In 2012, Niki Koubourlis had achieved pretty much everything she had set out to get and that made her father, a Greek immigrant to the United States, proud. By the age of 32, she had acquired an MBA, a husband, and a dream job working in commercial real estate for Sheikh Mohammed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. With the American real estate market still flatlined after the 2008 global financial meltdown, Koubourlis was racking up work experience in the Middle East and “earning tons of money” developing racetracks, theme parks, and even man-made islands.
She was also growing more miserable by the day. “I just wasn’t that passionate about this career and I was spending 80-plus hours a week doing it.” Still, she soldiered on, unhappy, piling on weight, wanting out of her marriage but too afraid to take the plunge, until she finally got the nudge she needed to change. Unfortunately, that came in the form of devastating news: the suicide of a close university friend.
While grieving, Koubourlis read the The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware and realized she could own up to a few of those, namely working too hard and not doing what she loved. She soon quit her job and left her marriage, determined to create the life she truly wanted even though she didn’t really know what that was. She took a job running a tech company in Chile, but soon fell back into her old workaholic ways. On a business trip to Denver, Colorado, Koubourlis fell in love with the landscape and balanced lifestyle. She left her job, moved to Denver without knowing anyone, and lived on her savings while she took a mini-retirement from her career to find out what she really wanted out of life.
Though she had almost no experience in the outdoors, Koubourlis realized adventure had a great deal to teach her. Up to that point, she had made all her life decisions based on security, getting it and keeping it. So instead, she threw herself into a slew of adventures during what she calls “the summer of Niki” in 2013. She climbed mountains, went hiking, took multi-day camping trips, usually alone and often terrified. “You put yourself out there and do it, that’s an opportunity to stretch yourself, push your limits, learn something about yourself,” she says. “Succeed or fail, you always come out the other end a better person. That’s where the growth happens.”
Trip by trip, she was discovering more of what she wanted out of life and what she wanted to do in her next career. In speaking with other women she encountered on various hikes, Koubourlis realized that women faced significant barriers to enjoying outdoor adventures: lack of skills and experience; the high cost of equipment that is often designed for men and “shrunk” for women so it’s usually ill-fitting; jam-packed schedules as women are often juggling careers, kids, and the bulk of family caregiving. All of this leaves little time and energy to plan and organize excursions that occur off the beaten path.
Then there is the intimidation factor stoked by an outdoor adventure industry that glorifies hard-core, macho thrill-seekers and doesn’t seem much interested in appealing to regular women. Koubourlis noticed something else while on a hiking adventure to Machu Picchu: the women who had outdoor experience and were travelling with other gal pals were having a blast. Women who were travelling with male partners—and relying on his experience—were often miserable. She believes that if the women were better prepared, they would feel more confident and in control rather than a tagalong, and can take the lead in decision-making. Also, she saw that men and women tended to experience outdoor adventure differently. For men, it was more about testing themselves, taking risks, and competing to go higher, faster, harder. Women looked to outdoor activities as a break from stressful lives and thrived more in supportive and non-judgmental settings where they could learn new skills while connecting with other women and making friends.
At the end of her seven-month time out from her career, Koubourlis knew it was time to get back to work but she could not muster the enthusiasm for a return to the corporate world, and she could not let go of this business idea: How could she make it easier for women to have confidence-building outdoor experiences that had proved so life-transforming for her?
The Bold Idea
To test whether her idea had legs, Koubourlis started a meetup group for women interested in getting together for outdoor activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, and rafting. She called it Bold Betties. “I wanted to see if enough women were experiencing the same problem of being intimidated by the outdoors and wanted to try out a variety of activities in a very inclusive, non-intimidating, and non-competitive environment. The group just blew up. The reality is, most people are moving [to Colorado] to experience the outdoors and they say, ‘I see it but then there’s a list of barriers to experiencing it.'”
That was 2014. Just two years later, Bold Betties had 18,000 members and there were meetup groups or chapters in nearly a dozen American cities. Members in Bold Betties were finding their tribe, women like Koubourlis who “do epic shit” to get unstuck, to embolden their transition out of stale relationships or careers, and grow in ways they could not imagine. The blog on the Bold Betties website is full of such stories.
Koubourlis had not only created the life she craved but launched her female outdoor adventure enterprise and enticed two founding partners to help her build it into a lifestyle brand with the goal of being as recognizable and profitable as CrossFit or SoulCycle.
Members in Bold Betties were finding their tribe, women like Koubourlis who “do epic shit” to get unstuck, to embolden their transition out of stale relationships or careers, and grow in ways they could not imagine.
A Meeting of Bold Betties Minds
Sommer Rains, who joined as chief operating officer, calls herself a serial entrepreneur, having started a human resources company catering to the health care field in her 20s, then helping launch her husband’s successful business in the Boulder area seven years ago. While searching around for what to do next, she says about five people in her networking group told her she had to meet Koubourlis. “I finally emailed her and said, ‘Hey, I think the universe wants us to meet up.'”
