Emmy Award winning filmmaker and author and member of National Geographic's Adventure Hall of Fame, Ridgeway has transformed Patagonia's approach to marketing and sustainability, starting with the contrarian one page ad "Don't buy that jacket." in the New York Times, encouraging consumers to reuse, recycle and repair their still functional garments. Corporate America is not only watching, but many are following his lead when it comes to conscious capitalism. click here for more.
When I first met Rick Ridgeway in the West Village in the summer of 2011, there was an awkward moment. On heels, I towered over Rick, who is only 5'2". However, I knew him to be a giant when it comes to vision and leadership...
Before joining Patagonia in 2005, Ridgeway had been looking back at a successful career as an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, author, photographer and environmentalist. To those who know him (or know of him), it is no surprise that Ridgeway - one of the most renowned mountaineers in the world - was crowned "the real Indiana Jones" by Rolling Stone Magazine, and that he received National Geographic's "Lifetime Achievement in Adventure" award. Among his conquests is K2, one of the toughest mountains to climb in the world, which Ridgeway was one of the first Americans to summit in 1978.
The next time we would meet was in the spring of 2012 in Ventura, California. Patagonia's chairman, Yves Chouinard, was leading the way through the company headquarters with its green architecture. In the middle of a wide-open space on the second floor, with a number of desks and chairs strewn with Patagonia product line samples, sat Ridgeway amongst his team. Most of his teammates were in their twenties and thirties and, like Ridgeway, exuded that aura of fun-loving outdoor buffs. The entire bunch seemed to be right in their element in this privately held company where it seems that job descriptions are mostly authored by employees themselves, rather than the HR department.
As Patagonia's Vice President of Environmental Initiatives, Rick Ridgeway, together with his team, focuses on creating a blueprint for green business, and they have become a role model across many industries. He leads the company's environmental grant-making, internal and external environmental education, and environmental initiatives including Freedom to Roam (a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to protect wildlife corridors), the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (more than 60 of the world's leading apparel and footwear companies partnering to develop standardized metrics for sustainability), and Common Threads (a partnership with customers to take mutual responsibility for the full lifecycle of apparel and footwear).
Since Ridgeway started with the company, Patagonia has taken back 45 tons of clothing for recycling and made 34 tons into new clothes. On the people side, Ridgeway has initiated two additional programs allowing employees to take paid time off in general, and in particular to devote two weeks to volunteer for environmental groups - fully paid.
a difficult childhood
Born in Orange County, California, in 1949, Ridgeway was eight-years-old when his family relocated to a rural area near Santa Anna, dominated by orange groves and mountains. His father, who had bought his first scuba diving equipment from Jacques Cousteau, owned a shop selling diving equipment, including a camera housing for underwater filming. Sharing his father's passion for the sea, Ridgeway would accompany him on sailing excursions to test gear.
His mother, meanwhile, stayed home, and Ridgeway's childhood was difficult, as his parents were far from being soul mates. His father left his mother when Ridgeway was 13-years-old. And while his brother stayed behind, Ridgeway decided to follow his father, albeit not for long: "My father was very irresponsible. Shortly after leaving my mom, he abandoned me." Barely 14-years-old, Rick secured a job and stayed with friends for a while. Eventually, he decided to go back to live with his mother to finish high school.
Over the course of the few years of him being gone from home, the orange groves and the wild riverbeds he had known and loved so much had been replaced by suburban developments. Longing for the solace of nature, he started going up the mountains, exploring remote places alone: "None of my friends at the time shared my passion about wilderness. It was there that I found my own personal comfort, helping me deal with a sense of dislocation I had experienced as part of my father's abandonment."
As he went farther and higher into the mountains on each trip, Ridgeway found that altitude gave him not only solace, but also purpose. Soon, he bought a book on climbing and began to teach himself: "My mother did not like the idea of me being out there all alone, but she had the wisdom to let me do it anyway." Upon high school graduation, Ridgeway's mother used the little savings she had to pay for her son to go to mountaineering school. It marked the launch of Ridgeway's lifelong mountaineering career, meeting kindred spirits and forging deep connections for life. To this day, with his father long gone and the loss of his brother to Aids in 1990, Ridgeway and his mother, who is now in her mid eighties, continue to have a strong bond: "I am tremendously grateful to her." He reflects.
Ridgeway almost died climbing K2 thirty years ago, and yet he would do it again, considering what he gained from this experience: "It sounds almost banal, but just the lesson of learning how much you can gain from identifying a goal and sticking to it, was transformative for me. It gave me a tool to use in my day-to-day to life. It gave me the self-awareness and confidence to believe that if you have a good idea, develop a strategy, work your butt off and never give up, then you almost always make it. We all know this, but to internalize this emotionally is so much more powerful than to simply reflect on it intellectually."
Now he is a father of three grown children with adventurous spirits themselves, and he seeks to find ways to give them the same lessons without all the risks: "When it comes to my children, it is difficult for me to endorse the type of experiences I have sought out. I am not sure I have the strength to follow what my mother did and let them completely run free."
