Chad Brown, 43, begins his days like many in the outdoor industry-coffee followed by more coffee. Brown’s a busy man with a passion for fly fishing and getting people onto the water who might not otherwise have the opportunity: urban youth and military veterans. His Portland, Oregon, non-profit organization Soul River Inc. provides opportunities for these groups to experience the outdoors, and his associated retail shop, Soul River Runs Deep, provides both technical gear and lifestyle products to increase inclusivity.
Brown has been to war (he’s a U.S. Navy combat veteran, 50 percent disabled) and has struggled with and overcome PTSD. He also happens to be an African-American man, not the most common demographic in the outdoor industry. He’s sometimes harassed about his race (“Blacks simply refuse to allow caucasians to have anything alone and without them,” someone on Facebook recently ranted at him). Given Brown’s success, drive, and enthusiasm, nasty comments on Facebook are not going to slow him down. Still, that kind of overt racism demonstrates how important Soul River’s work is.
Everyone deserves a chance to be outside. Brown is doing his best to make that happen.
If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asked you what you did for work, what did/would you tell them?
I am an entrepreneur and expedition guide based out of Portland, Oregon, bringing veterans and inner-city youth together in the natural world, connecting them to our public lands and precious rivers, exploring the wilderness, and sharing the amazing sport of fly fishing and its healing powers.
Essentially, I fight for social justice and change in our communities and in the industry. I also have a for-profit urban and outdoor apparel business, as well. Each sale gives 15 percent back to the non-profit.
What is a typical day like for you, starting when you get to work and ending when you get home for the day?
My day starts out at 4:30 a.m. when my Battle Buddy Axe (service dog) wakes me to go outside. I awkwardly find Axe’s leash in the dark and take him outside to potty. We then go back inside and he typically wants to play! I try ignoring him (in a good way) and give him a pet and ‘sit down’ command so that I can reply to emails and make coffee. I tend to be behind on my email correspondence so I make sure to try to get back to folks in a timely manner.
As the morning moves forward, I get up from my emails, drink the rest of my coffee, and then get Axe’s gear together along with my laptop, bag, etc. and head out the door. Axe and I always drive to a coffee shop to get more coffee (seriously!) and then we head to the Soul River Runs Deep shop.
Here is where things get crazy. First, I put my retail hat on to open the shop. As soon as I open the door, Axe runs straight to his place in the shop. I start to straighten up the products, clean, and begin to pull online orders. Before I open the doors to the public, I sometimes hold business meetings at the shop. This is the part that people don’t see or know, but I end up doing a tremendous amount of balancing acts, since I am also wearing my other hat as an executive director for the nonprofit Soul River Inc. I typically have two to five conference calls with youth agencies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, board members, veteran agencies, or any other client or organization that has reached out to me at some point.
I spend a lot of time figuring out logistics for the deployments, checking with sponsors on gear for expeditions, talking with vendors who are contributing their services to make these expeditions happen for our veterans and youth, planning out routes and developing the outdoor learning programs along with identifying key stakeholders in the process. Some of this entails working with my board of directors, from a planning and development phase, that helps with the operations of the deployments and the functioning of Soul River Inc. Oh, I also pitch companies, give presentations, and speak to new audiences about Soul River and recruit youth when I can. And last, I also design all the product lines for the retail shop Soul River Runs Deep and spearhead the marketing.
The days are long, but time goes so fast that I don’t even realize when the clock turns to 6pm or 7pm. There is so much to do in one day alone!
How does your job affect someone’s day?
I work most of the year (about eight months) planning expedition deployments for inner city youth and veterans, so I don’t have the luxury of seeing immediate gratification. When the season starts up (usually May), I, along with others, then start to see all the work that has been put in turns into a success in the outdoors-witnessing youth and veterans’ lives impacting one another, seeing minds and spirits change and grow.
What was your first job in the outdoor industry?
Growing up and throughout my time in the military, I was heavily involved in the outdoors. I was into backpacking, mountaineering, trekking, mountain biking and adventure racing when I lived in New York. Anything extreme and challenging really piqued my interest. But neither my life growing up nor the career really prepared me for the outdoor industry.
At one point in my life I went through an intense struggle fighting post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, struggling with suicide. That journey led me to fly fishing, and ultimately, it’s where I found solace along with a rewiring of my brain that allowed me to relearn life all over again. I went through an intense, dark change, and using nature as my medicine was an authentic way to heal and get back into society ready to kick some ass! Circumstances put me into the outdoor industry with a keen entrepreneurial mindset, identifying potential underserved demographics who are not getting served from a holistic viewpoint. So I created my job, my company, the non-profit from my bare hands. This was literally and continues to be the purest example of “grass-roots”. Soul River serves these identified underserved groups through fly fishing, outdoor education and leadership, expeditions and encouraging them to be ambassadors of conservation.
How does someone get your job?
You don’t just get this job. You need heart, passion, and a fighting attitude to jump in the real-world ring. You have to believe in yourself no matter what society or the industry tells you. Being a younger African American man in the fly fishing industry is already rare enough. Trying to build and establish an LLC and a non-profit in the industry is a whole other ball of wax. In the beginning, I would attend trade shows as a vendor. I would play loud hip-hop or reggae and my booth was sexy, edgy, and invigorating for the people attending and the industry. It was hard for people to see, but at the same time, it attracted people who knew that the fresh perspective and need to get younger people and especially people of color involved in the sport was critical. It was no easy feat! What you’re setting out to create for yourself and others must be driven by raw talent, deep passion, and intense commitment that you must choose to not deny.
What are the pros of your job?
Seeing the transformation of veterans and inner-city youth change within their heart and minds, witnessing communities forming amongst veterans and youth, and seeing the families of the participants feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude with hope and happiness across their faces! The most rewarding thing is seeing youth who come back to their home life and want to become a leader to teach other youth, and hearing a veteran say, “Thank you for giving me a purpose to live.” I have been there-in the position of the youth having a hard home life or pressures from the streets as well as in the position of the veteran looking for the real meaning of life after war.
What are the cons?
It’s hard to see cons. For me as an entrepreneur you can’t focus on negativity or let that come into your mind. You put your all in and sacrifice so much along the way for others to see and feel what you have to offer. But don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of all the trials I have to face and I know the challenges will be hard. I know that many people doubt behind closed doors, but it’s my job to keep pushing forward. There will ALWAYS be people who will be discouraging, depending on your race, ability, or gender. You may get called out in a negative way and it can be very disappointing because you are putting yourself out there, feeling exposed and vulnerable in order to help and share your passion and your company. At the same time, it’s been easy to become a target with a big bulls eye, but I know this and try to stay prepared by recalling the life experiences that I already endured. As an entrepreneur, I fight hard every day because that’s how I know how to win and overcome.
Photos courtesy Chad Brown