Arezou Zarafshan joined as chief marketing officer in a similar fashion. Born and raised in Tehran, she came to the United States at 17 to study electrical engineering. After working her way into senior positions at several large tech firms, she realized that male-dominated corporate environments and data-driven analytics no longer fuelled her creativity. While taking a pause in her career to develop consumer and creative marketing skills, she connected with Koubourlis via Twitter.
The founders came to the conclusion that there were multiple ways to grow a business. Their challenge was to chart a unique path that protects and enhances Bold Betties’ core values: to make outdoor adventures accessible to all kinds of women by creating a supportive and inclusive community and providing a variety of affordable adventures.
How to Big the Betties?
The founders admit they are still very much in the early stages of building their for-profit company and still feeling out their path for growth.
They never really considered the franchise model, of making one Bold Betties chapter financially sustainable and then replicating it. Indeed, rather than figuring out ways to monetize their business, they have made growing their community of adventuring women the priority. Their goal is to reach 100,000 members within the next year and open new Bold Betties chapters in cities across North America.
In tandem, the founders are exploring and developing ways to engage their growing community of members through their website and e-newsletter, free and inexpensive local adventures, international trips, online and tech-based tools that help women plan, book, and pack for outdoor adventures and, of course, meeting up with other Bold Betties to enjoy those adventures.
At present, the company generates commissions on international trips and professionally guided adventures such as rock climbing and rafting as well as equipment and clothing sold on their website. But that’s hardly paying the bills let alone the founders’ who are still not drawing a salary and mostly work from home.
But they are not in a hurry to monetize their business. Rather, their strategy is to follow the long-term vision of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, who built a community of users then figured out how to monetize that traffic. That may include a low membership fee once they develop a suite of benefits members want to buy into. It could include developing a line of Bold Betties equipment and clothing and partnering with an outdoors retailer to sell it. It most definitely will include more online tools and communication vehicles to make outdoor adventures more accessible to women.
Says Koubourlis: “There will always be a free way to engage with us because that’s our mission, to get women to try these things. If we start creating barriers and costs then we’re not solving the problem we set out to solve. We’ll become part of that problem, so we’ll always have a free entry point.”
They’re even feeling their way on how best to grow their membership and local chapters. At present, they choose local volunteers—Alpha Betties—to organize and lead local events and reward them with “Betty Bucks” that can be used to buy trips and equipment. Koubourlis says they are investigating how best to retain and remunerate Alpha Betties as the business starts to generate income while keeping Alpha Betties focused on the core values of making adventure travel accessible to women and creating a supportive, non-competitive community of female adventurers.
The Next Bold Step
Focusing on building community rather than generating revenue presents a significant challenge for attracting investors who can help them grow.
Rains says a lack of female investors who may be more willing to support female entrepreneurs is a definite obstacle. “It’s a huge problem. A lot of women decide to bootstrap for that reason. I see myself in the future hoping to solve this problem and want to help encourage more women investors into the pool,” she says.
Rains says they are reaching out to build relationships with venture capital investors, but they’re too early in the game to attract that kind of growth money. “Our first goal is to build and engage our community before monetizing,” says Rains. “Some don’t get that, but others will say, ‘Hell yes, that’s great.’ But they also want to know five years from now how we are going to monetize [our business] and we don’t entirely know that yet so we’re a bit early for VCs.”
Their immediate goal now is to attract an angel investor who wants to support the ideals of the company. And that is? “We’re not so naive as to say we’re empowering women,” says Koubourlis. “We’re offering outdoor adventure as a tool women can use to empower themselves. We’re about offering enabling experiences that will help women live their best and boldest lives, and we want them to go after a life of adventure whether that’s in the mountains, on the river, in the home, in the office. We want to help them to develop the courage to go after the things they want.”
Koubourlis says reaching out to potential investors requires a lot of relationship building, which is time-consuming, especially when the three founders are running the business on scant resources. “I’m not going to lie about it. It’s going well, but it’s a slow process,” says Koubourlis. “Your average entrepreneur is not a patient person, and that’s certainly true of the three of us.”
What does not worry them is competing for venture capital among other startups in the tech hubs of Denver and Boulder. Tech giants are located in the area because compensation alone can’t lure talent. Employees want the outdoor, laid-back lifestyle that initially attracted Koubourlis. She compares the potential of Bold Betties to lifestyle giants such as CrossFit and SoulCycle and says there are plenty of VC firms with an appetite for investing beyond tech and in “brands with enthusiastic communities who are passionate about the ethos, activities, and lifestyle of what that company does and what that brand stands for.”
As for her own life-changing move, Koubourlis is not looking back. “There’s a ton of stories of women who came out on a Bold Betties adventure and went on to make a transformative life change. What’s interesting about outdoor adventure is you learn these lessons that make you a little more adventurous and willing to take on risk and try new things. I get to meet a lot of smart, interesting, passionate people and that is so different from my past corporate life where people were smart but maybe not so passionate about what they were doing. Being around people who are passionate and engaged wears off on you and it feels great.”
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