By: Donna Carpenter
New York Times
December 3, 2012
I GREW up in Greenwich, Conn., and was lucky enough to travel when I was young. My family traveled to Europe many summers, and we skied different mountains in the United States in the winters. I was 18 when I met Jake Carpenter during a New Year’s Eve party at a tavern in Vermont. He was just starting what would become Burton Snowboards, and I was studying political science at Columbia University.
Donna Carpenter is the president of Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vt.
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At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred to Williams College in Massachusetts, about 40 minutes from Manchester, Vt., where Jake lived, and we married. My mother was hoping I’d marry a nice New York lawyer or doctor, but I wanted something different from the suburban lifestyle.
Burton is Jake’s middle name. He thought Burton Snowboards sounded better than Carpenter Snowboards, and he wanted to honor his maternal grandmother, whose surname was Burton. She had left him a small sum to start the company. We were broke initially and led a rustic lifestyle, moving our bed from the third floor of our house to the first to be near the wood stove when it got really cold.
After graduation, I had a job lined up in Innsbruck, Austria, with the Experiment in International Living, which offers programs for high school students. But I decided to become more involved in the snowboard company instead. Jake was getting inquiries from Europeans who wanted snowboards. Reading those letters, I realized that there was a big market for snowboards there. We moved to Innsbruck in the mid-1980s to establish a European presence, and stayed until 1989. In that time, the company grew quickly. I became director of European sales and operations, and then an American company contacted us about exporting boards to Japan, so we became global quite early.
After serving as chief financial officer from 1989 to 1992, I took 10 years off to raise our three children. I also opened the Harvest Market, a specialty foods store in Stowe, Vt., and hired my friend Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, as a consultant. I still own the store.
When I returned to Burton part time in 2002, we wanted to focus more on female snowboarders. In the early days of snowboarding, women were advancing the sport just as the men were. As snowboarding grew, however, it took on an image of a men’s extreme sport. I founded the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Burton, with the goal of increasing both the number of our employees and snowboarders who were women.
We added more women to our board and instituted mentors for our female employees, as well as a flexible maternity-leave policy. We also developed a Web site for women and girls called Burton Girls and created women’s Learn to Ride centers at 30 winter resorts worldwide.
For five years, we’d had an outside C.E.O., but in 2010 Jake took over the role again. Then, in 2011, he learned he had cancer. I had returned full time in 2010 to handle our international business, and after Jake’s diagnosis we decided I should move up to president. It was an intense time, but Burton is like a tribe. We were clear on goals and kept hearing a tape in our heads of what Jake wanted us to do: focus on the riders. We exceeded our targets that year, and Jake returned as healthy as ever.
We’ve always felt that our success has never been about us; it’s about the snowboarding world. We believed we were pioneering something that others loved as much as we did. People have this idea that snowboarding is only a young person’s sport, but that’s not true. Our older customers still snowboard and teach their children. Riders don’t stop snowboarding and become suits; they continue in the lifestyle.
As told to Patricia R. Olsen.