Behind the Brand: Q+A with Outdoor Afro, Inc. Founder and CEO, Rue Mapp, about the building of the Experiences Program with REI Co-op

Behind the Brand: Q+A with Outdoor Afro, Inc. Founder and CEO, Rue Mapp, about the building of the Experiences Program with REI Co-op

1. The basics – For the folks who don’t know you, what’s your name and what do you do? Briefly connect the dots between you and your relationship to Outdoor Afro, Inc.?

My name is Rue Mapp and I am the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, Incorporated and its not-for-profit partner Outdoor Afro, Org.

I started Outdoor Afro as a blog from my kitchen table back in 2009, recognizing the lack of representation of Black people in the outdoors as strong, beautiful, and free. I grew up in an outdoor loving family that enthusiastically welcomed others into outdoor experiences, centering hospitality and joy.

I wanted to be able to share that story, and the overall history of this experience of the Black community more broadly. Eventually, Outdoor Afro grew into a network of volunteers who carry forth that spirit of hospitality into their communities to help even more people enjoy the outdoors through recreation and conservation.

I’ve also always been a fan of high-quality fashion, no matter the occasion, and over the years I recognized that outdoor gear and apparel was generally missing the mark for both fit and function. So, I was eager to meet the needs of so many in the outdoor enthusiast community, who desired better expression through color and fit to pair with inspired outdoor connections.

I was thankful to partner with REI Co-op in 2021 to launch a 22-piece, co-designed hike collection in the fall of 2022. We are in our fourth and final season of this collaboration, and I am so thrilled that we are introducing new elements such as camping gear, and multi-day experiences.

2. How long have you been in the industry and what is your favorite part about working with Outdoor Afro, Inc.?

Aside from growing up exploring a wide range of outdoor experiences with my family, my first introduction to the industry was in the early days of Outdoor Afro as a blog. In 2009, I was honored to present my first ever Keynote at the iconic Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors Conference in Atlanta, Georgia on the topic of How to Connect More People to Nature by Harnessing the Emergent Platforms of Social Media.

The next year, I was invited to the White House to witness the historic signing of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative by President Obama, where I met several outdoor industry leaders who would become lasting friends, supporters, and cheerleaders. I later attended my first outdoor retailer show in 2012, went to every show I could attend over the next decade, and for four years I served on the Outdoor Industry Association’s Board of Directors.

Having a variety of experiences with colleagues and leadership in the outdoor industry gave me a very clear perspective about the role Outdoor Afro could play to bridge gaps and expand opportunities for others.

3. Okay let’s get into it. Where did the inspiration for collaborating with REI to build these experiences come from?

I strongly believe that outdoor fashion should feel both fun to wear and comfortable. For our core designs, I tapped into my upbringing in the 80s and 90s, remembering the fashion of those decades that made me feel energetic and playful. So I did 80s parachute pants with lots of big pockets and zippers that active outdoor enthusiasts really appreciate and need.

I also love color, and wanted to get out of the traditional drab pallets by using more dynamic and bold colorways throughout the collection. The new gear collection for spring features graphic prints by artist Chelsea Alexander, founder of Sqwigl and known for her work with various global brands. Art is very important to me personally so it was wonderful to put art front and center in the collection for our fleeces, camp comforter, satin pillow, and tent designs, and use those original patterns to bring the collection’s color story together.

4. How did you ensure that the experiences cater to a diverse range of outdoor enthusiasts?

It has been a delight to discover that, while we designed with Black outdoor enthusiast needs in mind, what we ended up with was a totally collaborative experience that was truly for everyone—which is what was always intended.

5. Was there anything that surprised you in the design and building process of the experiences?

What I especially loved about building the Experiences program was getting really specific about the types of people who we believed these trips would appeal to. We gave each a name, we imagined where they might work and play, and what might be important for them in their everyday lives.

Of course, these archetypes were informed by the thousands of people that I have gotten a chance to know through the not-for-profit organization, community outreach, and hearing the mini pain points that people have experienced as a barrier to fully enjoy outdoor experiences. But what surprised and grounded us in our planning, is that the issues we were addressing were common to almost everyone, especially for people in the early stages of their outdoor exploration, investment, and journey.

6. What about the Experiences program excites you the most?

What I am most excited about, and what informed the decision for this collaboration, are the ways that the Experiences combine the best of what Outdoor Afro, Inc. and REI do best. We get to weave in many years of learning, and a rich and empowered history of Black connections to nature, along with REI’s reputation for delivering high quality experiences.

Together, we are creating something historic and unique to the adventure travel market, built on a foundation of partnership with different, yet complementary expertise!

7. What sets these outdoor experiences apart from others in the industry?

In addition to the outdoor adventure, we will embark on events that highlight local Black American history and cuisine, promote patronage of Black owned businesses, and deeply explore some of America’s most iconic public lands throughout each itinerary.

8. How do you envision these outdoor experiences contributing to fostering a sense of community and connection among participants?

There is really nothing like a group of people who begin as strangers spending time in nature over hours and days together. I know from experience that, when I have been fortunate to have outdoor experiences with people, it has fostered a sense of community and friendship that is hard to replicate in our otherwise busy lives.

I am hopeful that these experiences will bring people together across perceived differences, while allowing people to feel supported to try new activities and learn something new about how the outdoors and nature is always here for us, and for everyone to enjoy.

Hope you enjoyed this little look behind the curtain with our Founder, but now we want to hear from you! What questions do you have about our Experiences program? Let us know on social media: @outdoorafroinc.

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