For companies looking for ways to engage more meaningfully with their external audiences and build bridges with the marginalized communities they serve, mentorship programs offer enormous opportunities to make an impact. When designed well, these programs not only help individuals reach their potential but can also help you establish your organization as an authentic and inclusive leader. The key is having the right approach, otherwise you’ll find the genuineness of your efforts in question.
One company that has connected the dots between its community mentorship program and its company mission of “elevating all people to create more justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion in this world” is the performance footwear brand SCARPA. While the company does not have a dedicated chief diversity officer, SCARPA’s North America DEI initiatives are led by Kim Miller, CEO of SCARPA, North America, and Melanie Hood, director of marketing and communications for SCARPA, North America. Through thoughtful steps, Miller, Hood, and their team formalized and launched the SCARPA Athlete Mentorship Initiative (SAMI) in 2020, which aims to create an inclusive space for climbing and outdoor athletes from marginalized communities and help these athletes reach their full potential.
“The biggest thing we wanted to make sure was that we weren’t tokenizing anyone,” says Hood. “We didn’t want to bring an athlete on just because of the community that they were part of.”
Instead, SCARPA chose mentees who were just a few steps away from achieving greatness in their sport and in their community — mentees such as Eddie Taylor who, along with a group of African Americans, was able to create and get funding for the Full Circle Everest Expedition, which became the first all-Black group to summit Mount Everest.
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In the program’s first year, an athlete mentor was paired with a mentee, who then worked together to reach the mentee’s athletic and personal goals. In the second year of the program, SCARPA incorporated a capstone project — a goal the mentee sets at the beginning of the program to achieve by the program’s conclusion. Other changes to year two include a greater support network. Each mentee is paired with not only an athlete mentor but also a capstone captain and a support mentor from last year’s cohort. By bridging last year’s class of mentees with the new group, SCARPA is expanding the connections among athletes from marginalized communities and building on the program’s momentum.
Read on for an edited excerpt of our exclusive interview with Melanie Hood about the strategic design and resulting impacts of the SCARPA Athlete Mentorship Initiative.
Senior Executive Media: What inspired the SCARPA Athlete Mentorship Initiative?
Melanie Hood: I came to SCARPA about five years ago, and one of the things I talked a lot about with our CEO Kim Miller was diversity in sports… how to diversify the sports that we serve, both in gender and in race, but also in the LGBTQ community and the disabled community. We brought on amazing athletes, like Nikki Smith who is trans; Mo Beck who is disabled, she’s missing an arm. We already had Sam Elias, Sean McColl, Madaleine Sorkin, who were all part of what I would consider a historically marginalized community. But there just weren’t that many more athletes out there. We didn’t want to bring someone on to our ambassador team or our athlete team just because of the community that they’re in without keeping the standard of where our athletes are, so the idea was born: We need to really help more athletes of historically marginalized communities get to that level.
We worked with a steering committee of five athletes who were all part of historically marginalized communities, some of which I just named. A lot of the discussion was about getting out with people who are already at that level to learn those last steps — if you’re a really good climber, how do you become a pro climber? We created the SCARPA Athlete Mentorship Initiative and paired 31 athletes with 31 mentees from historically marginalized communities to help them reach that next level.
“We created the SCARPA Athlete Mentorship Initiative and paired 31 athletes with 31 mentees from historically marginalized communities to help them reach that next level.”
Senior Executive Media: How did you identify the barriers athletes were facing and the ways in which SCARPA could help?
Melanie Hood: A lot was from the application process. We had, I think in the first year, over 300 applicants, and our CEO, our athlete manager Stefanie Kamm, and I read every single application. Through the questions we asked, we heard resonating themes. The biggest challenge [was] access — access to connections, products and mentors. Without being connected to someone in the industry, it’s hard to find mentors to teach you more expert parts of your sport. It’s also hard to find brands that will support your projects and help provide access to products, as some have financial barriers as well.
We did a lot of surveys as the program went: What do you want to learn? What do you hear? What are your challenges? We really tried to face those in real time as folks were coming up with them. Once a month, we would invite leaders from the outdoor industry to come and speak on different topics to the whole group — everything from nutrition, training, professional branding, leadership within companies, how to become professional athletes, and how to get jobs within the outdoor industry. Those [Zoom] calls were really instrumental to the program as well as helping the mentees gain connections.
Senior Executive Media: What factors have you found to be critical to the success of your program that could help other leaders in the development of their own programs?
Melanie Hood: We had folks from their own community really guiding us — and not only in the creation but also checking in with us. This was an organized group of athletes from historically marginalized communities. We had formal meetings every other week for eight months before we launched the program. We have shared survey feedback and program changes with this group each year of the program and gotten their feedback.
I think the other thing is to be aware that there is a power imbalance. We’re a brand with a lot of clout and have the keys to enter this industry. In order to take away some of that power imbalance, we hired an outside consultant that wasn’t connected to our brand to do individual check-ins with our mentees and bring us feedback from them that they might be unwilling to tell us directly. The check-ins are both formal and casual. The outside consultant checks in with the mentees formally twice a year, and we encourage them to check in more often than that.
Senior Executive Media: How has the SAMI program helped to establish SCARPA’s authenticity and commitment to its mission?
Melanie Hood: Nobody in this world wants to feel used. We want to feel valued for who we are. So that was the main goal of the program: to help them feel valued and to help them understand how truly amazing they are, and give them a leg up. We wanted to make sure that none of the individuals felt tokenized. And so only when they approached us and asked to be part of our marketing materials, part of our social media, did we then put them on there. There was never an expectation on any of the mentees that they had to promote our brand, had to be in our marketing materials. We didn’t want them to feel like this was just a way to show the world that we care about their communities… When they did post, it was truly authentic, and I think their followers and their communities felt that. They were able to say, ‘No, SCARPA doesn’t make me post. I’m posting because I want to. I’m posting because I believe in this program and posting because they care about me.’ And they still do, which is amazing.
Since we launched the program, we have had athletes who were at some point sponsored by other brands come to us and say, ‘We’re willing to take less money because we see what you’re doing and we want to be a part of that and we want to rep your brand now instead.’ And so that has been an unforeseen, amazing part of this program — to be able to work with athletes because they have a heart for doing the same thing, trying to make the outdoors a more inclusive place.
Senior Executive Media: What are some impacts the SAMI program has had on its athletes?
Melanie Hood: We had folks that had amazing aspirations to not only become professionals themselves but to really expand the reach and let folks know that there are people out there who look like them doing amazing things. We had a gentleman, Patrick Dunn, who created OUT In the Wild, which is an LGBTQ guiding company. Cruxing in Color by Shara Zaia is an amazing meet-up group. She went from having 20 to 30 folks, I think her biggest one now is 120 folks that come to a climbing gym, that are all from historically marginalized communities in the Denver area, to just climb and be part of a community.
Just because you’re from one historically marginalized community doesn’t mean you understand or even sometimes accept someone from a different community. Seeing them learn about the struggles of other communities has been a really amazing, beautiful thing — to see the folks from our trans community talk to our adaptive community and talk to our BIPOC community and see how they all deal with sometimes the same things but sometimes very different things and work together. Some of our partners are still working together, which is super cool. I think a lot of them have created amazing, long-lasting friendships.