Toad & Co. is a socially minded brand dedicated to doing good through bettering peoples lives, creating sustainable products, and inspiring meaningful change in the outdoor industry and the world. Toad recognizes the importance of women in leadership roles and recently promoted Nina Brito to a National Sales Manager. We are so excited to share this exclusive interview with Nina about her role at Toad and how we can support women taking on more leadership in our industry and beyond. I was lucky enough to visit Toad's headquarters in Santa Barbara to talk with Nina and meet co-founder of Toad &Co., Gordon Seabury. Don't miss Gordon's inspiring story about Toad's commitment to supporting adults with disabilities through the nonprofit he co-founded, Planet Access Company. May this interview inspire others to follow Toad's path of doing business with the wellbeing of people and the planet in mind.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What inspires you? What drives you? What brings you joy?
Positivity rules my life. My mom instilled in me that no matter when happens you can always play the “Glad Game” from the movie Pollyanna. Everything inspires me, from nature to bad ass, successful people. I am driven by the innate need to improve on things through a creative process. I am a creative person by nature but also have an analytical side. I can be business minded while simultaneously seeing creative ways to solve a problem. I am grateful to work for a clothing company that fosters both my business and creative interests.
Congratulations on your promotion to national sales manager at Toad & Co. I am excited to see a woman in a position of leadership in the outdoor industry. Tell us about your new role at Toad & Co.
I am super excited to be the national sales manager. I started at an entry level position and worked really hard to get to where I am. Before I worked for Toad, I bought the brand as a consumer and as a buyer for a retail store, so I’ve watched the company grow over many years.
When the national sales manager role came up, I didn’t even consider myself for the position. Mostly, because I was completely content in my current position. Toad has a way of making every job desirable and I was really happy in my operations manager role. When I was talking to Scott Whipps, the VP of sales for Toad, he asked if I could see myself in the national sales manager position. Thanks to his encouragement and a healthy dose of self-confidence, I put my name in the hat and went through the whole process. It was a little intimidating and still is because the role comes with a lot of responsibility. Overseeing such a large part of our business and working more intensely on an individual basis with each of our accounts, I wanted to be sure to not only see business from the wholesale side of things. I feel fortunate enough to have worked as a buyer for many years and I know what I considered to be an A+ brand. I use that information and strive to be that partner that all our accounts love working with. I think about all the facets of each process as a retailer – from buying to the sales floor. I anticipate what reactions might be and formulate a plan from there. I am excited to get to work more intensely with our sales force and our accounts. From my retail days, I miss having a more consistent customer interaction and I feel like this role puts me in more of a front line position.
As national sales manager, what obstacles have you faced as a woman in a leadership role in a male dominant industry? What were some of the obstacles you overcame to get to where you are today?
The outdoor industry in general is very male dominant, so it’s not uncommon for me to be the only woman at the table. Though men and women are very supportive of one another in our industry, it can still be intimidating sometimes. I am constantly on the lookout for other women to cultivate as part of my support system for ideas, motivation and inspiration. Creating supportive female relationships within our industry is invaluable. I host a small women’s dinner every once in a while at the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance show to talk about our experiences in the industry and in life. Through talking about the challenges we face, we can learn how to better support each other and also realize we are not alone.
I feel so blessed to work with a company that supports individuals. Our leadership team at Toad is mostly women, but they aren’t in the positions they are in because they are women but because they are talented, qualified and the best person for the job.
Scott Whipps, my direct boss, is the best boss and I’m not just saying that. I might have not considered this job if it weren’t for him. I also have an amazing mentor, Kelly Milazzo, who is the VP of Operations for Toad. We do a monthly lunch now and I go to her with challenges I am facing and how to problem solve and prioritize. Having someone who isn’t my boss to talk to is super valuable. I think it is so important to have a mentor who has been there and can listen and offer sound advice.
Toad & Co isn’t just in the business of making clothes, it’s in the business of making change. What does making change mean to Toad & Co?
I feel lucky to work for a company that doesn’t just make clothes but a company that makes a difference; a company that is leading in so many efforts and setting the example for how to be a sustainable and socially minded company. We empower adults with disabilities through our Planet Access Company not just through employment but also through meaningful outdoor experiences. We ensure our products are environmentally friendly so our customers can feel good about the clothing they buy from us. I love hearing our designers talk about the fabrics they are excited about. When I hear how much vetting we go through for a single fabric to be chosen to go through production it amazes me. We do that for everything we do. Every single product we put out there is 90% more sustainable than any other clothes. It is a proud moment to work for a company that takes the treatment of the planet and animals into account in every decision we make.
Toad & Co. is committed to environmental citizenship in cleaning up public lands, volunteering with local disability awareness groups, being a member of 1% for the Planet, and purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) for all of our Toad&Co locations. What challenges does Toad face in being committed to sustainability?
