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Action Sports’ Most Influential Women – Circe Wallace

Photo: Chris Wellhausen

Photo: Chris Wellhausen

In the July issue of TransWorld Business, we profile seven of the industry’s most influential women. Be sure to  pick up a copy for all of the profiles.

Not many people could say the defining moment of their career was going through three knee surgeries. Then again, few could say they’ve been one of the world’s top snowboarders and helped define the role of athletes in action sports, while at the same time helping push the boundaries of professional women in the industry.

TransWorld Business caught up with Wasserman Media Group’s Senior VP Circe Wallace and learned a bit about her background and what makes her tick.

Tell us a little about your background – where’d you grow up?

I grew up in Oregon and Seattle. I was in Portland and Eugene until my early teens. I think I was 14 or 15 when I moved to Seattle and then I was in Seattle until my early 20s.

When did you start riding?

The first year I went snowboarding was 1985.

You were definitely one of the pioneers on the female front. How did you get to that point?

After I moved to Seattle, I didn’t really have any friends. I was a super awkward teenager. I went to this inner-city school, Franklin High – I actually was desegregated, which I don’t think happens that much anymore. It was a really big shock for me. I had come from kind of a hippie family with a lot of love.

Eugene – makes sense.

Exactly— artist parents. U of O was a big part of my life. It was a super mellow, open minded place to grow up. I was pretty sheltered in the sense of the inner-city, urban environment. I didn’t know about racial tension or anything. I really didn’t fit in. It was super hard for me to establish healthy relationships so I actually dropped out of that school and went to an alternative school called Summit K-12. They had a ski program so every Friday during the winter they’d take the kids, kindergarten through 12th grade, up in a school bus. I had already fallen in love with snowboarding but didn’t have a lot of resources. My parents didn’t have a lot of money and I wasn’t driving so it was this huge transformation for me for one, finding some independence and happiness, and two, really having access to the mountains there. It was funny, because at the time they didn’t have a snowboard program so I wrote this big presentation that I felt that it was crucial, that snowboarding was relevant, and that kids needed to have the option, and I helped incubate and start the snowboard program of their ski school.

That was super empowering. I had really great teachers there who really helped me find a good sense of self. Then I started competing locally in the Northwest Series – super grassroots style at mountains everywhere from Mt. Hood to local mountains like Crystal, Stevens, Snoqualmie, and I did really well just kind of naturally. The pipes were total tacos. It’s nothing even resembling a halfpipe now, but it was super fun and I made super good, lifelong friendships and I felt for the first time in my life like I was totally included in something and it was really inspiring and really defined my future as far as feeling confident and having achievable goals and friendships that were supportive of a healthy, fun lifestyle.

Circe showing off the features of her outerwear line, Circe Snow, at its SIA launch party in 2009.

Circe showing off the features of her outerwear line, Circe Snow, at its SIA launch party in 2009.

It’s cool that at that point you took a leadership role in getting snowboarding included at the school.

I was really ambitious to find a way to keep doing it. There was this great opportunity, but there was this roadblock, so I did the due diligence to fit it in, and it totally worked. Even the teachers there appreciated my passion and it was empowering to have an idea and have the resources to do it.

They were one of the only schools that had the freedom, flexibility, and lack of liability problems.

Where did you go from there?

I did really well in the contest circuit and I actually started dating Jamie Lynn – he was my first love.

I’m sure you were the envy of many a young girl rider.

Yeah, absolutely. At the time we started dating he was 18 or 17. He was still in school, I had graduated at that point and was working at Starbucks and pretty much lived with him at his parents’ house in Auburn and we would just shred as much as we could.

I’ve always had this ability to sell myself or help put things together in a way to educate and inspire, so I helped Jamie build out his sponsorship proposal, helped him get sponsored by Wave Rave, and helped him define his accomplishments so he had a good résumé. It’s funny, now that I think about it I was wearing the manager hat at 21 thinking ‘I’m going to help make this kid a star.’

He had all the attributes. He’s amazingly athletically gifted.

You said you had the skills to market yourself and others – how would you define those and what do you think is important for that?

