REI's former CEO puts his money where his heart is
What happens when the head of the world’s largest recreationalgear and clothing store decides to focus all his energy on gettingkids passionate about the outdoors? Dennis Madsen, the formerpresident and CEO of REI who recently retired after 39 years withthe company, is about to find out with the Youth Outdoors LegacyFund, a group he created to support volunteer-driven organizationsthat get kids outside.
“When I used to come home from school, I would throw down mybooks and announce to my mother that I was going to play in thewoods behind our house,” says Madsen, whose love of the outdoorsled him to answer an ad for part-time sales help at REI during hissenior year at West Seattle High School. “Today, kids come home andannounce that they are going to get on the computer. The wholeparadigm has shifted as kids look to entertainment as apastime.”
Madsen isn’t willing to accept this change. He’s worried aboutchildhood obesity and the lower activity levels that contribute toit. He’s especially frustrated about the way computer and videogames foster inactivity―games that are ironically based onphysical sports like snowboarding and basketball. “I’m glad thatthey are highlighting the thrill that being outdoors can provide,”he says of these games, “but I think where it tends to fall down isthe way it’s used.”
A way to build self-esteem
All true enough, but one might wonder why Madsen wasn’tcontent just to do his part by selling REI gear that, in theory,would inspire families to get outside. He was, after all, extremelysuccessful in his years at REI, growing the company from 1 store inSeattle (in 1966, when he joined the company) to 77 stores aroundthe country. So why the career change?
“I can’t imagine having worked for a better company and beingassociated with better people,” he says. “I want to replicate thatsomehow for others.”
Specifically, Madsen wants to reach “urban kids and inner-citykids who don’t have nature proximate to them,” as he puts it. Hisnew program will help pair these kids with volunteer groups thatmake it possible for them to experience nature in meaningful ways.For Madsen, this idea has powerful resonance: It was, after all, avolunteer scouting leader who got him forever hooked on theoutdoors.
“Pushing physical limits does so much to increase a kid’sself-confidence,” Madsen says. He has seen firsthand that childrenare looking for a sense of identity and a way to expressthemselves. That’s why completing a tough hike or making it all theway to the ceiling of a climbing gym are the sorts of experiencesthat help kids gain self-esteem.
“The outdoors supplies physical, spiritual, and emotionalbenefits to kids,” Madsen says. “It’s not the silver-bullet answer,but it is one answer.”
It’s an answer that Madsen is willing to bet on. His goal is tobuild a $5 million endowment, which will permit his fund to grantroughly $250,000 per year to organizations like EarthCorps, OutwardBound Adventures, and Trips for Kids. Madsen has kicked in $250,000of his own, convinced the North Face to match that amount, andreceived a commitment from REI for another $750,000.
“I am struck by all the tremendous passion that there is outthere,” Madsen says. “There are so many volunteers doing so manythings for kids, like my troop leader did for me.”
INFO: To learn more about the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund, orto contribute to its efforts, visit www.youthoutdoorslegacyfund.comor call 206/713-1821.
Start ’em young
Dennis Madsen is not a child psychologist, but he does play oneat home―his daughters are in their late 20s, and he’s alreadya doting grandparent. How did he get his children to share his loveof the outdoors? Here are a few of Madsen’s home-testedstrategies.
Start early. “I got my daughters into theoutdoors―backpacking and skiing―when they were 3- and5-year-olds.”
Let children choose. “Valerie is a beautiful skier, butMarcie is a cyclist because she didn’t want to compete with herolder sib. They each charted their own course.”
Listen to your kids. “Find out what interests them and takecues from that. What are their friends doing? Would they like to dosomething with their friends?”
Mix it up. “Expose them to a broad range of activities. Takea hike one day, a beach walk the next, visit a climbing gymanother.”
Keep it simple. “Especially for young ones, establish short,attainable goals, even if it’s just hiking to a tree beforestopping for M&M’s.”
Have fun. “If there’s a mud puddle on the trail, let themjump up and down in it. Get dirty!”