that direction. He doesn’t necessarily plan the next 10 years. He just takes a step in that direction.”
Step by step, says Gellert, Chouinard will ask himself: “What did I learn? Do I still feel like I’m on the right track? .”
We created the world’s problems, and they cannot be solved without corporate responsibility.
Gellert recalls an informal chat on Chouinard’s back porch that would set the tone for his new job: “One of the things he said was, ‘Hey, we need to figure out the future owner of this business.’ And I thought, ‘Now is the perfect time to do this in the middle of a pandemic when we have 27 other things flying,’ Gellert said.
Gellert jokes that he hoped Chouinard might lose sight of the company’s ownership transition amid the pandemic. But Chouinard continued to raise the issue of finding another owner and getting more Patagonia involved in conservation efforts. Two years later, in September 2022, Chouinard announced a plan to donate the entire company, worth $3 billion, as well as its annual revenue of about $100 million to fight climate change.
“We have lost the right to be pessimistic”
Gellert acknowledges that as a retailer, Patagonia’s business model contributes to climate change, but it’s important to minimize its footprint. The outdoor company has spent decades increasing the percentage of recycled materials in its products, supporting factories that pay fair wages and donating 1% of its sales to environmental causes. “We created the world’s problems, and they can’t be solved without corporations taking responsibility,” Gellert says.
He adds that it is difficult to reconcile the effects of the climate crisis with his work, but that he tries to turn his concern into action.
“I just feel like we’ve lost the right, especially people my age, to be pessimistic,” he says. “I think we’ve lost the right to sit down and say what can’t be done, and there’s no reason to hope.”
But it is also realistic, he adds: “Am I certain that we can solve the problems that we have created? I am not. I am sobered that my two young children will inherit a planet that I am. absolutely convinced will not be significantly the same as the one I grew up on.”
Still, Gellert said, “I will do everything I can, as all of us at Patagonia work to do, to create the best results possible and the best opportunity to redirect this mess we’ve created possible.”
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