Force of Nature: Jenna Johnson channels the great outdoors in life, family and career

Jenna Johnson climbs at Red Rocks, Colorado

Jenna Johnson climbs at Red Rocks, Colorado

Jenna Johnson (EMBA 2010) lives on solid rock.

But the foundation of her family, her passions and even her career is not some metaphorical terra firma underfoot. It’s real rock, of the vertical variety:  the towering granite slabs of Squamish and Yosemite, the ethereal limestone cliffs of Red Rocks and Ton Sai, the soaring sandstone pillars of Zion and Moab.

Johnson is a 5.12 climber, avid and accomplished. And climbing is what introduced her to her husband, the source of personal challenge and family recreation, and that extra something on her resume that helped land her dream job as senior global director of the technical outdoor program at Patagonia, the iconic active apparel company.

“Climbing,” she says, “has been the foundation of the second half of my life.”

Climb on

Johnson’s first act was defined by the discipline of competitive swimming and the curiosity of living across the globe (her father was in international sales for Caterpillar). After taking up rock climbing while an undergrad at the University of Arizona, she spent a year backpacking around the world—Nepal, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and back again. While sport climbing in coastal Thailand, she met Dylan Johnson. They clicked. And after reuniting in California, the two lived in his van, working their way across the great crags of the western United States. Eventually, they settled in Seattle.

Her itinerant lifestyle notwithstanding, Johnson was no vagabond. “I was always drawn to business,” she says. “I just had an innate aversion to the corporate 9-to-5.”

To avoid such constricts she went to work for local mountaineering outfitter Feathered Friends, then for a sales agency that represented the active brands Vasque, Keen and Arc’teryx. This led to a brand manager position at Cascade Designs leading its Therm-a-Rest line of camp mattresses.

Next generation

Johnson loved working with products she would actually use. Still, she wanted more. “I was intrigued by the idea of making a career in the outdoor industry,” she says. “But I was also quite ambitious and wasn’t sure that the industry was going to provide the challenges that I wanted.

Jenna-Johnson-portrait-webShe enrolled in the Foster Executive MBA Program to add the skills and network that would allow her to play a more strategic—and satisfying—role in the industry.

It paid off with her current job which suits her like, well, a Patagonia Nano-Puff Hoody. It turns out that Johnson’s rare mix of strategic thinking and go-with-the-flow spirit is conducive to both climbing and leading the next generation of innovation in outdoor apparel.

At Patagonia, her eye is firmly on the future of technical outdoor sports such as climbing, skiing, snowboarding and trail running.

“I spend a lot of time looking 5, 10, 15 years out to see what trends and opportunities are developing, and figuring out where it makes sense for Patagonia to build best-in-class products, where we can offer something to the market that nobody else does,” says Johnson.

The Forge

To develop these innovative materials and technologies, Johnson works closely with Patagonia’s Advanced R&D, operating out of an historic facility known as “The Forge.” She’s led the introduction of Encapsil, a method of waterproofing down insulation by plasma injection. And Nano-Air, a synthetic insulation with unprecedented breathability and stretch. And Merino Air, a unique lofted yarn technology that offers exceptional warmth, stretch and breathability.

Really, Johnson works for a technology company… with a conscience.

“It’s one thing to build great products,” she says. “It’s a whole other thing to compete with every other brand that’s trying to build great products, but do it in a way that’s rethinking the materials and components and supply chains in order to be as environmentally and socially sensitive as possible. It adds a great challenge to my life.”

Higher goals

Johnson and Patagonia are riding a boom in technical outdoor sports participation that’s being driven by factors as diverse as rising concern over concussions in team sports to the recent proliferation of climbing gyms around the world.

This means more skiers on the slopes, more runners on the trails, more climbers on the crags. But Johnson is happy to make room. It’s good for business and for the earth. “It’s so exciting,” she says. “Because when people become really passionate about a place they play in, they’re willing to protect it.”

That’s good news for a mother of two young kids who love to scale the local cliffs with their parents. And for that same woman who is always challenging herself to stretch beyond her personal best in climbing and in career.

“There are so many challenges and opportunities ahead for me at Patagonia,” Johnson says. “I believe in the mission of this company. It’s such a great fit for me.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Foster Business magazine.