The outdoor industry at large recognizes its substantial challenges in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Unfortunately, many organizations — and especially small businesses — don’t know where to begin when attempting to make change.

This case study examines the motivations, goals, and outcomes of one outdoor business dedicated to advancing DEI within their company, offering strategies for other small businesses in the outdoor industry to consider.


Cairn was founded by Rob Little and Jared Peterson, friends from graduate school who left their corporate jobs to follow their entrepreneurial dreams in the outdoor industry.

Cairn offers monthly subscriptions to new outdoor products with the opportunity to gear up and give feedback. That feedback is provided back to the outdoor brands and development teams that fill Cairn boxes and is used to introduce new or redesigned products to the market.

Based in Bend, Oregon, Cairn has nine employees, and with the recent acquisition by Outside, Inc., the company is quickly expanding its services, team, and physical footprint.


Cairn co-founders, Jared Peterson (left) and Rob Little 

Erika McCalpine, Founding Director of the DEI Lab 


Launched in 2020, the DEI Lab’s mission is to advance social equity and inclusion in Central Oregon, a region where an estimated 12% of the population is made up of people of color. The Lab provides intensive diversity and inclusivity training for businesses and organizations in all industries, advising employers on hiring practices, unconscious bias, and other DEI-related needs.

Erika McCalpine — Executive Director of Strategic Diversity Initiatives, and a recognized advocate for advancing social equity and inclusion — leads the Lab.


Cairn's mission and values are centered around belonging and community, and the events of 2020 strongly affected the team and forced them to pause, reflect, and examine their intentions. Cairn strives to create a diverse and inclusive environment for their customers and their employees, but the company’s leadership team realized it takes more than good intentions to make real change.

Commitment to DEI 

It started with a public commitment. Cairn signed the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge and committed to advancing diversity and inclusion as part of their brand’s ethic and ethos, both in their internal behaviors, practices, and policies, and in their external connections with customers and the outdoors. 

The Cairn team started to meet monthly to talk about their new commitment to advancing DEI internally as a company and externally with their customers and brand partners. They read books, listened to podcasts, shared articles, and talked about how recent events were impacting them personally and professionally. Within a few short months, Cairn committed to several goals and objectives to turn their commitment to action in advancing DEI within the company.

Cairn began tracking the following metrics:

  • Percentage of staff of color
  • Percentage of executives of color
  • Percentage of board members of color
  • Percentage of applicants of color who applied for open jobs
  • Number of employees attending internal DEI trainings
  • Organic social posts with BIPOC representation
  • Paid advertising with BIPOC representation
  • Monthly newspapers with BIPOC representation

Early Challenges 

As a small business, Cairn was realistic about its resources knowing that an informal structure, busy project schedules, limited financial resources, and a lack of understanding and awareness required the team to be honest with one another. Team members recognized that they were people with similar identities, upbringings, and experiences. Trying to do DEI work on their own felt disingenuous, and without a formal human resources department to guide them, the team collectively decided that external support would be necessary to uncover ways the company could create a more diverse and inclusive work environment. 

After setting aside $10,000 for organizational and professional development trainings for the year, the Cairn team members reached out to their networks for recommendations. However, they quickly realized this type of consultation was hard to find and costly.

The Right Resource

In their search for a consultant, Rob and Jared learned about the launch of the DEI Lab at Oregon State University-Cascades, just a few short miles from Cairn headquarters. After an introductory meeting with the Lab’s founding director, Erika McCalpine, Cairn engaged with the DEI Lab to conduct an organizational assessment and to provide a series of training sessions in 2021. 

"We felt so lucky to have met Erika and that she was here in Bend. She understands the needs of our business and our industry, all in the context of Central Oregon. - Jared Peterson, Cairn 



Drawing on a foundation of deeply researched best practices, the DEI Lab comprehensively supports organizations in their progress toward significant diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. The DEI Lab developed an approach with Cairn that met the needs and realities of the company.

Organizational Assessment 

Starting with an organizational assessment, the DEI Lab developed an engagement and progress plan for the company. The organizational assessment for Cairn included:

  • Employee Survey: The voluntary survey was sent to all employees and the questions were designed to get a feel for the company’s climate. The goal was to get a sense of how welcoming and inclusive the culture was, along with how seriously the company was taking DEI initiatives. Employees were able to respond on a spectrum from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

  • 1-on-1 Interviews: Employees participated in individual interviews with the DEI Lab and the conversations focused on three primary topic areas:
    • Personal backgrounds and experience with diversity over the course of their lives, which would help the DEI Lab understand how much work was going to be necessary in introducing DEI terms and concepts.
    • Challenges within the organizations related to DEI (e.g. things they might have overheard, things they or their co-workers might have experienced, etc.)
    • Changes employees wanted to see (e.g. asking employees if they could change only one thing about the organization relevant to DEI, what would it be?)

In Erika's words: "The organizational assessment is a critical first step. It’s important to meet people where they are and to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this work."

Customized Trainings 

Based on findings from the organizational assessment, the DEI Lab tailored a series of training sessions for Cairn:

  • Training 1: Implicit Bias
    The training provided tools and strategies for identifying and interrupting the biases employees encounter day-to-day, from the work setting to what’s happening on social media. 

In Erika's words: “I went over some common terms and definitions that the employees probably have heard. They referenced the social justice movement that happened last summer (in 2020) as their motivation for wanting to dive deeper into this work. So I made sure to cover terms that they probably heard in the media or read during that time, and I provided academic definitions for them. And then we went on to discuss where our biases come from, and the fact that everybody has biases, how we learn from them, and then how we change them.” 