I was just entering the workplace in a traditional sense and was learning how to write my own résumé and how to communicate in a very formal way. I was really interested in what people expected in how to present or sell something. Between my experience selling the program at the Summit K-12 to entering the workforce, those are things that were really compelling to me to help spread the word and help Jamie start at least. He was really disorganized—he’s an artist—so he wasn’t that good at putting that stuff together and I saw the opportunity for him to have this amazing, successful sports career and helped him frame it up.

You definitely got him going on the right path. How did that experience help with your own career path as a rider?

It was actually hard for me because he popped and I was totally convinced that being his girlfriend was a detriment to my own success because I was always identified as being ‘Jamie Lynn’s girlfriend’ as opposed to my own self. That was ultimately the demise of our relationship, knowing I had to go do it on my own.

From there I started establishing my own relationships with brands, working really hard as an athlete, trying to do my best competitively – I was extremely challenged competitively. I never really liked it, I always preferred the film and have fun elements like everyone else does, but I got lucky. I had some good results, I think I had a good look, I worked really hard, I loved jumping off stuff and snowboarding made me happy.

That’s definitely the fun part.

So fun, and I love the friendships. I wanted to travel the world and it totally allowed me the global experience and to educate myself. It opened up a whole new world for me. I never would have been able to travel like that any other way.

You were definitely one of the first women to make a big name for themselves on the rider front. Do you think a lot of that was due to self-marketing?

I think I had a few good things going for me. I had friendships with people like Jamie Lynn, Mike Ranquet, and Craig Kelly, who really pushed the limits of my physical abilities. I think I was decent looking enough that it worked for me, and I think that I was a really good self-marketer. Looking back, I’m sure I was totally cocky and annoying but I felt like anything was possible. No one else was going to sell me so I might as well sell myself.

That was a good formula – I had a good foundation of riding skills honed at Baker, having guy friends who pushed me to the outer limits—I was scared every single day I rode—and who gave me a lot of shit, and not afraid to put myself out there and cold call brands or send videos. I wanted to do it and I saw it happening for Jamie so I kind of took that and started promoting myself.

Circe Wallace with clients Nicolas Mueller and Travis Rice and Quiksilver's Bob McKnight.

Circe Wallace with clients Nicolas Müller and Travis Rice and Quiksilver's Bob McKnight.

You were on Ride for a long time, who were some of your other big sponsors?

I was the first Roxy girl snowboarder, at least in the U.S. I rode for Arnette for a really long time. Greg Arnette was awesome and they supported me with marketing. Ride was really home for me. Ride was where I had the most fun and opportunity to brand build and work with the team. They really incorporated me in everything from marketing, to trips, to product development. It was an amazing experience. It only got weird when they went public. They just lost their sense of self and it got weird. And then Vans. I had the first pro-model boot with Vans on the women’s last. That gave me a level of credibility in a whole different realm from the Ride ‘new school bitch’ to the kind of more diverse, freestyle, universally respected world.

Your style has definitely gone more towards the more refined and female specific from those new school days.

I try. The whole androgynous thing kills me.

As your pro riding career started winding down, how did you make the transition to the professional side?

I think the best thing that happened to me is having three knee surgeries. I had all of this downtime to really marinate and meditate on what I wanted in my life. ‘If I couldn’t snowboard, how can I contribute and stay active in the space?’ I loved [being in] it. It was the first time I ever felt like I fit in. I was always heavily influenced by skate culture. I started skating when I was 13. I always rode a skateboard and loved the whole anti-establishment, punk rock meets athleticism combination. I was able to channel my energy.

I was suffering from my third ACL surgery and decided, I think I had watched Jerry Maguire, and I started wondering why no one was doing this in our world. It seemed like such an easy formula and there was such a need for it. I had actually been fired by Ride when I was injured and I found a really cool female attorney in Seattle who fought my case on contingency and they settled. Through that whole process I learned a lot about basic contract law and how athletes should protect themselves. I realized that there was no one really advising anyone and we were kind of at the mercy of these corporations. There was so much conglomeration going on right then. Snowboarding went from this cool, unique, independent thing and all of a sudden it was turning into something else. That inspired me to be an advocate for athletes. I really wanted to help athletes.

