Only one billionaire’s legacy? Santa Cruz’s Patagonia ambassador reflects on Chouinard’s gift to Earth

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouin
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.
(Via Patagonia)

Many Santa Cruzans might think of the small Patagonia outlet store on River Street as the only local vestige of the iconic outdoor lifestyle brand forged on environmental consciousness that made big headlines recently. But the company’s ethos, made loud and clear by founder and indignant billionaire Yvon Chouinard, is also carried on by people like Kyle Thiermann, a Santa Cruz kid who grew up with a different idea about what a pro surfer could be.

When Yvon Chouinard announced last week that his family had devised a crafty plan to give away their company, Patagonia, the business that had brought him onto the Forbes list of billionaires, Kyle Thiermann quickly shot off a text to Fletcher Chouinard, the son of Yvon and surfboard shaper of the family.

A Q&A with Kyle Thiermann

“I said, ‘Congratulations, that’s tremendous,’” Thiermann said. “And I somehow held myself back from saying, ‘How’s it feel to know you’re never going to be a billionaire?’”

Thiermann knew the answer. To the Chouinard family, it feels liberating to go against the grain of a capitalist system that had somehow thrust them into the elite.

“The earth is now our only shareholder,” Yvon Chouinard wrote in an open letter about the move.

That’s why at age 18, as a Santa Cruz High School senior and budding pro surfer, after his mom had made him use a whiteboard to chart out what kind of surf company he would want to represent (“environmentally stewardship” for starters), Thiermann found himself hunting down the perfect “pro surfer” arrangement.

He didn’t know when he shot off that email to Yvon Chouinard, seeking insights for an econ paper on how surfers could better position their finances to improve the environment, that Chouinard himself — who proudly to this day does not own a cellphone — would be giving him a call.

“I was in my wetsuit at the Lane, and I got a call,” he says, “ ‘Hey, Kyle, it’s Yvon Chouinard, I got your email’ … which was funny because he didn’t even have his own email.”

Soon a wide- and starry-eyed Thiermann was headed down Highway 101 toward Santa Barbara County to meet up with his future, via an exclusive dream invite for many West Coast surfers at the Hollister Ranch on the Gaviota coast.

Thirteen years later, Thiermann remains among one of the most unique tribes of sponsored athletes (Patagonia calls them “ambassadors”) — one that not just allows for individualism outside the typical conventions of pro surfing, but applauds it.

“A lot of athletes go to brands and tell them how many followers they have and how influential they are,” said Jason McCaffrey, Patagonia’s global director of surf. “Kyle came to us with a list of ideas that would probably piss off most people, and we liked that. He was asking tough questions and pushing for answers.”

Thiermann says that representing a company like Patagonia — which calls itself “a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted” — has only helped grow the seed of environmental stewardship that began with an appreciation for the ocean he was lucky enough to grow up in.

His early eco-activism revolved around an initiative called Surfing For Change. Instead of chasing a competition circuit and magazine cover shots like most pro surfers are paid to do, Thiermann would travel to surf destinations under peril.

There he would make short documentary films, whether on concerns about genetically modified organisms in places like Hawaii, plastic pollution in different parts the world, offshore drilling or cruise ship pollution.

He was only 21 when he did a TEDxSantaCruz event in 2011 nearly naked on stage (OK, he was wearing board shorts). He co-created a semi-farcical awards show to call out the world’s top environmental villains, those thwarting Mother Earth. The Instagram handle — @mothrfckrawards — tells much of the clever, edgy story.

And he also likes to stretch the limits with his surfing. For nearly a decade now he’s been pushing his comfort level in gargantuan surf, becoming a consistent staple on big days at Mavericks — and sharing the experience of what that takes.

Kyle Thiermann going big at Mavericks.
(Via @kyle_tman / Fred Pompermayer photo)

Now 32, living in Venice Beach and working as a content creator for a company called MUD\WTR that makes a mushroom-based coffee alternative, Thiermann finds himself deeply immersed in the world of psychedelic science. He has a blog and podcast via Substack that includes a recent post titled “Talking to grown-ups about psychedelics.”

