When Jen Gurecki graduated with a degree in Journalism, it was the pre FOX news and pre twitter days. Journalism was a legitimate business and industry; people heavily relied on the stories you told because they provided facts to the world. As soon as she picked up on how dishonest and corrupt it could be, she walked. There was no integrity in changing or omitting stories based on the interest of paid advertisers. She valued integrity too much to be part of that.
I walked away from Journalism when I realized there was no integrity in changing or omitting stories based on the interest of paid advertisers.
Like many people after undergraduate education, she worked in the service industry until another opportunity opened up. She earned teaching credentials but that didn’t last as she could not imagine being in the classroom 7am – 3pm five days a week. In her early 20’s everything she owned fit in her 4Runner; she drove to Lake Tahoe and has lived there ever since. She worked at ski resorts and fell into teaching outdoor education for Lake Tahoe Community College.
Next she earned a master’s degree from Prescott University in 2006 and gained immediate experience working at wilderness therapy group homes in non formal education. Relatively quickly she was recruited to direct long excursion wilderness programs for University of California, Berkeley. She developed the entire program and managed groups that embarked upon 40-day wilderness journeys in Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. For seven years she directed this Berkley program with responsibilities in risk management and fundraising.
In 2013, she left the program after the budget was cut 20-25% due to a change in the University system benefit rate. When her program had to scale down, she let herself go and moved on to focus on three new projects simultaneously: The first was her non profit, Zawadisha; the second was her for-profit, Coalition Snow; and, the third was beginning coursework in a PhD program.
When I left Berkeley after seven years, I could put my 60-hour work week toward starting a PhD program and building both Zawadisha and Coalition Snow.
When Zawadisha received funding right away to provide small loans to rural Kenyan women, it took more of Jen’s time to manage. After focusing a great deal of attention toward the non-profit, Zawadisha gave $85,000 in loans to almost 800 women in 2015. The program makes individual loans with a 95% repayment rate. Then in early 2016 Zawadisha conducted an impact evaluation and determined that their efforts contributed to a shift in the poverty rate (i.e., people were less likely to be living at under $2.50/day according to the PPI score which exhibited a 5-point improvement).
The future goals of Zawadisha are to grow into other areas of Africa so people can acquire solar, clean energy and water products on credit. People don’t pay for these resources up front. Instead, Zawadisha has developed a model where they pay on credit. The intention is to serve more people in rural Africa but it’s unknown whether an expansion will be successful. Jen has no idea what scale looks like or if it’s important because it’s never been done. The most important thing is radically improving the lives of people in certain communities and doing that well.
No one has ever successfully scaled in rural Africa. We don’t know what scale looks like or if it’s even important. If you can be in certain communities and radically improve their lives, there is nothing wrong with doing that well.
At the same time, Jen’s been building Coalition Snow, a company that ‘makes women’s skis and snowboards that don’t suck’. The company doubled with year-over-year growth and is entering their third year. They’ve been featured in USA Today and by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls campaign. Coalition signed their first pro athlete and is working on closing a deal with a national retailer. There’s a huge learning curve in the ski industry so Coalition is proud to experience this kind of incremental growth.
Coalition plans to increase their domestic reach to become a name brand that everyone knows. In the next three years, the goal is to have international distribution with product found all over the world in ski locations. Rather than being a company serving only the North American winter season, they will be seasonal year-round, chasing winter all over the world.
Coalition Snow is chasing winter all over the world.
Clearly this is one incredibly driven and focused woman. I was interested to know her number tip to maintain excellence and she said that you have to think about other people and you must be a creative thinker. Even though she would tell her younger self to get an MBA, she admits there’s no instructions to follow or way to teach what she does. She did not take the traditional path and as a result has experiences in life that other people don’t. She learned business the hard way and accepts that sometimes it’s okay to be just good enough.
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Photo credit: Jen Gurecki