I had written a business plan at the same time Steve Astephen called and asked if I was interested in working with him in that capacity. It seemed very serendipitous as he was funded. I worked with Steve out of the gate. I was his first hire and we built an industry.

A lot of women agents focus on women riders, but you haven’t gone that route. Why?

There’s a myriad of reasons for that. I’ve always enjoyed working with men and being inspired by them. I certainly think if I look at my roster, the talent I represent, I’m so honored to represent these guys. They believe in me and I just feel like it was the only way I could stay inspired. Not that I don’t represent women and love working with them, but also from a purely business standpoint, men make more. I’ve always tried to keep a level head on what makes the most sense and finding the fine line of what works for me ethically and what keeps me inspired and keeps it fun.

What does keep you inspired?

Snowboarding, surfing, my kid, and the talent. I look at what Travis Rice is doing and it just boggles my mind. I look at P-Rod who I’ve worked with for almost nine years, I’ve helped him in certain ways achieve his greatness. I’m not out there doing the tricks, but I’m certainly a resource and a member of his team. It’s so fun and inspiring to be a part of that and working with amazingly fun and inspiring athletes who are just lovely humans.

On the marketing side, what are the keys that you’ve found for helping bring those talents to the public and getting companies to support them?

It’s pretty easy. I work for talent in a capacity that I’m a facilitator. I don’t actually make any decisions I just help them gather information and build relationships. I think I have a pretty good broad view of what’s happening in the space and how to maximize the opportunity that your career provides you through experience. That’s really all it is. Here are the outlets that are available to you, how can we maximize them in a way that’s authentic to you, and how can we make the most out of it.

What does that look like as far as a typical day?

I get up and I either go surf or work out after breakfast with my kid, Ava [Hetzel].

How old is she now?

Eight and a half. She’s super active. She totally shreds and does it all. She’s the by-product of my marriage to Andy Hetzel. We were together for ten years.

Then I get my coffee and I go to the office or I’m on the road. I’m on the road seven months of the year.

Contests, meetings, and the whole circuit?

Yeah, exactly, which I love. Sometimes it’s a bit grueling, but for the most part I consider myself a bit of a gadabout. Seeing the world and engaging with people is a huge perk to my business in my opinion, even though it’s hard to be grounded. If you can keep it positive it’s fun.

I’m either on the road or I’m in the office -communicating with talent, making sure their needs are being met, that they’re staying focused on goals, and making sure we can help them achieve those goals. Working strategically on long-term plans, where do they want to be, what sponsors speak to them, what new talent is interesting. Then a lot of it is contract negotiation and execution – working out the details, and playing a supporting role in assuring all of those mutual deliverables are being met. Honoring the contract, making sure the talent is feeling good about the relationship. Putting out a lot of fires.

Circe wallace

Did you go to college at all for this?

Nope. I’m self taught. I’ve been doing it almost 14 years. It’s a lot of trial and error, but contract law is pretty straight forward stuff. We have in house lawyers and accountants so I’m able to take the broader view of things. I consider myself a big communicator and relationship expert.

It sounds like that has been key for you across your career and especially in this role. Agents definitely get a bad rap from a lot of companies, especially in this industry where they’re relatively new.

Yeah, there’s definitely some existing negativity. A lot of people don’t like the idea of agents. So some of that is education and explaining that I’m here to help and not just make life more difficult and not just necessarily demand more money, it’s like ‘how can we work together to make sure the athlete can do everything he or she may want to do in their career?’

Since you’ve started in the industry, how have you seen women’s roles changing on the professional side?

There are challenges and there are successes. I’m perpetually frustrated by the lack of industry support for women in general.

On the athlete and professional side?

Yeah, I think it’s shocking how few female executives there are in action sports. I think it’s shocking that an athlete like Lyn-Z Adams who did the first McTwist doesn’t have a footwear sponsor. Thank God for Volcom, they’ve been so great for her.

As a woman, I’ve never been one of those ‘I am woman hear me roar,’ I’ve always really worked hard to have success on the merits of my business acumen or success alone, but I am angry at the industry’s lack of awareness or consciousness of the need for more to find opportunities for these girls.