“Kyle was a quick study in how to leverage a relationship with a brand like Patagonia into his personal interests,” said McCaffrey, “and today Kyle has an independent platform of his own that supports what Patagonia stands for, and more importantly what Kyle stands for.”

Living in Los Angeles, he appreciates the waters of his youth more than ever. On his frequent trips north to see family and friends, he stays in his trusty old ‘97 Ford RV parked outside his mom’s place in Aptos and soaks in the Monterey Bay.

“The second you feel yourself starting to get jaded as a surfer in Santa Cruz,” he said, “just spend a few weeks in L.A.”

Clendenin, Jay
Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonia Inc. (Los Angeles Times)

Thiermann, who says he wasn’t surprised by the Chouinard announcement, looks back over his thus-far 13 years with the company wistfully.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Lookout: So how did you know that you wanted to be a part of Patagonia?

Kyle Thiermann: I was in high school at the time, and I wanted to be a pro surfer. And my mom forced me to write down on a whiteboard what kind of values that company would embody. And, because as a surfer you’re literally immersed in the environment, environmental stewardship was at the top of that list. So Patagonia was a pretty obvious choice. They seemed to have a history of making business decisions for the sake of the environment beyond marketing.

A lot of companies will make environmental decisions as a marketing play. They’ll do the minimum based on an equation of how much that reputational benefit will be worth, whereas Patagonia and Yvon never really seemed to be thinking that way. They would always do the maximum amount of environmental good and often people would just hear about it down the line. So what I saw was the character of a company that as a young surfer I wanted to represent.

Kyle Thiermann in 2011, introducing himself to the environmental activist world.
(Via TEDx)

Lookout: Surfing is just part of the Patagonia brand. But what separated it from the more traditional surf industry brands you could’ve targeted?

Thiermann: Companies hire athletes to give that company an image, and it’s a marketing thing. What people don’t recognize is that when an athlete joins a company, it often influences the athlete’s personality. We’re always changing, depending on our surroundings, depending on the kinds of people we are around.

So I think that if you look at a company like Volcom through the ‘90s and early 2000s, a huge amount of it was about partying, and their athletes were actually incentivized to go rage and glorify that party lifestyle. If you look at a company like Reef, they’re incentivizing athletes to take van-life road trips and look like they’re cruising, just passing through.

I think that I just saw Patagonia and thought, “I want to be more like that.” And in the years since — and 13 years is a really long sponsorship — I think they’ve really affected my personality. I’m very outdoorsy, very into camping, into spearfishing. Pretty environmentally aware and that is now part of my personality. Especially through my 20s, which is such a formative decade for people, partnering with Patagonia kept those values close to me.

Lookout: The surf industry is not known for its core values. Even the best traditional pro surfer Santa Cruz has ever produced, Nat Young, got dropped. He told me recently how much that bummed him out.

Thiermann: I think that a lot of companies have short-term thinking, and Patagonia has instilled long-term thinking into their culture. Because I think what companies don’t recognize is if they sponsor someone like Nat for a year or two, and then drop him the second he’s in a slump, that reflects on the company just as much as it reflects on Nat. Whereas if there’s a company that’s going to stay by his side year after year, that shows me the character of the company.

Nat Young throwing bucks of water on his way to a fifth-place finish at Margaret River, Australia, in May.
Nat Young throwing bucks of water on his way to a fifth-place finish at Margaret River, Australia in May.
(Matt Dunbar / World Surf League)

Lookout: How does Patagonia do it differently?

Thiermann: They have a tight-knit team and they don’t pay many people huge salaries. So it allows them to have sustainable relationships with the athletes. And as a result, they forge these really long-term relationships. And they recognize that the scope of a human life is long and it’s gonna have peaks and valleys. They work with people they think will exercise good character throughout their life.

They’ve sponsored me for 13 years, and I now have a full-time job down in L.A. as a copywriter for MUD\WTR — that says so much about that company. It’s the kind of company that will then make decisions like Yvon just made, where he’s trying to set up Patagonia for another 100 years and ensure that they’re dedicating huge amounts of resources to the planet.

Kyle Thiermann on a Surfing For Change trip.
(Via @kyle_tman)

Lookout: What are the expectations for athletes like you? What do you get and what do you give?

