A Perpetual State of Jumping: Interviewing SheJumps Co-Founder Claire Smallwood

In 2005, Claire met fellow professional skier Lynsey Dyer at a freeskiing competition and they immediately bonded. In fact, you could probably say that encounter impacted the course of Claire’s life.

At the time, Lynsey and Vanessa Pierce had created SheJumps, which was originally a blog where they wrote profiles about amazing women—unsung heroes. The idea was to use these profiles to inspire other women to jump, take risks, and reach their highest potential. In 2007 Claire became a co-founder of SheJumps along with Lynsey and Vanessa, helping to turn SheJumps into the nonprofit that it is today. By 2008, and without a lawyer, Claire succeeded in getting SheJumps 501(c)3 status, and helped redefine the mission, to increase participation in outdoor activities. Claire is now Executive Director of the organization and in 2014 received Toyota's Everyday Hero Award for her work on behalf of SheJumps. 

“In the mountains it is always okay to reverse and turn around and decide that you haven’t made the right choice—but we like to take that and apply that to life.”

Pushing and inspiring women to jump for their dreams isn’t a fluffy vision, it is how Claire lives her life—in a perpetual stage of “jumping” and self-growth. She is stubborn (to use her own words), motivated by the potential of women, and won’t take no for an answer. Which is perfect, because her actions while evolving SheJumps speak so clearly to anyone out to create a meaningful impact and big life. Claire is a jumper—and here’s some of her story.


Anchor & Leap: SheJumps often talks about “unsung heroes” out in the world. Can you tell me more about how that idea resonates with the organization?

Claire Smallwood, Co-founder of SheJumps

Claire Smallwood, Co-founder of SheJumps

Claire: There are a lot of people who do things because it is just in their nature and it would be impossible not to do. We interviewed a woman on SheJumps who’s daughter has down syndrome. She wrote to us explaining that to her, her daughter was the best SheJumper because her daughter was the first one to practice every day and the last one to leave. She wasn’t the fastest, but she did it every single day. And that’s a story that isn’t going to necessarily get press.

At SheJumps we see the value in sharing stories like that because it helps other people come out of their shadows and find out that there is really something magical inside of them and that everyone has something that drives them.  And the stories of unsung heroes help that thing come to life in the people who read them.

 


Anchor & Leap: In your own words, can you tell me the mission of SheJumps?  

Claire: I would say that at the core of SheJumps, we want to create opportunities for women of all ages and backgrounds to get outside. That is at the very core of our mission, but what I think goes beyond that is that we are looking to build a community of women who are willing to help each other reach their highest potential and to take risks, whether that be in the outdoors or just in life. It’s about realizing that you have a great amount of potential within yourself to live the life you’ve always imagined, and that it is about constantly reevaluating that.

At SheJumps we believe that some of that reevaluation happens in the outdoors and that nature is one of our greatest teachers. So it’s a matter of knowing that and paying respect to that. In the mountains it is always okay to reverse and turn around and decide that you haven’t made the right choice—but we like to take that and apply that to life. And also using that to help guide you as you make your way through the adventure. SheJumps creates the mentality of,  “If she can do it, so can I.”

“I think there is a direct correlation between experience in the outdoors and sports, with women finding themselves in those leadership positions. I want SheJumps to play a pivotal role in cultivating those leaders.”

Anchor & Leap: What is the primary long-term impact you want to achieve through SheJumps? 
 

Claire: I specifically want to see SheJumps be the leading resource for women’s outdoor education. If I back up though, the biggest tangible goal is to truly connect women with their natural environment and feeling self sufficient in it, and that can done through many different types of experiences. I want SheJumps to be the go to place so that a woman of any age, background, and ability can find either some way to connect with another female in a meaningful way or to have an impactful experience in the outdoors. 

People say they want to see more women in leadership positions, and I think there is a direct correlation between experience in the outdoors and sports with women finding themselves in those leadership positions. I want SheJumps to play a pivotal role in creating a really fertile environment to cultivate more of those leaders.  

Anchor & Leap: Have you ever taken a big risk in order to continue pursuing what you love? Or a big risk that ended up largely impacting your journey?
 

Claire: I think the biggest risk that really impacted me was in June 2012 I got in a ski accident and blew my knee out pretty badly and have had two surgeries since then. Prior to that I felt like things in my life were going pretty well. Up to 2012 everything with SheJumps was going well, it was growing and I kept it to a size I was comfortable with—even though everyone wanted to see it grow. Then I got in this accident and I was forced to sit on a couch for 6 weeks and reevaluate everything that was going on in my life. One of the things that came up was the SheJumps had (and has) great potential, but that I wasn’t taking it or myself serious enough in terms of being the Executive Director.

“Believing is a risk in a way because there are always a million excuses for why you can’t do something.”

What I mean by this is not just letting that role come to me but to really step into that role in a new way. Leading up to January 2013 was when we did a really big rebrand and restructuring of the organization and I started to really challenge myself in that role. I now see that manifesting that and taking my own advice that you can do anything, is realizing in a really big way that SheJumps has the opportunity to really change lives for a lot of people. And that is so scary sometimes but also so fulfilling. 

