Today marks FOUR years of my role as full-time CEO of Alpine Parrot 🎉 While I’ve told my story on quite a few podcasts and articles, I don’t know that I’ve ever fully written it down. I have broken it into three parts: finding my joy in nature, learning to sew, and ultimately what drove me to create Alpine Parrot.
My Journey into the Outdoors
I didn’t grow up in the outdoors. My family is from Puerto Rico, where nature is everywhere and a part of everyday life. But when my parents moved to New Jersey (where I was born and raised), the idea of voluntarily sleeping on the ground, outside, in the cold, was not their definition of success. This notion, combined with my desperate love of reading and absolute distaste for anything with more than four legs, meant that I preferred to spend my time with my nose stuck in a book.
To be clear: I would go on what I now call “nature walks” (e.g wandering in pretty areas outside). I spent some time on beaches and enjoyed looking at pretty landscapes from a window. But the idea of doing anything that requires a plan (like packing a bag with what I now know are the Ten Essentials or mapping out a route) was far too complicated. And it didn’t help that the only people I ever knew growing up who did such things were white - all of my BIPOC friends and I simply assumed “complicated” outdoor activities (camping, backpacking, skiing, kayaking, rock climbing, and more) were things people like us just don’t do.
It wasn’t until I went on a ski trip in 2014 that I really discovered my joy in nature. Worried about hurting myself, I insisted on taking a lesson. I wore what I had on hand (a hoodie under a rain jacket and sweatpants under rain pants), and rented skis and boots that didn’t quite fit right. And then I completely fell in love with the feeling of flying down the side of the mountain. There was this specific moment when I realized my pizza wasn’t going to stop me, and I crashed into a powdery pillow of snow (it was snowing!) and I was so full of joy that I couldn’t help but laugh. I had found my new favorite activity and I was eager to do it again.
Skiing was my gateway sport to recreating in nature - when there was no snow, we found trails to hike on. When we couldn’t make it into the mountains, we went to a climbing gym closer to home with the intent to start climbing outside. During the pandemic, I finally tried camping and couldn’t get enough of that early morning silence when the whole natural world is waking up with you. Over the last ten years, I have gone from never-would-I-ever to hey-check-out-my-gear-wall: I’m currently training for my third backpacking trip later this year and have added kayaking, backcountry skiing, and surfing to some of the many outdoor sports I’ve tried.
My Journey into Apparel
I despise shopping for clothes. As someone who falls in the overlap between “straight sizes” (generally sizes 00-18) and “plus sizes” (generally sizes 14W-40W), one might expect that I can find clothes anywhere. Instead, nothing fits my size 16 body all that well, leaving me with virtually nothing to wear that makes me feel good.
Jeans are a particular sore spot for me - they’re just always a little bit wrong. And then one day I wondered, how hard could it be to make my own pair of jeans?! I have a degree in mechanical engineering from one of the top universities in the world, so surely it couldn’t be all that difficult.
Coincidentally, I learned to sew the same week I learned to ski. I went to an introductory class at my local independent fabric shop and made a beautiful pillowcase. My instructor was aghast that my next step would be jeans, but I made a plan and got to work.
I picked up a couple of patterns and some fabric and got to work. It turned out that patterns from an envelope were just as frustrating as buying ready-to-wear off the rack - designers have a specific vision of their target customer in mind, and that target customer has never had a body shaped like mine. My failure to make anything that fit straight from the pattern took me down multiple rabbit holes, learning about modifications that proved to be trial and error attempts of gross dissatisfaction. So I decided to go one step further: if existing patterns didn’t fit me, I would simply have to make my own patterns!
Fast forward to 2017, and I signed up for a patternmaking course at a school that happened to be only three blocks away from my office. It was there that I learned how to make clothes that truly fit my body, and my confidence skyrocketed. I discovered that by making clothes that fit my body, I could finally let go of the pressure to make my body fit my clothes. It was a revelation!
To my original pillowcase instructor’s credit, it took me four years to make my own jeans. And yet, that initial goal drove me to do all the steps in between!
Pulling it all together: Outdoor + Apparel = Alpine Parrot!
After enough ski lessons to determine I was ready to invest a bit more in the sport, it became clear to me that sweatpants under rain pants and a hoodie under a rain jacket would not be an appropriate long-term winter apparel solution. But when I went to my local outdoor retail store, I was mortified to learn that there was no snow apparel that fit my size 16 body properly. Almost all of the brands stopped at size 14 (or smaller) in the women’s section, and everything in the men’s section was either too loose in the waist or too tight in hips.
Proper apparel to engage in a sport (much less to become competent or even expert) is critical, especially when it’s an outdoor extreme sport. Mother Nature doesn’t play around, and when it comes to safety, neither should we. A bit of snow down the backside for a beginner doesn’t seem like much, but frostbite for backcountry skiers is a genuine concern. Getting the right gear regardless of where you are in your outdoor sports progression should be a right, not a privilege.
I ultimately ended up purchasing apparel that would suffice, but definitely wouldn’t work for the long term. It was still the winter of 2014, and I sincerely hoped that by the time I was a more advanced skier things might begin to change.
Fast forward to 2018: In one of my classes at patternmaking school, I took the opportunity to design an eight-piece plus size women’s snow apparel line. Now a solid intermediate skier, I designed the clothes I (still!) wished I could buy, including a jacket that fit my chest and went past my hips with room to spare, bibs that accommodated my athletic thighs, and a puffy skirt for après. I presented it to my class, along with a fictional business name and a high-level target market analysis.
My presentation struck a chord with my teacher, who pulled me aside after class and declared that my designs needed to become reality. She explained that there is an entire market of people out there who need these clothes and, unlike most founders, I’m actually a member of the market I would serve.
I had no intention of starting a company - I was working as a software engineering manager, making plenty of money and diving into interesting problems. But I was also burned out, and I didn’t get to spend as much time outside as my mind and body craved.
Over the next several months I went from “no way” to registering Alpine Parrot, LLC (we’re now a PBC). I took more classes, ranging from advanced patternmaking to apparel production. I even participated in an apparel bootcamp, where I worked in a factory with a team of other volunteers to cut and sew winter jackets for children in need. I attended my first Outdoor Retailer and started building a network that continues to serve me to this day.
February 4, 2020 was my last day as a software engineering manager. I started as the full-time CEO of Alpine Parrot the very next day, and now, four years later, I can say that it has been quite the adventure!
Thank you so much for being part of this rollercoaster ride - whether you’ve been with us since the very beginning or you’ve just joined us: we couldn’t do it without you. 💖