REI: Making the Outdoors More Inclusive

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A retail giant creates a path to success for entrepreneurs of color

Traditional Muslim attire for women isn’t generally conducive to intense physical activity. Muna Mohamed, a Black Muslim woman, knew this from direct experience as a college athlete and youth basketball coach in Minnesota. Earlier this year she founded Minnesota-based Kalsoni, a company that designs culturally sensitive sports apparel for Muslim women and girls.

In launching her company, Mohamed got a boost from Embark, a program created in 2021 by REI, Inc., the Seattle-based sports and camping gear retail giant. The online three-month program, offered virtually and free of charge, provides BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) outdoor business founders with guidance, mentoring and $10,000 in seed money to get their early-stage businesses up and running. LGBTQIA+, women and disabled founders are also eligible to apply.

Embark is one of two programs making up REI’s $30 million Path Ahead Ventures initiative. The other, called Navigate, supports BIPOC entrepreneurs who are ready to scale their businesses but have little or no revenue and depend on crowdfunding, micro-venture capitalists or angel investors. The 16-week program is a mix of online and in-person learning.

Path Ahead Ventures is part of a broad set of commitments outlined by REI in 2020 to advance racial and ethnic equity at the company and beyond. “The outdoors are for everyone,” REI says on its website. “The industry should be, too.” But the reality is that it isn’t: Industrywide, founders of color still account for only 1 percent of outdoor entrepreneurs.

“Retailers, including REI, have sourced products in ways that have made it difficult for smaller, newer companies to compete — which has had a disproportionate impact on founders of color,” says Dan Kihanya, the company’s director of corporate development. “Path Ahead Ventures aims to fix that problem by accelerating the success of founders of color, whether they’re growing a business or just starting out.”

REI has also set a goal of adding 200 new BIPOC-owned or -led brands to its lineup by 2030. These additions would increase the number of REI brands with ethnically and racially diverse leadership to 15 percent.

The nation’s largest consumer co-op, REI—the acronym stands for “Recreational Equipment Inc.”—started out in 1938 as a single shelf in the Puget Sound Cooperative Store. Today the company sells a wide range of sports equipment, camping gear, travel accessories, and clothing online and at 174 stores nationwide.

What hasn’t changed is its co-op structure, which has been in place since the beginning. Nearly three-fourths of REI’s profits are invested in the outdoor community through dividends to REI members, employee profit-sharing and retirement, and grants to nonprofits. In REI, Carpenter Group sees a company focused equally on performance and purpose, resulting in a more profitable enterprise and a more equitable society.

In laying the groundwork for Kalsoni, says Muna Mohamed, “our mission was to empower women and girls to be physically active by providing activewear that upholds their values of modesty and instills confidence.” It was a compelling idea, as ingenious as it was practical. REI helped her turn it into a business.

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Brand Acts of Kindness® is a series from Carpenter Group that spotlights companies across industries that are living their brand values in addressing the unprecedented challenges facing the world today.

The series initially headlined companies assisting healthcare workers and first responders, as well as communities, businesses and families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also highlight brands taking the lead in supporting social and racial justice, LGBTQ rights, sustainability and the environment. Their stories show how innovation, resolve and action, built on a solid value proposition, can both strengthen a brand and help create a better world.

About Carpenter Group

Carpenter Group is an independent, woman-owned strategic branding, messaging and marketing communications firm that has delivered results-driven solutions to financial, professional services and technology firms for 30+ years.

Our broad cross-discipline experience enables us to craft brand messaging and carry it through to the channels that most effectively connect with our clients’ target audience, from editorial content to advertising to event marketing and more.