It’s always a challenge because you are giving up resources and having to get innovative and creative to solve problems in a sustainable way. To Toad though, it is all about advocacy and spreading the word about the importance of sustainability so we never question our commitment. I think another big challenge is informing the consumer about all that we do. We are working to incorporate even more of our story and information about how we make a difference into our marketing so that the consumer knows their purchase is making a positive environmental and social impact.
Toad has been named one of Outside Magazine’s Best Places to Work seven years in a row. What do you love about working at Toad?
First of all I have only worked for small companies in my life and I love it because you learn a ton and you get to do a ton of different things. At Toad, everyone cares, we are all in 100% and doing it together. I love the sense of camaraderie and teamwork that comes with working at a company of thirty-four people. Toad is one of those rare work places where everyone gets to be themselves. I am where I am today in the national sales manager position because I got to be who I am. It is amazing to work for such an accepting company.
What’s next for you and Toad & Co.?
We are getting creative in how to best support our retailers because retail is in a hard spot today. We know if we don't support our retailers adapting, they won’t be here. We have a really good number of retailers who realize that things are changing and who are progressing and evolving to stay relevant. We want to be a resource for retailers, helping them to grow and look ahead to the future.
What advice do you have for young women wanting to pursue careers in the outdoor industry?
Always be yourself. If you’re ever somewhere where they don’t foster what makes you amazing, get out. There are so many places in this industry that allow you to be yourself and that is how you will grow to your fullest potential. Start at a small company where you can make mistakes and learn. Go after mom and pop shops where you can get your hands on a lot of facets of the business. Also, reiterating what I said earlier - find a mentor. Get a network for work and for yourself. We all need a network of support.
And how can the outdoor industry better support women in leadership roles?
I think we need to have more women centered conversations where women in the industry can talk about challenges together. I feel very fortunate to work for a company that is extremely supportive of men and women equally. I realize a critical part of our industry supporting women is encouraging companies to empower all their employees equally.
The last question is answered by Gordon Seabury, one of the founders of Toad & Co. who had the vision to be a socially minded company from day one.
Everyone on the TB&C team is inspired by Toad & Co.’s Planet Access Company, the social enterprise of Search, Inc. that employs adults with disabilities in your packing warehouse facilities in Chicago. Tell us about how and why Toad started this program?
Growing up I was so impressed with businesses that were having a bigger impact. There were only a handful back then, Patagonia, Ben & Jerries and Stoneyfield were the big three that inspired the sustainable businesses movement. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and when I went to businesses school I immersed myself in the realm of sustainable business and joined students for social responsibility. Part of the reason I ended up in the outdoor industry was my passion for the activities and everything it represented. At the time, it was the only industry that embraced the idea of environmental responsibility and business for a greater purpose. Customers that were attracted to the industry were focused on being conscious consumers and that attracted me to the industry too.
After my first time at Outdoor Retailer with my new company, I realized the other companies like Patagonia were far ahead of Toad in terms of environmental initiatives. I realized we could be great citizens and follow every bit of that leadership but I also looked around and realized there were no social initiatives in the outdoor industry. No one was doing anything people oriented. I thought maybe Toad could fill that void and model social responsibility.
At the time, my wife was working for a nonprofit and one of her board members was the head of Search, a non-profit that empowers individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to achieve their full potential, accept a valued role in their community and lead rich, rewarding lives. My wife introduced me to John who knew the whole landscape of the social network as the head of Search and immediately jumped on board to partner. He was trying to diversify their funding from state and federal subsidies and donations to a sustainable source of income. They were buying homes to provide great housing for adults with disabilities and were working to develop vocational programs that would eventually become for profit enterprises that would fund the mission.
Together John and I founded Planet Access Company and in our first year we launched camping pillows made from scraps. The pillows were the first Planet Access Company product and our company had three missions: to recycle and reduce waste, to provide access and meaningful work for adults with disabilities, and to bring awareness to this underserved community. The pilot pillow program was a huge success because we sold 2,000 pillows and sold out. They were 100% supported by our retailers who were super engaged in the program and inspired by Planet Access. But the pillows were not a sustainable program for many reasons. The work was dangerous and only a limited portion of the population could do it and the camping pillow market was super small.
But we weren’t about to give up. John came to me with an inspiring idea. He knew that Fridays were our packing days so he came over on a Friday and suggested that they bring the adults with disabilities to the warehouse with a coach to do the pick and pack. I loved the idea.
Our first packer was Anthony who became the poster child from the program. Not only did he live independently in housing provided by Search, but he also got a full paying job with Planet Access and modeled our mission. The ultimate goal was to take the proceeds from the program once it was profitable and provide outdoor education opportunities for the adults with disabilities. We now bring all the adults who work in our warehouses out to Santa Barbara twice a year for outdoor adventure opportunities who would otherwise never have the resources to travel, vacation or explore the world.