Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert is the first to admit that he’s “the last person anybody should ask career advice,” he said in conversation with Katie Couric at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, recently.
He describes himself growing up as a skateboarder in Cocoa Beach, Fla., surrounded by people focused on their passions: surfing professionally, opening surf businesses, or bartending to cover bills and spending their free time surfing. Gellert didn’t share the interest but made it his mission to find his passion and make it his life’s work.
Over time, Gellert managed to go from being unsure about his future, to packing boxes in a warehouse, to becoming CEO of a $3 billion brand and one of the most prominent businesses fighting climate change.
His best career advice: Ask yourself these 2 questions
Gellert says he wasn’t sure what kind of career he wanted for himself but studied finance in college and later earned a business degree at the Florida Institute of Technology. He moved to Salt Lake City and got into skiing, then one day dropped off his resume with Black Diamond, a climbing equipment company based there.
When he got a phone call a week later, Gellert was “convinced” that as an MBA holder, they’d line him up with a corporate job. “And they said, ‘No, we’d love to offer you $6 an hour to come pack boxes in the warehouse.’ And I thought about it long and hard. And in the end I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.'”
As Gellert sees it, “the only consistent thing in my career is, I’ve always asked myself about the next opportunity in front of me: Does this look interesting? Is this tied to what I’m really passionate about?”
He was passionate about the outdoors, particularly rock climbing, and figured that by staying with Black Diamond, he could learn on the job and work his way up the corporate chain. Gellert ended up staying with the company, built its presence in Asia, took it public and was the brand president before he left for Patagonia in 2014.
What he learned from Patagonia’s founder
Gellert became Patagonia’s CEO in 2020 in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and racial justice protests erupting around the country. He recalls his first in-person meetings with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard a few months into his new role.
Gellert describes Chouinard as both principled and entrepreneurial, “which, to be clear, can drive you absolutely mad when you’re trying to run a big global, complex organization, but it’s so inspiring.”
“If he gets an idea,” Gellert explains, “the first thing he does is take a step in that direction. He doesn’t necessarily plan the next 10 years. He just takes a step in that direction.”
Step by step, Gellert says, Chouinard will ask himself: “What did I learn? Do I still feel like I’m on the right path? And if he does, he keeps moving and takes another step. If not, he changes course.”
We have created the world’s problems, and they’re not solvable without businesses taking responsibility.
Gellert recalls one informal discussion on Chouinard’s back porch that would set the tone for his new job: “One of the things he said is, ‘Hey, we’ve got to figure out the future ownership of this company.’ And I thought, ‘That’s a great time to do that in the middle of a pandemic when we’ve got 27 other things flying around,'” Gellert says.
Gellert jokes that he hoped Chouinard might lose focus on transitioning the ownership of the company in the midst of the pandemic. But Chouinard kept raising the issue of finding another owner and committing more of Patagonia’s to conservation efforts. Two years later, in September 2022, Chouinard announced a plan to donate the entire company, worth $3 billion, as well as its roughly $100 million annual earnings to fight climate change.
‘We’ve lost the right to be pessimistic’
Gellert acknowledges that as a retailer, Patagonia’s business model contributes to climate change, but that it’s important to minimize its footprint. The outdoor company has spent decades increasing the share of recycled materials in its products, supporting factories that pay fair wages and donating 1% of sales to green causes. “We have created the world’s problems, and they’re not solvable without businesses taking responsibility,” Gellert says.
He adds that it’s difficult to square the effects of the climate crisis with his work, but that he tries to channel his concern into action.
“I just feel like we’ve lost the right, particularly people of my age, to be pessimistic,” he says. “I think we’ve lost the right to just sit around and say what can’t be done, and there’s no reason for hope.”
But he’s also realistic, he adds: “Am I certain that we’ll be able to solve the problems we’ve created? I’m not. I am sobered by the fact that my two young kids will inherit a planet that I am absolutely convinced will not be the same in meaningful ways as the one I had the experience of growing up on.”
Still, Gellert says, “I will do everything I can, as all of us at Patagonia are working to do, to create the best possible outcomes and the best opportunity for redirecting this mess that we’ve created possible.”
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