Caressa Binion grew up flying down powdery mountain slopes, born into a family of ski-devotees who weren’t surprised to see the 29-year-old land her current job: A marketing manager at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
In the fall, Binion will be the among the inaugural cohort of Western State Colorado University’s Outdoor Industry MBA program. The first-of-its-kind degree program is envisioned as a high-speed chairlift for students already invested in Colorado’s booming outdoor economy.
“When I read the course description, I was like, ‘Is this real?’” Binion said. “My dad said it’s like it was written for me.”
Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy generates $28 billion in consumer spending and 229,000 jobs in the state, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Luis Benitez, Colorado’s czar of the outdoor recreation industry, said local academic institutions are embracing the industry as a pipeline for outdoor-focused students more than ever before.
Colorado State University recently launched an online graduate certificate in adventure tourism. The University of Colorado Boulder has a graduate program called Masters of the Environment, focused on environment studies, design, law, business and economics. Colorado Mountain College was named Elevation Outdoors magazine’s 2018 Top Adventure College for its programs in ski and snowboard business and beyond.
“The industry has matured and people wanting to move up in their organizations didn’t possess the skills required to take that next level,” said Pete Sherman, Western’s director of the Outdoor Industry MBA and dean of the School of Business.
Western’s MBA program — the first in the nation tailored to the outdoor industry — was crafted over a couple of years with help from Benitez, university officials and industry professionals. Many executives noted that they never had trouble finding eager 19-year-olds thrilled to work part-time in their companies, but sometimes struggled hiring mid-level to senior-level managers to help run their businesses.
Binion has dreams of becoming a general manager at a ski resort and is looking forward to learning about sustainability through her MBA.
“I work in the ski and snowboard world, so it’s really important for our growth and longevity to be able to make changes that allow us to stay operational during these bigger climate issues,” Binion said.
The two-year online program features business basics like managerial accounting and economics along with specialized courses in two tracks: Outdoors products and services.
For the product track, think courses in sustainable outdoor product development, material sourcing and sustainable finance. The service route boasts classes in resort and hospitality management, natural resource regulation and sales and customer experience.
Applicants are expected to already have work experience in the industry under their belts before applying.
Scott Borden, a Western faculty member teaching marketing and brand strategies in the MBA program, has his climbing-helmet-clad head in the outdoor industry game, having worked in the field for about 20 years and played in it even longer.
Borden is excited for planned excursions the mostly-online program has built into the nearly $21,000-per-year tuition. Students will travel to Denver’s Outdoor Retailer expo, which hosts 85,000 industry professionals who mingle and meet others from the 1,400 global brands in attendance. The conference will give students an opportunity to get a leg up in their future careers.
The program is also heavy in guest speakers, with the idea of letting students learn via lecture but also take advantage of the Crested Butte scenery for out-of-the-ordinary networking opportunities like group ski trips or mountain bike summits.
“This is an industry where you don’t have to just show up to work. You get to show up to work,” Borden said. “This is an industry that cares about people and the environment and the economy. It allows you to take your values and your passions for the outdoors with you on your way up.”
More than 35 students have started the application process for the program that Sherman estimated would have an initial cohort of 15 students. Of the students who have completed the applications, 50 percent are women.
“I’ve been dreaming of something like this since high school,” Binion said. “I’m excited, mostly, to get the opportunity to continue my education, but also in a direction that’s focused on my passion and my ability to share it with future generations and protect it, as well.”