Berkeley Backpacking Biz - Old School, New School, No School

Susan Smith - First Days in the Outdoor Industry

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Alan Tabor: Anyway. So, get up to 1980-whatever.

Susan Smith: ‘83 for me. I started in ’83.

Alan: Right. So, how about before that.

Susan: Before that?

Alan: Were you like an outdoor type?

Susan: Oh, totally! Backpacking and skiing if possible… because that had been my dream for since I was young child and I couldn't wait to experience those kind of activities

Alan: Could you do those in high school or college?

Susan: No, Because I was in Texas in high school.

Alan: Got it!

Susan: And. So, there's no skiing in Texas.

Alan:  I used to climb water towers because there was nothing else in South Dakota you could climb.

Susan: My grandparents lived in New Mexico and, when we would visit my grandparents, we would drive through a little mountain community called Cloudcroft.  And from the highway you could see people skiing…and and it was a small ski area…but as we would drive by I was just in awe of…watching people have looking like they were having so much fun. So, it was you know from early on that I determined that these were the think kinds of things that I wanted to do. But, I had no access to them at that point in my life…

…but once we moved California then we started.  We discovered the Sierras and we would go up and do day trips, and then that turned into backpacking, and then we went with a friend who taught us how to ski at what Boreal. That was my first skiing experience. My first experience with the North Face was the factory outlet where we went to the factory outlet and ended up with a VE24.

Alan: And so, ‘we’ is that your siblings.

Susan: No, my husband.

Susan: And so we went into the North Face outlets.

Alan: And you were impressed that Nancy [Eisen] could could set up of a VE24 in under four minutes.[

Nancy Eisen: I was in customer service by that time.

Susan: But, yeah, we were really impressed with the VE24 so we walked out of the store with that. I mean it completely changed our outdoor experience because before then we had no tent. So, if we backpacked in the Sierras we slept outside and with these makeshift backpacks… and you know jimmy rigged sleeping bags hanging off the bottom of little day packs essentially. That was quite the experience. Once we had the tent that pretty much changed things for us and really before then I didn't even know about The North Face. So, that was my first knowledge of The North Face.

And then I went to DVC, Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, and took their apparel design class and got a got my degree and my AA degree there in apparel design.

But, once I graduated…and that was in ’81…once I graduated and couldn't find a job in the outdoor industry and that was where my focus was. I did try a few other places like Fritzi which was really big at the time Byer, that was also a really big company at the time, but you know nobody seemed to want to open their doors to someone fresh out of school with no experience.

So, I basically gave up and got a job doing something else. But, I was only in that job for, I don't know, maybe two weeks, when a woman that I went to school with…her name was Annette Miller and she had gotten a job out of North Face working for Penny [Thompson] in their production, grading and marker making department. So, she called me out of the blue and I gave notice.

But, not before I went to interview and Jan…Jan was the woman who interviewed me, Jan Fletcher in the design department…she was managing the design department at that time.  So I went and met with her and, of course, I had no experience whatsoever. But, I did have a few things that I had made to house our pole set from their VE24 so that Kevin and I could split that up. (He would carry one part of the tent and I would carry the other.) So, that was really the only thing that I had…

Nancy: That was your portfolio?

Susan: …which really tells you how simple and kind of sad things were… but she was so sweet, she gave me the chance. Now that was just to replace their head pattern maker, Sophia [Yu], because she was taking a six-week leave of absence.

Alan: Okay.

Susan: And. So, this was just basically something for me to get my foot in the door…and she hired me, I don't know why other than she was just a really sweet person, and I knew that it was just temporary. And I started, I don't know, the next week. So, anyway I gave my notice after being at the other job for maybe a little over two weeks and that's basically how my career at The North Face started.

Alan: Well and pattern making is not a slouch position!

Susan: No, and to go in replacing the head pattern maker when I had no experience whatsoever was quite the leap for me. But, I just I just wanted to get my foot in the door…any door…because I had sent my resume to Sierra Designs and they wouldn't even let me through the locked door in Oakland. So, I was pretty disheartened by not being able to break into the industry …so I was pretty determined to make this work. And I was absolutely thrilled. But, also just scared to death Yeah! because head pattern maker and I had no pattern making experience other than my training at school. So, so that was how I started at The North Face.

Alan: That’s pretty exciting.

Susan: Yeah, yeah, it was exciting. I was absolutely thrilled and even walking in was it was beyond your wildest dreams that you could wind up at the North Face with very little really to recommend you other than a couple of years of training.

Nancy: Well, and a friend on the inside

Susan: And a friend on the inside…without her I would I don't know what would have happened.

Alan: What one thing I learned just from talking a lot of people is that the figuring it out as you go along and kind of taking a big leap, or just trying to get in the door somehow, you know, and eight years later you're somewhere totally different from where you plugged yourself in…that is really kind of almost universal. Which I think is why it's such a great industry because it's all these people who are just like making it up as they go along and if doesn't work they try something different.