Thiermann: I get a small salary (low to mid five figures); not enough to live on but it’s a nice chunk. I go on photo trips for them for new products, for their catalogs, and then I’ll work with them on any media projects. I’ll test gear for them and provide feedback on their gear and then their various initiatives. One thing that’s really important about the way that Patagonia structured its program is that they make it clear that very few of their athletes are going to be able to live only off of a surf paycheck.

They really support their athletes to learn skills that can allow them to move laterally. They don’t want to perpetuate the presumption that you can just be a surfer forever and not have to gain other skills. Which is awesome because a lot of pro surfers are left high and dry spending their 20s only surfing and then end up in their 30s with no job experience and it becomes very difficult to transition into a real job.

Lookout: How many trips usually and what were the past few?

Thiermann: About two or three a year. I was just in Indonesia. And then I went up to Alaska in the Shumagin Islands. Both of those trips I also served as a reporter for them so I was writing stories for their blog, The Cleanest Line.

Lookout: As you saw growing up in Santa Cruz, there’s a lot of really good young surfers who chase that dream, but few opportunities to claim it.

Thiermann: I think the big picture problem is when people see all of their identity in one skill. I think that the key to psychological durability is to learn a bunch of new skills, because then if one doesn’t work out for you, you don’t crumble. Giving yourself permission to go try other stuff and getting comfortable sucking at new things. That’s what makes you durable.

Giving yourself permission to go try other stuff and getting comfortable sucking at new things. That’s what makes you durable.

Lookout: What did you give yourself permission to suck at?

Thiermann: Getting into writing, that’s not fun. Putting your thoughts out on paper is humbling. I started doing that for Santa Cruz Waves and it was scary — putting articles out that weren’t very good for the entire public to read. And it took a while for me to learn. You know how hard that process is.

Lookout: It’s brutal. Speaking of writing, talk about what you said in that email to Yvon Chouinard that got you in the door.

Thiermann: I threw a Hail Mary and I reached out to his assistant and told him that I wanted to talk with them about their banking practices. At the time I was doing a project on the impact that you can have environmentally through where you put your money, the banks you put it in.

A "vote the asshole out" tag on a limited-edition pair of Patagonia's Stand Up Shorts.
A tag on a limited-edition pair of Patagonia’s shorts last year.
(Via Patagonia)

And I subsequently did a project encouraging surfers to move their money into local banks and credit unions because that money is then lent out within your community and circulates within your local economy many more times than in a big bank. So that was what got his attention early on. I think he just saw a young kid who was doing something different.

Lookout: And Yvon himself called you and invited you down to the ranch, right?

Thiermann: Yeah, I was at the Lane in my wetsuit. And he’s like, “Hi, Kyle, I got your email.” Which is crazy because he doesn’t even have an email. After I drove down there, I talked to him about how I wanted to do documentary film, and how I wanted to surf for Patagonia. And they just supported me little by little over the years. It was a very incremental and slow-moving relationship, as a lot of long-term and sustainable relationships are.

I think the real story is that one billionaire out of thousands decided to not just take it all with them to the grave. That’s crazy. One person?

Lookout: What did you think when you heard the big news last week?

Thiermann: I think the real story is that one billionaire out of thousands decided to not just take it all with them to the grave. That’s crazy. One person? It’s interesting where humans want to leave their legacy. The fact that most billionaires will donate a little bit here and there but essentially go to the grave with most of their money and just leave it within their families rather than shifting the norms of philanthropy, and giving as much back to the earth, which is the greatest wealth generator we have. That I think is the bigger story here.

Whatever people do, it’s the process of extracting resources, turning them into products and amassing wealth. So it’s a little bit weird that you wouldn’t give all of your money back to the earth as the main investor in your company. The earth is giving you the resources you need to grow your business. You should pay back your investor.

Lookout: Maybe this starts a new trend, helps create a new paradigm?

Thiermann: This is doing a lot to change the norms. And I hope it starts to feel more like the logical thing, that if you amass that kind of wealth, huge portions of it should be given away. If you look at how Patagonia started exploring organic cotton, years before most other companies, it was more expensive and more difficult for them to set up those models. And now look how many companies do organic cotton. So I think that if this kind of model is anything like that, it could really change the future of philanthropy.