Follow Your Gut, Not Every Opportunity

Karen Gilsdorf

Age: 25

Job: Material Developer, Patagonia

Location: Ventura, California

Karen is a cousin of Meredith, a YoPro we interviewed earlier this year. Now responsible for designing the zippers and buckles on your Patagonia items (and much more), Karen has found herself working for a company that prides itself on protecting the environment and creating a company culture that includes going surfing, hiking, and even running, during the workday. In her interview, Karen shares much about her thriving work life, but also the struggles that were associated with the beginning of her young professional career. From finding her job via a LinkedIn connection to asking people on friend dates, we cover it all in this interview, so read on to learn Karen's story.

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I'm originally from Fort Collins, Colorado, where I grew up in a family of six kids, so everything was always a little bit chaotic. When I was ten years old, I started doing something called LEGO League, which is using LEGOS and robotics to develop skills in our community’s youth. Through this program, I went to this competition at the Colorado School of Mines and my team won the Innovation Award our first year. At the time I had little appreciation for what that meant, but I ended up going to Mines for undergrad and got my mechanical engineering degree there. I had an absolute blast at Mines and it was such a good environment for me. I was in a sorority, was super involved in a lot of different clubs, and had a strong community filled with really amazing teachers and people. It was honestly where I became who I am today and where I got the confidence to pursue what I actually wanted to do. I have always been super outdoorsy and grew up with skiing as my main sport. I went on to teach at Winter Park Ski Resort my sophomore and junior year which was super fun, but one of the things that always broke my heart was how many people I'd see in pain from hours of being out in the snow in the wrong shoes and with the wrong equipment.

What made you interested in material development?

Part of me always wanted to go into outdoor gear because of my background, but I tried out other fields before settling on one in particular. I ended up interning in an aerospace company and was not into it. The next year, I interned for a transportation company in oil and gas and also found that it was not for me. I actually received a job offer from that internship and thought really hard about why I should turn it down. If I took this job, I would have a well-paying job lined up coming right out of college, but I would have had to live in Houston, which was definitely not (and is still not) an option since there’s no snow. So I was stuck in this interim of feeling like I was being ungrateful, even though I knew I might be miserable. I told myself that it was a great opportunity, and that it would help me save a lot of money, but it wasn’t my dream job or what I really wanted to do. I kept spinning in circles like this and found myself going to my professor and mentor for advice. He told me to just do what I wanted to do because it wasn't worth being miserable at work, and though the conversation was obviously much longer than that, it impacted me enough for me to call my boss from that summer and tell him I was turning down the job. I was terrified and definitely told myself that I was losing my mind, but it was the right thing to do.

How did you start your job search after turning down one offer?

So I turned down that offer, which was maybe one of the scariest things I have ever done. At that point, I had been searching for jobs in outdoor gear for a while, but I just started going crazy on LinkedIn, in addition to emailing and calling absolutely anybody that I could. I found a connection via LinkedIn, who was actually not even my contact, but a connection of my Greek life counselor who just happened to meet him earlier that year. He worked for Patagonia in the Materials department at the time and agreed to chat with me. After one conversation with him, I realized I was in love with the company and the job itself. This was a company that I felt really filled a need in the outdoor world and was a leader in the industry, while also really caring about the environment. This was not something I felt was present in the oil and gas industry and I couldn't bring myself to work in an industry that didn't care.

After our talk, Will told me about a job opening that he thought I might be interested in, so I sent him my resume and he passed it to the hiring manager. I remember having a Skype interview, which of course I dressed up for since I was coming from a very corporate environment. I came to find the people interviewing me all in t-shirts and one of them had even just come in from a run! I had a few more interviews after that and made it pretty far before actually being turned down for the job due to some shifts that had occurred with the role. I was totally crushed. That was around November of that year, so I decided to travel to Southeast Asia for three months because I thought “it’s now or never, I guess”. So, here I was fooling around in Southeast Asia, when I received an email saying “Hey, we think that we're able to open a job up that might be a better fit for you. Will you reapply for this position?”. And so I did and after another round of interviews, I got the job offer and moved out to California when I was 22.

Tell us about what it looks like being a material developer at Patagonia. What does your day to day look like?

So there is a fair chunk of it that I'm not allowed to talk about with you because it's future products that have not been rolled out yet. So, I am a material developer for components, which is anything outside of the fabric on your garment or your bag or your duffel or whatever. That kind of encompasses everything from hard goods to soft goods, so think of your zippers, buckles, your luggage wheels, or the elastic in your clothes, touching every piece of it. It’s kind of niche, but basically what a material developer does is design, source, and develop all of the materials that later make up your garments. Typically we're looking at about two to three years on a timeline for most of our products. Right now I am working on a product that will go into our spring 2021 roll-out. The stuff that is in stores now is what I worked on when I got here three years ago, which is pretty crazy.

