At last summer's Outdoor Retailer event, we were able to connect with Len Zanni, co-owner of Big Agnes, Inc. and a NOLS grad! Len talked with us about what he’s learned from NOLS and from his years of working in the outdoor industry.
Len Zanni first found the outdoors when he headed to Colorado for college. Finding himself in one of the West's best places for the outdoors just after finishing a Wind River Wilderness course in Wyoming, he drank in everything he could.
For Len, the NOLS course was a lesson about living in community: “It’s different than a job, because you get to go home at the end of every day—if you don’t love your coworkers you still get to go home. If you’re on something like a NOLS course … you’re sharing, there are people around all the time … so you’re forced to get along with everybody.”
That type of experience, he says, of being “thrust into a group experience in unfamiliar territory, out of your comfort zone,” is valuable for any young person.
Though he now works in the outdoor industry, that wasn't a part of Len's original plan. He ;remembers being in college and “not really knowing where I was headed.” Inspired by the skill and energy of his NOLS instructors, Len found himself wanting to take on that lifestyle—ski patrolling in the winter, working NOLS courses in the summer, and simply living life for the outdoors.
He pursued that by taking a Winter Outdoor Educator course with NOLS and undertaking his own climbing trips in Alaska and Ecuador, but skiing-related injuries convinced him that a career of working constantly in the outdoors may not be a good fit. Instead, Len found an internship with the American Alpine Club, an experience that led him to three years of working in development and fundraising for the club, and later into the thick of the retail side of the outdoor industry.
Now the co-owner of Big Agnes, an outdoor gear company that produces tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads, Len says he enjoys that his work is "all different day to day and season to season." He spends his days doing anything from organizing marathon events to promote Honey Stinger (a sister company of Big Agnes) to planning photo shoots for new products to representing Big Agnes at outdoor festivals.
Len explains that there's a huge difference between his experience as a college student and the opportunities available now: “there’s a lot more opportunity in terms of internships at different companies, there are different programs where you can actually learn how to design gear, or be an industrial design major," things that were just getting started when Len was a student.
He reminded us that there are a variety of jobs available that are connected to and support outdoor recreation. Even when he decided a career working in the outdoors wasn't a good fit, he still found a way to be a part of the industry: "there are plenty of jobs in these companies that are high paying, good jobs that require a high level of education, whether it’s product design or accounting or sales.”
His final takeaway for someone looking to make a career in the outdoor industry? “There’s a lot out there.”