What do you think it’s going to take to get people to see that?

I don’t know. I think a lot of brands use the excuse that ‘girls don’t buy products based on pro girl skaters.’ At the end of the day, they have a fiduciary duty to the space.

It’s kind of a chicken or the egg argument for brands.

Yeah, If you’re selling women’s product, and you don’t think the marketing is directly related to the talent that are doing the sport, you still have a responsibility to help continue to develop these talents and the space itself.

What advice do you have for other women in the industry coming up to chip away at that and continue to push for more executive positions?

I think a lot of time women are doing things and not getting the credit. We don’t typically kick or scream for credit because we know we’re doing a good job and a lot of times that’s enough. I think in general they need to continue to point out their efforts and demand fair compensation and executive progress. I’m certainly not seeing as many women move up to the executive role as their should be.

Going back to the self-marketing theme you discussed.

Yeah, it’s not like you’re being cocky by getting what’s fair. I think that women in general have a tendency to not be as aggressive in advocating for themselves and no one is going to give it to you if you don’t ask. My advice is kick and scream as long as you know that you’re doing a good job and working hard and continually improving to be a better businesswoman. I certainly think women have every right to demand what the dudes are getting.

That holds true for anyone in the work place.

You absolutely have to do your homework and figure out where you’re at, if you’re not where you want to be or think you should be you need to demand it.

It’s kind of weird – women are hyper competitive within their own gender which is totally counter productive to our collective success. I hope that as we evolve as humans and women in the workforce, if you think about it, we haven’t really had that much time. We’re at fifty years since women’s lib. I really think we’ve come a long way in 50 years, but we still have to battle some of the misogynistic tendencies.

Circe Wallace

Who are a few key people in the industry that inspire you and that you’ve looked up to over the years?

I totally love and respect Bob McKnight. I think he’s an ethical businessman at the helm of our industry’s largest organization. He’s been so committed to his company and to the family of Quiksilver. I love the way that they honor their icons. I think he sets a really wonderful example of how to be a good leader. He really does believe in the ‘we must grow the pond’ philosophy. That is a very open-hearted and strategic play.

I loved Dick Baker. I thought he was a really good man at the highest level despite dealing with a lot of corporate bullshit. He always had the best intentions.

I like and respect Chad DiNenna at Nixon. What he’s done in the brand building world is really impressive in terms of how to incubate and create something and see it all the way through. He’s still there and working hard every day.

How would you define your leadership style? What do you think is important in order to steer the course of an organization?

I don’t know how good of a leader I am. I have four women who support me at Wasserman, who totally hold me together, and who I’m so privileged to work with who are egoless and work really hard. Working with talent can be very painful. It’s all about them, and it has to be. But a lot of times, it’s hard when there’s a high level of demand and expectation. I really appreciate the people around me and I honor my relationships. I’m respectful and appreciative of the people that I work with in all capacities. That’s what leads me and gets me out of bed in the morning, is that we’re making really fun, interesting, and creative things happen in a positive way. It’s so fun to work in sport. I’ve never really thought of action sports as sport in a traditional sense but so much of it is athleticism. I think we’re witnessing a shift in consciousness in our space where health and training and focus and commitment are really important to achieving ultimate success.

It’s progressing so much, it’s amazing. Do you think that’s a big part of it?

Totally. We’re witnessing a whole new era. I’m resistant to certain aspects because I’ve always believed in the freedom of expression and anti establishment behavior where you can not win an X Games and still make seven figures. That’s an awesome thing and it’s pure and it’s full of passion in these undefined achievements. But it’s getting to the point where if you look competitively, you have to train. Surf is so far ahead of everyone else as far as training and coaching, that kind of focused commitment. We’re just going to see more and more of that. In skateboarding, you almost have to have a mathematical mind. There’s so much physics involved. Paul Rodriguez is not educated in a traditional sense, but he’s so smart. I think most of the highest level skaters are geniuses.

The coolest thing about action sports is the amount of progress that we’ve made purely from the athleticism standpoint. The technical aspects of the tricks have progressed at such an unbelievable rate. It’s really fun to sit back and watch the evolution of human capability.