I think it's no surprise that Patagonia is very environmentally friendly and conscious, so can you talk about that and tell us what it's like being a part of a company that values this?

Honestly, everybody here lives and breathes it. It's incredible. You don't talk to anybody on a daily basis who doesn’t care. Everyone is truly passionate and doing things in their own lives to try to take steps to reduce their own impact. Whether that means going vegan or changing all of their containers to glass containers and not using any plastic, everyone really does live and breathe it, which is pretty special. Then, it is in every facet of our company as well. Our founder, Yvon Chouinard, just recently changed our mission statement to “we are in business to save our home planet”, which I think is really impactful. It's also really a guiding light for everything that we do. I obviously haven't worked very many places, but I've really just been floored by how much of a guiding light our mission statement has always been. And now it's even more honed in with this recent change. One of the other things that I think is really rad that I have actually had the pleasure of helping with, is being part of an environmental grants council that we have on-site. We read a bunch of grants and choose which nonprofit environment and mentally-focused organizations we want to allocate the money to as they try to tackle a specific problem. The council uses money that we set aside through 1% for the Planet and I'm really grateful to be a part of it just because I think it gives you more perspective on everything that you're doing. It’s so easy to get stuck in the mundane day to day stuff every once in a while, but being able to take a step back and give away money to groups in need, is just kind of great.

There’s a book written by your CEO and founder called “Let My People Go Surfing.” Can you talk about what that book means to you and whether it is true to Patagonia’s culture?

It’s like the ethos of the company and it really embraces the entire culture. I think everybody kind of lives by that here. I go run at lunch, and usually, we have a mountain bike crew that meets every Wednesday. There are even camp nights. One of our senior-level products guys will say “Winds up!” once a week and leave around 2:00 PM to go kite surfing. The book is an honest look into the company. I read it before coming to Patagonia and didn’t think it was real, but I can confidently say that it is.

What is it like being a young professional in your area?

You kind of feel a little invincible at times because you have so much time ahead of you and you're not tied into anything right away. You have the ability to change careers and choose your path. Hand in hand, that's also the thing that is terrifying about being a young professional, right? You're young and in an environment where most people are 10 years your senior, so really being able to earn that respect is something that is really challenging. As far as being in Southern California, Ventura is like a small little beach town, so it was kind of hard to find a community outside of work at first. Part of it had to do with me moving out to a new place, and naturally just being super overwhelmed with it all. I was pretty young when I moved out here and I felt my age for sure, not to mention this town does not have a giant population of super young, fresh-out-of-college kids, so most of the new hires here are in their early 30s, with one or two jobs under their belts. I struggled for the first year out there, and although work was awesome, my social life and actually connecting with people was really tough for me. I think being a professional out here is actually pretty challenging, at least in this specific area, but it has gotten easier. I've recognized that it has to be a two-way street and you do have to put a lot more effort in than you would, say, in college. I have really awesome people around me now and I think I started asking more people on friend dates, like to go mountain bike or skiing or climbing or whatever it may be, and that has served me well. All you have to do is just put yourself out there. Friend dates are the move.

What is the best and worst piece of advice you have received?

I think the best piece of advice and the worst piece of advice are very similar, which is tricky. The best piece of advice is to follow your gut and the worst piece of advice is to follow every opportunity. I think following your gut, although inherently is really terrifying, kind of never fails you and you just have to look past the fear and intimidation factor. Had I followed every single opportunity, I would be in a totally different situation.

What would you want experienced professionals to know about young professionals as we move into leadership roles in the future?

We're all just trying to find our way and even though we sound really confident in something, we're probably faking a little bit of that confidence.

Any last words of advice?

Ask more people on friend dates.

What's your favorite Patagonia clothing item?

Not what you would expect. It’s the Ahnya Pants and they’re joggers. I literally own three pairs of each.

The YoPro Know's Takeaways:

- How to turn down a job when it is not the right one for you

- The importance of weak ties and how they can lead you to your next job (LinkedIn connections)

- The perks of working for an environmentally-conscious and work-life-balance-driven company

- Sometimes the amazing parts of being a YoPro are the exact reasons why it can be so hard

- Why you should start asking more people out on "friend dates"

Check it out: Patagonia, Colorado School of Mines, Ahnya Pants, Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard, Ventura, California