  • Training 2: Fostering an Inclusive Climate
    The training helped employees understand what a company climate looks like when it is inclusive and when it is not, along with what to do to move toward a more inclusive environment.

    In Erika's words: “We talked about hiring because what I hear often in Central Oregon is that the population is not diverse, so how do we get a more diverse team? Well, it's not true. There are diverse people here. The question is: What are you doing to attract them to your organization? It's important for the organization to feel like home for the person when they land there. So we talked about what inclusion looks like and what retains those diverse employees once you get them there.” 

  • Training 3: Bravely Confronting Bias
    The training offered proven approaches for stepping forward when encountering instances of bias.

    In Erika's words: “We talked about some listening skills and ways to really hear each other when we communicate. And we talked about the bystander effect, and why a lot of people don't get involved in situations that they see happening. We tend to do what we see other people do, and we have to really fight our own human nature to be someone that will interrupt bias.” 

HR & Marketing Reviews

At the end of the engagement, the DEI Lab provided recommendations to refine or implement human resources and marketing practices that can foster a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. 

Erika’s recommendations to Cairn included:

  • Post job opportunities in a number of specific professional groups built around diverse individuals. In some cases, that requires paying a little extra to put job listings in those settings, as opposed to relying on the standard job posting platforms like LinkedIn or Indeed. 
  • Make sure that there’s some diversity you can show on your website that is really showing the population of the community, not just who works at Cairn. 
  • During the interview process, be sure to acknowledge that although Central Oregon is not very diverse, there are resources in place to support them as part of the community.
  • If team members are working remotely, make sure there are ways to include them in activities to keep them engaged.

    In Erika's words: “It starts with asking questions: Why is it that we don't have any diverse representation in our organization? What policies are in place that might be barriers to bringing on diverse candidates? How are we presenting ourselves? Is the way we are marketing ourselves contributing to a candidate (or customer) looking at our website and thinking this is not the place for me?” 



While this work is never done, the co-founders offered a few key takeaways from their experience. They invite their peers, colleagues, customers, and employees to step into the work, and to keep at it. 

It's important to understand what DEI is and what it is not.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are inherently interrelated, but they are also distinct concepts that require different commitments. DEI is not a program, department, or marketing campaign, but rather a cultural shift in viewing and valuing the differences of DEI.

This shift starts with testing organizational assumptions—from how we define leadership, develop career paths, and even how we do our jobs. Dominant cultural norms are prevalent within most organizations, and it’s important to ask whether those are the best ways to attract, retain, develop, and promote talent.

Tokenism, discrimination, blanket policies, missed opportunities for business growth, and a lack of psychological safety for employees are all very real risks for organizations that may strive for diversity and overlook inclusion and equity.

DEI is a continuous effort that requires intentionality, continued learning, expertise, and investment.


Inclusion comes before diversity.

Companies need to assess the organizational environment and address racism, discrimination, and bias among its workforce. Addressing unconscious bias and the effects of microaggressions — subtle slights, insults, or indignities — is critical for organizations to ensure a safe working environment where employees feel valued, respected, accepted, and encouraged to fully participate.

Without inclusion, the connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth just won’t happen. These issues are not limited to the company's internal environment and workplace. The community matters, too.

Transparency and accountability are essential to the process.

Demonstrating a commitment to DEI requires transparency and accountability. It is important for leadership to communicate their DEI aspirations while also addressing areas of focus and opportunities to improve.

Employees at Cairn were invited into the process, which created a foundation of trust and safety. By collectively establishing goals, employees can hold leadership and each other accountable.

This accountability can and should extend beyond the organization — reaching out to industry peers, professional networks, along with HR, talent, and DEI experts who can provide a different perspective.

Industry commitments like the CEO Pledge are tangible, public ways for companies to engage, connect, and commit to new ways of working.


Facilitated discussion and engagement lead to better results.

While off-the-shelf, low-cost DEI trainings are effective in increasing knowledge and improving awareness, they typically fall short when it comes to changing long-term behaviors.

The most productive kind of training is facilitated by a trained professional encouraging empathy and interaction as a group over a period of time. Experienced consultants can tailor trainings to meet the needs of individuals and support goal-setting that can measure personal and organizational change.

Unconscious or implicit biases are formed over one’s lifetime, and it takes time, space, and support for change to happen.



In 2021, Cairn was acquired by a larger company, Outside, Inc. Cairn now finds itself in a unique position to have expanded positive impact on the company's DEI practices. The company can apply learnings from its DEI engagement to its immediate team while also exploring opportunities to elevate DEI considerations and actionable improvements to the larger Outside organization (500+ employees). 

Important questions to consider as Cairn looks forward:

  • How do DEI improvement strategies shift when a smaller organization is acquired? 
  • How can Cairn make best use of expanded DEI resources available through Outside?
  • What learnings are universal, regardless of company size? 
  • What opportunities exist to blend findings from Cairn’s DEI Lab engagement with DEI initiatives Outside has already initiated and/or planned for the future? 
  • How can Cairn make sure its DEI learnings are not lost as it navigates a new organization’s landscape?



“The work Cairn did with Erika and the DEI Lab has been the first step in a long journey. It’s given us the vulnerability and confidence we need to continue on the road ahead.”

- Rob Little, Cairn

“Rob and Jared expressed their commitment to this work. They put their money where their mouth was. They weren't just saying things for the moment. They really did something tangible in trying to move the organization forward with diversity, equity, and inclusion. Because it's such a small company, they were able to influence outcomes more quickly. I think the employees saw that. And I do believe that Cairn has created a culture where people feel very comfortable using their voices to talk about these issues and their experiences.”

- Erika McCalpine, DEI Lab