This does not mean that Ridgeway was reckless, not when it comes to mountaineering and not when it comes to every day life. He vividly remembers another peak, in Peru, where he was using a new route on a mountain that had only once been ascended before: "There was six of us starting out, and after an arduous climb, only two of us were left. There was one section of ice left to go to the top, but we ran out of equipment to anchor us, and my climbing buddy was losing his confidence. I ordered him to go down, and we both retreated. We could both have died easily. We were risking too much." Pausing briefly, he goes on: "I think about this decision on a regular basis and every time I confirm my choice - I think I made the right choice. As a leader, you need to know when you take the wrong path and stop."
whistle while you work
Listening to his inner compass has served Ridgeway well, not least when it came to his decision to join Patagonia after a lifetime of running his own show as an entrepreneur. "When the offer was on the table, I remember going over Patagonia's one-of-a-kind mission statement." This runs:
Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business
to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
Even though he could have made more money elsewhere, Ridgeway was intrigued and decided to go down this path and follow his intuition, despite having no particular idea as to where this direction might lead him. He reflects: "We all have forks in the road. And it is important to listen to what our gut tells us, particular if it is a major decision."
And it was not that there were no bumps in the road. When he first joined Patagonia, he was head of marketing and sustainability, and about 80 people reported to him: "I did okay, but I wasn't that great at managing people." Ridgeway persisted in his role for a couple of years, and then decided it was time to hand marketing and the majority of the people decisions over to someone else. And he hasn't looked back, as he shares with characteristic candor: "If I get involved, I mess things up. I don't need to manage."
By closing that door, he was able to fully focus on what he knew to be his sweet spot, where his personal passion, strengths and capacity to offer value to others came together: developing a vision and new ideas for initiatives on sustainability and integrating these into the overall company strategy: "It took a while here at Patagonia to realize where I could add the most value." Under Ridgeway's reign some significant initiatives got under way, including "Freedom to Roam", a national campaign to promote natural corridors so that many of the planet's wildlife can move around in their original patterns to homelands that are presently blocked off by development.
Ridgeway's ability to focus on what he is good at and what he enjoys doing is not the exception, but rather the rule at Patagonia. The belief in hiring good people, and then getting out of their way to let them focus on what they do best, starts with Patagonia's founder and chairman, Yvon Chouinard, who for the most part only interjects himself when there is a need for strategic direction.
Chouinard, who started the company in a tool shed and who is known to take a break from work to go surfing when the waves are good, intuitively follows the right path when it comes to motivating his people, letting them experience autonomy, growth and a sense of purpose on the job. Ridgeway as a former entrepreneur may be more aware of this than some others in the company: "It is actually quite amazing, here you can really figure things out for yourself and play to your own strengths. It is not all that dissimilar to when I ran my own company, or to mountaineering."
While Patagonia's culture bets on an individual's strengths and skills, it is a culture that also is big on collaboration, as Ridgeway explains in mountaineering lingo: "Sometimes you are on your own, at the sharp end on the rope, out on the lead, but if you fall the others will catch you."
Different from so many consumer goods firms, when Patagonia sends out promotional emails with their latest gear and gives their email the headline "whistle while you work", chance are that they truly walk the talk...
matters of consequence
Chouinard and Ridgeway are more than colleagues at Patagonia. Their bond has sustained decades of shared mountaineering adventures, including a near death experience with an avalanche that has influenced how they lead Patagonia: "All we have is the time on the clock in front of us. We need to appreciate the gift." Ridgeway reflects as he looks back. "And while many of us know this in theory, when you learn it through an emotionally stressful event, it never leaves you. Every few years Yvon and I talk about this experience and we remind each other that we are on borrowed time and that we have the responsibility to use it wisely."
This near death experience also significantly shaped Ridgeway's personal view of the world. He has been married for thirty years to Jennifer and, looking at the couple from the outside, these two people could not have been any more different when they met. Rick Ridgeway embodied the laidback, blond Californian dude who lived in a cabana at the beach with little concern about tomorrow. Jennifer, on the other hand, a tall, dark-haired and sophisticated Upper East Side girl, was traveling the world in five star hotels for Calvin Klein.
And yet, by the time they met, both of them had had very close encounters with mortality - Jennifer's first husband had died in a boating accident. "It was not a coincidence that I met Jennifer only six months after my avalanche experience." Ridgeway recalls. "We had both read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's masterpiece, The Little Prince. At one point in the story, the little prince visits a businessman who sits on his planet and counts stars, a man too busy to look up and take in the moment, as he is counting his riches. The little prince leaves the planet as he realizes that he has a very different view on matters of consequence. Jennifer and I have kept this question of 'Is this a matter of consequence?' as a reminder with us all these years, to remain mindful of what is important and what is not."
Only a few months after they met, Rick and Jennifer Ridgeway got married and started a family.
commit, and then figure it out
As much as Ridgeway is thoughtful when it comes to leading a life that feels authentic and meaningful, as much as he checks in with himself as to whether what is in front of him is a matter of consequence or not, he is not afraid to make a decision if his gut points him in a specific direction. He reflects that, "I remind myself that you never have all the answers before making what you know will be one of the most important decisions in your life. One of my mentors, Doug Tompkins, who founded The North Face and later Esprit, had a sign above his desk: 'Commit, and then figure it out.'"
When Ridgeway joined Patagonia seven years ago, the board was skeptical whether he would stay or leave within less than a year to go on another adventure or mountain climbing excursion. His response was straightforward:"I have thought about this. You talked me into this. Now that I will do this, I will stay focused for five years and give it my 100% attention." And this is just what Ridgeway did. At the end of this period in 2010, as he revisited what he was doing, he knew he had arrived. Not on the summit, but on the right path. And what could be more valuable than that when all we have is time on the clock in front of us?