I first met Keith, the co-founder of Parks Project, in his backyard. We had just come off the back of a road trip through some of America’s jaw dropping national parks and along the way people had asked me if I had heard of this Keith guy who was doing something crazy…mixing fashion, conservation AND business. He sounded like someone I had to meet.
Tucked away in a street that's as “off the grid” as you can find for the Californian suburb of Venice, behind where he lives with his wife Kelly and their two kids, you’ll find Parks Project HQ. Fitting for a totally new school philanthropic business whose motto “leave it better than you found it” is cleaning up America’s National Parks one at a time.
INTERVIEW BY FELICITY BONELLO
You’ve put conservation back on the agenda for the next generation and now Parks Project is one of the game changing communities in the US; can you tell us about it – what’s it stand for and what’s it represent?
Well thank you! We are asking folks to look at their connection with the outdoors in a different light. Just like any relationship, it takes work. You have to put in what you expect to get out. And if you step back and look at what the outdoors provide for millions of people (whether it’s getting out to refuel or to reset), we are simply asking those folks to think about what they could do in return. These resources can stand the test of time but the most impact comes from humans; we do a good job of trampling on a pristine valley floor or lakeside beach. Our mission is to ‘leave it better than you found it’.
You and Sevag worked at TOMS together; what was the defining moment when you both realised that Parks Project was something worth sharing?
There were many! From getting an encouraging email from the creative director at Patagonia to landing our first buy with Urban Outfitters, to being the smallest company (next to Disney, REI, Budweiser, etc) to get the official license for making National Park Products - were definitely a few. Another defining moment was when we visited the nursery we were funding in Muir Woods; we realized our little company was putting thousands of redwoods back in the park! At that point we thought ‘what if we could scale this company, we could contribute so much’.
Your global message is “Leave it better than you found it” – as parent’s so many of us can relate to the need to leave an environmental legacy for our children as well as future generations. Is this where your mission came from?
It definitely came from spending time in the outdoors with my children, you start thinking about how you will pass down the places you visit. Specifically, it was a personal episode when we brought Everly to a favourite trailhead in Big Sur and it was closed. I realized that something I had loved and used would not be available for her in her lifetime. It was overgrown and rutted out, and once it’s closed, it probably won’t make it back. So I started volunteering and doing trail work. If each generation can help educate and inspire the next one to make the world a better place, well, that’s awesome progress.
What’s the dream? What do you and Sevag want PP to become or to achieve?
You know we took a big risk in leaving the comfort of our previous jobs/lives and as long as we keep pushing the boundaries and continue finding new creative ways to engage people with parks we will make continued progress. As we see more of the next generation get behind this idea, that’s where the dream really lives. I think if we can mobilize kids to look at their relationship with the outdoors in a different light that’d be a dream come true.
Tell us about your community. Who’s involved day to day?
I must say we have met some of the most genuinely awesome and humble people on this journey. From outdoor retail buyers and conservancy folks, to volunteers or fans of the brand, they all have a few things in common; a calming sense of presence, appetite for adventure, and positive outlook on conservation. I’d like to think that our brand could represent a way to balance out the city and remote nature. There is time needed for both, and each one eventually fuels the need for the other. So we try to bridge that gap and connect the two worlds; parks need city folk to sustain operation and get support while urban people need parks to reset and get a breather from life.
Philanthropy is filled with community-inspired business heads seeking change; do you have a mentor or someone that inspires you?
Blake Mycoskie from TOMS. Blake was the founder of TOMS and we worked together for about eleven years combined and had the time of our lives. As a leader and innovator Blake taught us so much! In being one of the early social enterprise businesses, we were really inspired because we saw the impact a company could have by creating a unique give back model. Though this is very commonplace now, we learned a lot about scaling the business and the give back at the same time, how thoroughly the give back needs to be considered in advance, and how a manager needs to be in place to oversee the giving too. He showed us that with passion, determination, creativity and surrounding yourself with the right people, anything is possible! He is brilliant, and we are fortunate to be able to call on him every once in a while for advice.
Park Champions aka Park Champs is an amazing initiative. The mini doco series is a good watch. Tell us about Park Champs and how’d it come about?
A lot of the films in the outdoor space feature stars and well-known folks, so we wanted to do something to recognize the unsung heroes. And we probably lean less on action, and more on education, as that creates engagement and advocacy. So, we’re telling the stories of the people who commit their lives to the betterment of people/parks. These folks are true champions, all we have to do is unfold their lives and help people realize what is going on behind the scenes in our parks. It’s heart warming and inspiring.
Are there any other upcoming initiatives that have you want to share with us?
We are touring the country this summer in an effort to do more volunteer days, visit more parks, and spark more conversation about supporting the parklands during a difficult time. It’s going to be rad to send out our entire staff and collectively we will be in various parts of the nation getting it done!
As a family I can imagine you spend a fair amount of time in the outdoors together. How do your family motivate your work?
The times we brought our kids to jaw dropping valleys, peaks, or vistas are the few moments where I have seen them really stop, process, and marvel at something as if it’s out of this world. You see a shift in behaviour and it’s amazing. And that’s why we work, so we can then escape for those moments that really fill us up. You can’t have one without the other too, right? The travel may be tough, and road trips can be outright disastrous with a two year old (I won’t lie) but it’s so worth it at the end of the day! Sometimes by finding a simple riverside rest area in a beautiful place, our kids can just be, they trade plastic toys for rocks and sticks, everything slows down and you realize how rad this is! Also, my five year old daughter hasn’t really connected the dots on what I really do, and I love that in her mind, I am in charge of all the national parks J If she admires me just a fraction of how I admire her, I am completely fulfilled.
Outside of Parks Project what is it that drives your connection to nature on a personal level and the need to protect it. Where does that come from?
What’s one thing you’d like us take away from talking with you? What’s your call to action or the most important takeaway you’d like to leave us with?
Get out and celebrate the splendour of this world, and get lost in parks, which seem to provide the most pristine and remote environments that nature has to offer! When we experience these places we have connections with them. From those connections, we will feel more desire and responsibility to take care of them so we can hand them down to the next generation. Get off the screen and plan your next trip, see you out there!
How can the CATGK community support Parks and make a difference?
We have put a lot of thought into developing this over the past years, and it’s quite comprehensive: Parks Project: Get Involved
To visit and shop at Parks Project, click HERE
A big thanks to Keith and his team, photography provided by Parks Project and from lots of amazing park lovers. And to Felicity Bonello for the interview.
Photographs in collage
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