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Student-led initiatives at Western State Colorado University's camp. Photo by Eric Phillips / Western State Colorado University

Western State Colorado University Debuts Nation’s First-Ever Outdoor MBA

Colorado is now home to the country’s premier outdoor industry business degree. The goal? To develop sustainable-minded leadership for the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy.

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It’s no secret that outdoor recreation is booming in the U.S. According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), the amount spent on outdoor products grew from $121 billion to $184.5 billion during the five-year period ending in 2017. Here in Colorado, the industry generates $28 billion in consumer spending per year, and is responsible for the creation of 229,000 jobs. As this segment of the economy continues to grow, a new wave of university programs are emerging across the West to educate the next generation of industry leaders.

The newest program will launch at Gunnison’s Western State Colorado University this fall, in the form of the country’s first-ever Outdoor Industry MBA, a two-year program that offers coursework in either product development or service, with an emphasis on sustainability.

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“Sustainability was a recurring topic that came up in our conference calls and conversations with outdoor industry leaders,”says Pete Sherman, dean of the Western State Colorado University School of Business and director of the Outdoor Industry MBA. “It’s critical to the industry and something that upcoming leaders need to be well-versed in.”

Sustainability is a key issue for businesses in the outdoors industry, as is evidenced by the OIA’s inaugural State of Sustainability in the Outdoor Industry report, which was released at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in late July. However, it’s not always easily attainable, especially for smaller companies. Because of this, Western State’s new MBA program will include courses that tackle this issue from all angles. For example, students will take courses ranging from “Sustainable Outdoor Product Development and Material Sourcing” to “Supply Chain and Logistics in the Outdoor Industry” and “Sustainable Finance,” which examines the economics behind this matter.

“For product development, we need to think about not only where the materials come from, but also how long products are in circulation,” Sherman says. “Do we really need additional products in a product line that have already been covered?”

Sustainability has influenced the bachelor’s degree curriculums for both Utah State University’s Outdoor Product Design and Development (OPDD)—a four-year program that began in spring 2016—and Oregon State University-Cascade’s Outdoor Product Design program (launching next year). Other outdoors-focused higher education programs include the University of Colorado Boulder’s recently debuted Masters of Environment, and Colorado State University’s graduate certificate in Adventure Tourism.

To date, more than 30 students have applied for the MBA program, which kicks off on September 24 (applications are accepted until August 24). Students complete the majority of their coursework online and meet for three in-person immersions with their 15-person cohort and industry leaders. That first classroom and networking week is woven into the January 2019 Outdoor Retailer Snow Show, followed by meet-ups to study and hike (or ski) in the Gunnison Valley later that summer and the following spring.

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“The program is designed for people who are in the outdoor industry: They will get the best return on investment,” Sherman says. “If any applicants want to transition into the industry, we would consider them for the program—but I recommend that they get into industry first.”

Beyond sustainability, Sherman says that professionals who are applying for this program are excited—probably for the first time—to take their passion for the outdoors, indoors. “A lot of leaders in industry were calling for this program—we had no idea what the response would be. The applicants are so excited and thank us for creating it,” Sherman says.

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