Burton Girls

Burton CEO Donna Carpenter on the Role of Power and Privilege in Her Career

by Donna Carpenter

Recently, Burton CEO Donna Carpenter spoke at the WNORTH Conference in Whistler, British Columbia. An annual event featuring passionate women who lead the charge in their industries, WNORTH is an opportunity for business leaders to come together for high-level networking and shared inspiration. This year’s theme was Authenticity, Image, and Power. Read on for a condensed version of Donna’s speech and find your own inspiration.


According to the dictionary, the word privilege is defined as “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.” I’ve recently realized that most of the defining moments in my career were the moments when I somehow understood the power of my privilege. One of those moments came during my time with the women’s Global Sports Mentoring Program through the U.S. State Department, which pairs female sports executives from the United States with women from developing countries who are working to empower women and girls through sports.

One of my mentees was an amazing young woman from Bangladesh, Wasfia Nazreen, who was the first Bangladeshi to summit the highest peak on all seven continents. She’s also the only woman to be recognized by National Geographic as both an Adventurer of the Year and an Emerging Explorer. More importantly, she has been working to leverage the “power” of that accomplishment to help young Bangladeshi girls, specifically those who are born into sex slavery. In November, Wasfia — with the help of the U.S. government — fled her country, after her colleague was macheted to death in the street and her brother’s life was threatened. All because she dared to speak up about the importance of Bangladeshi girls’ lives. 

Participating in this program opened my eyes to how extraordinarily privileged we are to live in this place and time. It’s important we acknowledge that. After all, privilege itself is not a bad thing. What matters is how we use it.

We should be careful not to minimize our own stories, even as we acknowledge the challenges others face. Our relative privilege doesn’t mean we’ve had everything handed to us, or that we’ve never faced meaningful challenges of our own.

So how do we hold these two ideas in tension? On one hand, we have it pretty easy compared to many. On the other, we’ve worked our asses off to get where we are today. Both things can be true at the same time.

After all, privilege itself is not a bad thing. What matters is how we use it.

I understand that my fortune is the product of both hard work and some unbelievably good luck. So, I try to remain mindful of all the things in my life for which I’m grateful: Jake and our boys, the company because it really is our extended family, and snowboarding around the world and getting to call it “work.” It’s a long list. Gratitude is key, but principled action is what turns privilege into something positive.

Often it’s the pain points that move us to change. 13 years ago, I had an important “Oh Shit” moment when my husband came to me after a global directors meeting: Out of 25 leaders, there were only three women in attendance. Jake knew that having an underrepresentation of women didn’t bode well for our company, both in terms of attracting talent and being innovative. It was my job to do something about it.

P: Jenn Di Spirito/WNORTH Conference

Our company hadn’t always been male-dominated. When we started, we were a balanced team, and women equally pioneered the sport of snowboarding. We’ve always supported female athletes by prioritizing women’s-specific equipment and offering equal prize money in competitions. But as we grew quickly, we were pulling talent from very male-dominated industries: ski, surf, and skate. I went to our female employees while trying to solve the gender imbalance, and unfortunately many of the women interviewed referred to the culture as “locker room”-like and cited challenges they’d faced in our company. There wasn’t open discrimination or harassment, but these women were giving up their authenticity for the sake of assimilation. I knew I had a responsibility to use my power as the owner to change the dynamic.

None of these employees were coming from a place of entitlement; they were bad-ass women looking to prove themselves in action sports. Their commitment was inspiring, and that’s why we created the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI). What started as a short-term focus group carries on today as a powerful, grassroots team at Burton. Together, with many years of hard work, the barriers started to come down and women began to advance at our company. 10% of our leadership was female 13 years ago; today, it’s over 40%. Our senior team is at 50%.

I knew I had a responsibility to use my power as the owner to change the dynamic.

Power is having the ability to influence, and privilege is having responsibility for others. Use them well and you can make a huge difference in the world. I happen to believe it will be women leaders who envision a better future, and then they will be the warriors who work to create it. So, let me leave you with Webster’s second definition of privilege: “a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud.” ∆