Passion to Profession: Ali Kenney
Ali Kenney, of Burton Snowboards, shares how she started as a financial analyst and worked her way up to Senior VP of global strategy.
In this interview, Ali Kenney shares how she worked her way from being a financial analyst to become Senior VP of Global Strategy and Insights at Burton Snowboards.
Did you ever have an “aha” moment in your career? When/what was it, and how did it inform your career path?
I feel like I have an “aha” moment almost every day. I’ve always gravitated towards creating roles and proposing strategies for the biggest opportunity areas at my company (like Sustainability, Strategy, and Customer Insights at Burton). Along with that comes risk, discomfort, and the need to seek out new ideas quickly. Thus, I often find myself in new situations where I am constantly needing to learn—so I have to devour books, take courses, call friends across brands and industries to ask how they do things, and soak up as much new knowledge as I can. It’s a vulnerable, and sometimes scary, spot to be learning while also driving change, but it’s so enlivening. Each day, I have at least one big “aha” moment where I get smarter than I was the day before. Once I stop learning and growing, I’ll know it’s time to move on.
Tell us about a teacher/mentor/role model who has impacted your life as a career woman or outdoorswoman for the better.
Donna Carpenter (Burton Snowboards CEO and co-owner) has certainly had the biggest impact on me during my time at Burton. I’ve been lucky enough to report directly to her for the last six years, and she has modeled how to be a strong female voice while also living an authentic life built upon personal values. She has taught me basic career advice like the importance of having a personal board of directors and making sure to have financial and global experience. She’s also modeled the importance of having fun…. and we’re pretty good at that! We’ve developed a high level of trust and mutual respect for each other, and she helps me remove roadblocks, so together, we’ve been able to make massive amounts of positive change—like transforming Burton into a brand leading in the sustainability sphere, in just six years.
What is one piece of advice would you give your 22-year-old self?
Don’t ever stop seeking fun, but always work hard. Be kind to all living beings, and never lose touch with your values.
How would you describe the importance of the outdoors as a force in your life?
I crave the outdoors and fresh air/water constantly; moving my body in the outdoors is my life force. It’s funny, but I feel more grounded after sleeping a night literally in the dirt outside than when I’m all showered and dressed up fancy. I would be barefoot outside all the time if I could pull it off!
What is your “special place”—your favorite place in the world to be outside, and why is it important to you?
I love my backyard urban homestead in Vermont, the Pacific Northwest, any body of water or mountain, etc. But as the Grateful Dead quote goes, “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, you just gotta poke around.” Beauty is everywhere if you just open yourself up to curiosity and wonder.
What do you see as the most prominent/important active-outdoor industries trend of 2018?
We need to capitalize on the (finally) rising understanding that women are a powerful force. Over the last year, brands all over our industry have quickly elevated their women’s initiatives. The biggest question I have: What brands will do so the most authentically so that we further empower women versus just selling to them, placating, or decorating them?
What’s your first or most favorite outdoor memory?
When I was a young kid, I was always outside playing games and sports. I grew up in the middle of nowhere on a dead-end, dirt road in Vermont. We spent every day outside. I had a foundation of wanting to be outside and a love for fresh air. Now, my wife and I bike commute every day, and we got into backpacking four years ago. Every vacation, we go backpacking. That’s how we refresh. We don’t use watches or phones. We go by sunrise and sunset.
What drove you to seek a career in the outdoor industry?
When I’m snowboarding or doing something else physical, there’s no other thought in my mind. I’m focused on the moment and the terrain. Working for a company where that’s what we do, the connection to nature is one of the biggest drivers for me. I don’t want to work for a company where we make widgets. Even on the most stressful days, it’s OK because then we can all go snowboarding together. I bring my whole self to work.
What is your favorite perk of working for Burton?
There are so many! I love getting outside and snowboarding. If we get two feet of snow, the office shuts down. I’ve gotten to travel the world for my job and I’ve learned so much about other cultures. Burton is big enough that we have a global impact, but also small enough that if you have a big idea and if you’re passionate enough and build a solid case, we can do it. That perfectly aligns with my personality.
What’s your one piece of advice for women seeking a career in the outdoor industry?
Find a company that mirrors your values, then get your foot in the door. I came in as a financial analyst, making less money than I was coaching hockey, and that’s OK. I worked and put my head down and built trust. A lot of young people are taught to “follow their passion,” and that’s bad advice. When you start out, you’re not going to feel like you’ve found your passion because part of that is being a contributor. You must work at it. If you work hard and you’re a critical thinker and build solutions, you’re going to work your way up in the company, and that’s how you find your passion.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to have given back more to the world than I’ve taken from it. With all the food and resources and all the other stuff I consume, I want to have somehow made the world better in a higher level of magnitude. To have an overall positive impact.
This interview was part of an ongoing series with Backpacker magazine featuring the careers of women in the active-outdoor industries.