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SkiCo divulges racial justice hiring and education strategy

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Aspen Skiing Company
Aspen Skiing Company’s Auden Schendler, left, and Wayne Hare, right, co-authored a letter released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day outlining steps ski companies can take to address the lack of diversity in the ski industry. SkiCo’s Hannah Berman followed up in an interview with Aspen Public Radio about what the company is doing to reach its goals and diversify the company.

The Aspen Skiing Company released a letter on Martin Luther King Jr. Day outlining steps companies in the ski industry can take to promote racial equity and diversity.

The letter was also published as an opinion piece in the Aspen Daily News.

The letter was co-authored by Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler and former Aspen ski patroller Wayne Hare, who also founded The Civil Conversations Project—a nonprofit promoting racial justice.

Hare has also led conversations about race among SkiCo staff.

“The narrative that this country has about all people are created equal … that narrative has a lot of holes in it,” he said in a recent interview.

The action steps detailed in the letter focus on promoting diverse hiring practices and educating the public on racial injustice in the United States.

Hannah Berman, the senior manager of sustainability and philanthropy at SkiCo, shared more about the company’s goals.

Berman works closely with Schendler in these efforts and spoke with Halle Zander. Below is a transcript of their call, edited for clarity.

Zander: What was the impetus for this letter?

Berman: The ski industry benefits massively from MLK Day. It's a long weekend. It's profitable, but people may not have MLK and why we have that day as a holiday on their minds. And we wanted to make sure that was present and that we were acknowledging it.

Zander: The letter outlines about five action steps that skiing companies can take to better promote equity and diversity in the industry. So how many of these would you say are concrete goals for the Aspen Skiing Company?

Berman: I would say they're all goals, and we have a scattershot of a strategy on racial justice. Mostly because a lot of those things are devilishly hard. So we've been trying and succeeding places and flopping other places, and we hope someone can do it better than us, so we can learn from what they're doing.

Zander: So one of the steps was “we can try harder to diversify our workforce to the extent possible.” How many staff of color do you have?

Berman: In 2021, we had about 20% employees of color. So that was 805 out of just under 4,000 employees. But one of the things that we're trying to do is not just get people in the door, but make sure that they're having a good experience once they're in the room and on our staff. Kevin McDonald is one of our ski pros. He is Black. He runs this amazing nonprofit called UPportunity, and we paid Kevin to go to Chicago and recruit a few employees. And he's put in a massive amount of work making sure they found good housing, making sure they learned how to ski. And it's been for just a couple employees, but he's doing it right. And we appreciate that.

Zander: When you say just a couple, can you give me a rough estimate?

Berman: Two are still here.

Zander: So two people out of a staff of 4,000 something?

Berman: 3,987 I think.

Zander: It's a small number. Is SkiCo interested in funding and expanding that initiative, or is it planning to do so?

Berman: So we've tried a couple different hiring programs. For a long time, we've had hiring pipelines from the same communities, so we've tried posting in new places like HBCU Connect or Queer Outdoors. But our talent acquisition team has also put it on their agenda to make sure that we're going to the HBCU career fairs because those things take time and trust-building and also try to keep an eye on making sure that we're not just trying to find diverse employees for front line jobs or for seasonal positions. We need to have every level diversified from where we are. And that's proven pretty tricky for us to figure out.

Zander: Do you have statistics on how that compares to other skiing companies in Colorado and how much more or less diverse Aspen Skiing Company is?

Berman: I don't have statistics, but I did talk to the manager of the resort (Echo Mountain) by Idaho Springs. They have found they're close enough to Denver and their lift tickets are affordable enough that their guest population became very diverse in the past couple of years. I think he said about half of their guests were guests of color, which, compared to the rest of the ski industry, is massive. And he recruited a bunch of employees from his guest population.

Zander: I mean, location, you can't really do anything about that here in Aspen. But what about the ticket price? I mean, every year the ticket price here at Aspen historically goes up. How do you reach an underrepresented community in skiing when the price is out of reach for a lot of people?

Berman: The racial wealth gap in America is very real and prevalent here. And we know that skiing is incredibly expensive. And so through our community and philanthropy arms, we try to create more inroads to be able to skip more affordable prices. So we've been able to triple the number of kids, local kids, participating in school ski-days in the past couple years, and that's grown to about 3,000 kids visiting us through that program. And we've had an increase in the number of groups that we're inviting at comped rates, at discounted rates, at whatever- you-can-pay rates to make sure that we are creating those inroads to be able to ski, to the local Latino population or to groups like Quincy's Ski Noir group in Denver.

Zander: Okay. So another action step that was mentioned in the letter was “We can educate ourselves, our guests, our partners and the community about history, about the legacy of slavery and Dr. King and his vision.” Let's start with the staff portion of that question. What kind of diversity, equity and inclusion education is going on for employees, if any?

Berman: Specific to our employees, we did unconscious-bias training and reached about 500 folks. We didn't make it mandatory, but we also had Wayne Hare come for a couple conversation sessions that were two hours and talk about the history of race in America. And then Wayne did something called an Aspen U, which is our speaker series at SkiCo, about how systemic racism in America had roots in so many different things, like slavery, like our economic system.

Zander: So what about visitors? What kinds of opportunities does SkiCo have to teach its guests about racial justice and Black history? And is it your place as a skiing company to do so?

Berman: We hear all the time, “stick to skiing,” but as a business that has these values-based practices, we're not going to stick to skiing because to stick to skiing, we need to be able to tackle climate. And we need to be operating in a more just world. And so we encourage guests to join AspenUs. One big way that we reach guests is through our social media. A specific ask that we got from Henry Rivers, who's the president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, and Q, Quincy Shannon, was to show Black people on our Instagram. And we were very worried about coming off as disingenuous, but they said that they needed that explicit welcome to see people that looked like them in the content we were putting out to know that they should be coming to our mountain.

Zander: Thank you so much for making the time today.

Berman: Oh, thank you.

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.