Path Ahead Ventures seeks to greatly expand the number of entrepreneurs of color in the outdoor recreation industry

By Michael Verchot, director, Consulting and Business Development Center, University of Washington


After Martha Yolanda Díaz took up backpacking, she realized the outdoor recreation’s staple of freeze-dried foods lacked something — the piquant flavors of her native Mexico. So, she founded Itacate® Foods. Her company now produces meals that are light in weight yet reminiscent of her childhood’s family kitchen.


She also is one of the pioneers benefiting from the guidance and support of REI Inc.’s Path Ahead Ventures. Launched in 2020, the program seeks to greatly expand the number of entrepreneurs of color in the outdoor recreation industry as a whole and, specifically, in REI’s supplier network.


“We think the outdoors will be healthier and more sustainable when more people have a say,” said Susan Viscon, vice president and executive director of REI’s Path Ahead Ventures. “This is a creative step to recognize and partner with founders of color to create an outdoor industry that reflects the true diversity of people who love, share and protect life outside.”


Diversity among outdoor industry entrepreneurs lags far behind outdoor recreation participation. While 30% of participants are people of color — a growing number not far behind their 40% share of the U.S. population — entrepreneurs of color make up only 1% of the outdoor recreation industry.


As REI focused on entrepreneurs, it began with extensive research.


“We needed to listen and learn,” Viscon said. “We started with more than 100 interviews to understand the challenges and how to make changes.”


With the wide-ranging insights, the company started Path Ahead Ventures as its umbrella organization. Effectively a business accelerator, its strategy involves investing $30 million and interacting with 300 entrepreneurs of color through several programs designed to increase their capabilities, networks and access to capital.


The two main programs are Embark and Navigate. As their names indicate, each addresses different sets of challenges faced by entrepreneurs of color and their companies.


Embark is for entrepreneurs in their first stages of startup. They have an idea but not yet a product or revenue. Often the entrepreneurs are funding with only their own money.


Navigate is for companies that are further along in their development. They likely have a product in the market. But they have low revenue and capital, though funding sources may stretch beyond the founder.


REI Path Ahead Ventures’ support takes multiple forms. A web portal offers an easy way for entrepreneurs to submit a product to REI for consideration in its supply chain. Annual education programs offer entrepreneurs the chance to spend up to 16 weeks gaining insights into business management and growth strategies.

Founders Market offers select entrepreneurs the opportunity to make a virtual presentation about their company and products. The first virtual show was held Nov. 16, 2022, and featured entrepreneurs with products ranging from lightweight packs to women’s running clothing.


For Itacate’s Díaz, Path Ahead Ventures has been an invaluable source of knowledge and support. Her university science degree combined with her upbringing enabled her to create Itacate’s three food offerings. The lentejas (lentil) soup, caldo (chipotle)-based stew and chilaquiles (tortilla)-chip breakfast all have authentic south-of-the-border spicing to surprise even the most jaded freeze-dried veteran.


But the business issues seem overwhelming. She is doing it all as a sole practitioner—from cooking and freeze-drying the ingredients to packaging them and taking shipping orders. Her current main challenge is how to scale her business.


With Path Ahead Ventures’ help, however, now she has the confidence to believe she can find the solutions.


It is perhaps the most important lesson from REI Path Ahead Ventures. “There’s a place for you,” Díaz said. “And the outdoor industry needs us.” 


Martha Yolanda Díaz Itacate® Foods REI Inc.’s Path Ahead Ventures REI Susan Viscon Michael Verchot director University of Washington

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