Susan: Yeah, right. Back then you could do that. I don't know that you can do that in today's industry world because it's changed so much. But, there they were willing to give you a chance. (The vetting process.) And that that just speaks volumes and if you listen to lots of people's stories…Mark Erikson story,  Dan Castner's story…I mean they're all very similar.  They just kind of happened to be there and then they took it and ran with it.

Alan: Yeah, I ran out of money in Oakland in 1976 and stumbled into a job doing throwing boxes around in  the Sierra Designs warehouse.

Susan: Weren’t you out here for the Last Waltz…is that…?

Alan: That was the first within the first three hours of when I got out of here was the Last Waltz.

Susan: Yeah,  but that's why you were on the West Coast was….

Alan: I was trying to live in New Mexico and we told these friends were gonna come visit…and we kept delaying the time and we called them up, you know like the fourth time, to say we're not gonna make it for Thanksgiving, it’ll probably be after Christmas. They said, “No you're going to be here tomorrow!” Because they had these tickets and we totally garbled…we had no clue as to what they'd actually said. So, we drove for like 20-some hours non-stop in Volkswagen with all our shit in the back seat going rattle rattle rattle.

Nancy: Didn’t you break it down to you in LA or something?

Alan: No, no breakdown...but we were in Kingman Arizona when the whole thing started…at like 11 o'clock at night.

Anyway okay. So, you then you guys start out where you're like just buddies…or was there was like a support network… Do you want to get into this this…is the part we don't want to talk about?

Susan: No, no. Well I didn't actually meet up with these guys until…I don't know…it was maybe a good six months after I had started I'm thinking because I was friends with Karen[McGovern] and then through Karen she introduced me to you guys and to Marilyn [Bishara] and Magi [Raible].

Alan: What's Marilyn's last name?

All: Bishara.

Alan:  I met Marilyn.

Nancy: You did? We called her the Queen. She was…

Susan:  …she was the Queen…

Nancy: She was the Queen,  yeah, of our little krewe.

Susan:  I think actually Karen introduced me to Marilyn first before I met you guys. I'm not totally sure. But, I think so…because we were on that side. Because after I had…I took my six week stint replacing Sophia while she was gone…but then near the end of that Dan Castner had been trying to create a position in the production engineering department. And he was…I didn't know this at the time…but, he was hoping that I would be able to pick it up and be that person that he could hire…you know once my little stint in in the design area was finished…and go over to the production engineering side and that's exactly what happened.

Sophia came back, Dan had managed to get a position approved in the Production Engineering with Helen Li and Lydia Lam and Kin Chan. So, I went to work over in the in the factory side…left the Design Department…and Karen's office was there because she ran the lab…so she and I became friends and that's when she sort of took me by the hand and introduced me around and that's how I met up with all of these guys.

Transcription Part 2:

Alan: Then did you go right from The North Face to Erickson Outdoors.

Susan: Me?

Alan: Yeah!

Susan: No, I did a stint of some freelancing in that time…because I had, also, had Dallas and so I went back to The North Face after my maternity leave. But, you know, I had been there for nine years and in that time period of taking off to you know have Dallas and then coming back…I think I took about a three-month maternity leave and I came back…the whole place was completely different. I couldn't believe it and I didn't want to work there anymore. So I left…I think I left in about November of ‘91…so for a couple of years I did freelancing and I freelanced with both…initially freelance with North Face but that didn't last very long…and Sierra Designs.  So I went over to Sierra Dsigns and worked with Paul [Kramer] a little bit…or I was reporting to Paul but worked with Cate Wallenfels.

Alan: Right.

Susan: So, I did some contracting there…and then,  let's see…then I was there during the time when everyone left Sierra Designs to create Mountain Hardwear. And during that time I basically helped fill the gap because all the key players had left.  So I came in.  I designed a few pieces. I finished up the pieces that had been designed and were finished and I helped push those into production. Got all of those going and in the meantime…. So, I worked a bit with Bill Sterling during that time period and they had the new Interim President at Sierra Designs and he actually asked, well…. So, I was doing that, but I was also freelancing with Erickson Outdoors.  So, at the time when the Interim President was about to step out, he actually asked me if I wanted to come in and be their Designer, and I said…because then Mark Erickson also offered me a position. Well, I don't know if this was a good move or a bad move but I turned him down as the Designer for Sierra Designs.  Which could have taken my career whole different path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This Story is part of a Series...

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Audio: Transcription Part 1: Alan Tabor: Anyway. So, get up to 1980-whatever. Susan Smith: ‘... Read Story
Audio Transcript: [Note - there is some overlap in this with other stories since conversation... Read Story
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Story Copyright
04/18/18