So for me it is this constant jump that I am in right now. Sometimes I get really overwhelmed, I pretty much do the work of five people, and I start to think, “I don’t know if I’m qualified for all of this, maybe someone else should take over.” Then I realize that yeah, someone else could take over and I’m sure they could do a great job, but I’m not done yet. I want to see SheJumps get to where I know that it can be and have a strong foundation with a legacy that can live on forever. 

The jump for me has been stepping into my own and realizing that I can run a national organization without ever having run a nonprofit before and that I can do a good job at it. Believing that is a risk in a way because there are always a million excuses for why you can’t do something. I look forward to maintaining this perpetual stage of jumping, so to speak, as SheJumps continues to grow over the next 3-5 years as we have planned with our next programs and initiatives and see SheJumps really make that big change in the world.

Anchor & Leap: I love the idea of the perpetual stage of jumping! I read an article recently that explained that when we put ourselves in really hard positions that it can create an ongoing internal questioning of, “Can I really do this?” And that slight discomfort is key to a life of growth.

Claire: Yeah I think I would definitely fall into that category.

 

Anchor & Leap: At what point did you realize skiing was more than a passion and what you wanted to dedicate your life to?  


Claire: When I was in fifth grade I went on a ski trip with my elementary school where we all went up to the mountain—that was a transformative experience because all of a sudden, I got to be on the mountain and get to know people in a new way. I was always outgoing but never the most popular kid in school and so for me I felt this freedom and ability to express myself and my tenacity and attitude of, “I’m just going to go do this.” 

Claire skiing in Ushuaia, Argentina

Claire skiing in Ushuaia, Argentina

Everyone was the same on the mountain and I think there was a moment when that really hit me. Then when I was a little older, watching my older brother compete in freeskiing as the sport was really just getting going, and seeing him progress and also that there weren’t a lot of women freeskiing. I realized that I had an incredible passion for it and I thought, “I want to do that!” and then from there skiing just become this vehicle of self expression. I needed to ski to keep myself sane and it was a part of my real identity that was totally unique.

Later on, when I was on the mountain one day, I realized that I felt the most inspired and happy when I was with women and, that at the end of the day, it was the female professional skiers who really motivated me because I thought, “If she can do it, so can I.”  

Anchor & Leap: It’s fascinating to see how passion comes up in different person’s lives and that for you, there was something that skiing just spoke to so deeply. You can’t really choose it, whether it’s skiing or making a piece of artwork—it seems like it is always there and the person just has to discover it.

Claire: Absolutely, and I remember this really clear moment in time when I was a junior in high school, and I had never owned a new pair of skis, or anything new until I was 18. And that year I went to my local ski shop and I was buying these old skis that had old crappy rental bindings on them. I had saved up for them and then realized I was literally $2 short. So I ran out to my car and scrounged up $2 in change. I didn’t even think about it at the time but after that I didn’t have any money to go skiing! But when you’re in the moment, it doesn’t matter because you are so driven by your passion and you just go for it.


Anchor & Leap: Through all of your work with SheJumps and the challenges along the way of creating a nonprofit, what continues to fuel your passion and motivation?

Claire: I think I have always been a very driven person so there is that aspect of myself that translates to what I do with SheJumps and just not giving up. So one motivating factor for me is the idea that if you keep working at something that it will finally pay off. And that self-determination of, “Dammit, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it.”

I also get really motivated with SheJumps by seeing as a team how much we have grown, and specifically with Lynsey Dyer with the film Pretty Faces. I think the film tells a really incredible story and shows how women are more dynamic and that we are all more than just really good skiers. Working with Lynsey on that project was really a pivotal experience for me.

When I went on tour with the project, I drove 7,000 miles in two months, driving all around the country, was raising money, promoting the film, promoting SheJumps, and standing up on stage and seeing these theaters filled with women and kids and dads and boyfriends and husbands and all these people and they are just cheering and they are all so excited. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. It was an incredibly rejuvenating experience. While it was exhausting to be working so much on the tour, I felt like I was reconnecting with the reason of why we were doing this. The reason why was to connect with the dads too and with the little girls who are looking at the girls in magazines and thinking, “Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to look like and do” and then standing there as this real female in front of them and showing them that they can do whatever they want to and be whoever they want to be. And, that you don’t have to the best at it, but just go try.

Also, one of the most important ongoing things that motivates me is building the team of regional coordinators for SheJumps. These are women who volunteer for SheJumps from all across the country and they are so phenomenal. Last year we had 88 events in 20 different states, creating close to 2,000 new opportunities for women to get outside. Working with these incredible women is so inspiring—seeing how they donate their time, reaching out to partners, making events happen, figuring out what the community needs. Because the truth is, I could be alone at the top as Executive Director and it would mean nothing without this team that is willing to make these programs happen.

To know that that community of regional coordinators is there and growing, we have 26, shows me that women are willing to get outside of their comfort zone and give back in a way that is staggering to how most people consider volunteer their time, which is usually for an hour. We are talking about women who are volunteering up to 20 hours a week. So I would say that when I want to throw the towel in, I remember that I have these amazing regional coordinators who are also there with me on that level. And that is pretty moving in and of itself.

“If you don’t know, you’re not scared.” And I didn’t know so I just went for it because it was something I was passionate about and I wanted to know that I tried to do this.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Posted on March 11, 2015 .