For us, summer is the season of adventure – whether we're exploring the hidden side streets of the city or escaping to our national parks to discover natural wonders. Parks Project was born from a love for adventure and the understanding that the parks depend on us to thrive. Driven by their motto, "Leave it better than you found it," they have dedicated themselves to helping preserve and protect our parklands by directly funding ongoing projects in our national parks.
Our friends at Parks Project aren't only about protecting and preserving our parklands... they also know the importance of incorporating sustainability in the green spaces of our urban cities. Whether that's by volunteering to maintain natural spaces in LA or choosing to move around using human fuel (instead of gas), our friends Keith and Sevag are all about leaving their community better than they found it.
THOUSAND: Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey – how did your experiences lead you to Parks Project?
KEITH AND SEVAG: It started in 2014. Sevag and I were doing a habitat restoration volunteer day and there weren’t many folks around. That spurred the idea of trying to get more of our generation connected to the parks and volunteering to help support all the ongoing projects we had learned about. The original vision of the Parks Project was to get friends volunteering in our parks so we could make a difference and support our favorite open spaces. We got out as a group, did work, felt good about it, and planned to celebrate after a day's hard work with a cold one or two. From our experience in apparel and social enterprise after a combined 11 years working at TOMS, we thought it would be cool if people could wear this cause too. There were many defining moments for the business. Getting an encouraging email from the creative director at Patagonia; landing our first order with Urban Outfitters; and being the smallest company (next to Disney, REI, Budweiser, etc) to get the official license for making National Park Products were definitely a few. Validation can provide a lot of motivation, but we also saw this social enterprise as something that could also do some major work and make a dent in funding projects in the parks. Another defining moment was when we visited the nursery that we were funding in Muir Woods. We realized our little company was putting thousands of redwoods back in the park! And we thought – if we could scale this company, we could contribute so much to all these spectacular places!
T: Why do you feel Parks Project’s mission is important? What role does it play in running the business every day?
K & S: We think you have to have a meaningful purpose these days, as there is so much noise in today’s world and giving back has become so popular in the consumer products space. So we live by our mission and fall back on it daily. Everything we do ties back to purveying our effort to support the parks. Parks Project serves as a steward and reminder to promote and preserve National Parks. We live by the rule "Leave it Better Than You Found It," and we're looking for like-minded champions of the great outdoors.
T: Why do you ride instead of drive? What’s your favorite thing about riding?
K & S: It's a big goal of ours to hop on a bike and get around town as much as possible. When you're on a bike or skateboard, you're not a at a pump filling up a vehicle with gas – you're using human fuel. It's thrilling, it's good exercise, usually you'll beat traffic, and you'll see more along the way.
T: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs just starting out?
K & S: It all starts with an idea or a dream, and you have to find yours in an authentic manner. We took a big risk in leaving the comfort of our previous jobs and lives. I've always loved the Mark Twain quote that said something like twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. Find out if you are comfortable with taking the risk, double check its something you are willing to dedicate your entire life (and some) to, and then you just gotta go for it. As long as we keep pushing the boundaries in our space and continue finding new creative ways to engage people with parks, I feel we are making progress. And as we see more and more of the next generation get behind this idea, that's where the dream really lives. I think if we can mobilize youth to look at their relationship with the outdoors in a different light that would be a dream come true. That’s our mission and north star, but every journey will have a different path, so I totally encourage people to go find theirs!
T: Do you have a favorite national park? Why?
K: Off early or late season Yosemite – the hiking, rivers, climbing, waterfalls, high elevation lakes, and overall scenery is just out of this world. You can go from feeling super comfortable in the valley to getting way uncomfortable and lost in the backcountry in the same day.
S:Joshua tree – incredible sunsets, feels like another planet, stargazing and night photography. Pappy and Harriet's crossed with cool day hikes. All within a short drive from home.
T: Favorite project you’ve funded? Why?
K & S:As much as we love the habitat and wildlife programs, I think some of the youth engagement and education programs are really the most rewarding, and they serve as an investment in the future of parklands. One really cool program that Sequoia Conservancy runs brings rangers to classrooms to support outdoor learning for K-12 students in the San Joaquin Valley. These wild places will outlive us all (hopefully), so we have to think about what we do generationally to leave it better than we found it.
T: What were some of the successes and challenges you faced as Parks Project started to grow? What are some of your favorite moments in Parks Project history?
K & S: Every day poses a new challenge. You have to start somewhere and it can be so humbling. Lots of “No” in the early days, but that’s what you ignore and just keep going – don’t take no for an answer really. At one point, we used to basically sell t-shirts out of the back of a Prius! It was a full-on scramble where every day there were new ideas and opportunities, and other days some things just totally fell apart. Over the course of five years as a startup, we have learned a lot about riding the crazy wave of building a business from the ground up with little funding. Running out of money every other month, production problems, missing inventories, the list goes on. We should really write them all down so we can laugh about it one day. But on the flip side, the successes definitely outweigh the challenges by far. Watching a team grow and take charge of the business is just incredible, getting letters from customers and hearing their stories is incredible. We are big on people power! Also, combining the retail business and fashion with a public entity like the National Parks is no easy feat. It takes time, determination, and much collaboration. We've also taken a lot of risks along the way. Some ideas haven’t panned out, but you gotta give it a go to see if it might be a viable business opportunity. And if it doesn’t work out, we get over it quick, learn and let it go.
T: What’s next for Parks Project?
K & S: Stay true to the story that brought us here and continue finding creative ways to explore and protect parklands. I think we can all do a better job of getting out and celebrating the splendor of this world. It's revitalizing to get lost in parks and you find yourself in the process. These places provide the most pristine, pure, and remote environments that nature has to offer! When we experience these places, we create connections with them. From those connections, we will feel more of a desire and responsibility to take care of them so we can hand them down to the next generation. So get off the screen and plan your next trip, see you out there!
1. Moon Juice → for juices
2. Chulita → for afternoon meetings/snacks
3. Jenis → for ice creams
4. Gjusta → for breakfast
5. The Waterfront Venice → for sunset beer and a bite
6. The Unlikely Florist → to get some flowers for someone
7. Venice Beach → for a surf check or ocean dip
8. Deus Ex Machina → for second cup coffee
9. Tacos Por Favor → for crispy shell tacos lunch
10. Toms → for an outside meeting
11. Old Lightning → for cocktails12. Venice Canals → for an evening stroll