Apr 092007
Authors: Bob Shipton

The popular media often portray hippies as nothing more than dreadlocked, sandal-wearing weed smokers with an insatiable love for reggae music.

But Skip Yowell, co-founder of the backpack giant JanSport, told a group of CSU students and faculty Monday that there’s more to bohemian success.

Yowell outlined lofty ambitions for the hippies of the world in his book, “The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains.”

The book follows Yowell’s life from a small-town Kansas boy to adventure-junkie extraordinaire and leader of one of America’s most successful outdoor recreation company.

“I’ve never been a genius by any means,” Yowell said. “But I’ve always been really good at listening.”

Yowell spoke to CSU student and faculty in Rockwell Hall Monday about the importance of product innovation and customer relations.

Yowell showed a floral printed backpack, one of the companies first, designed at the height of the hippie revolution in the sixties. Shortly after, in 1970, Peter Fonda asked them to engineer a set of futuristic-looking backpacks for the movie “Idaho Transfer.” The designs inspired the next generations of backpacks.

“It’s important for products to be functional, but we also wanted to add fashion to the mix,” Yowell said.

Since the company came about, Yowell has taken it upon himself to personally test all the equipment JanSport produces. He does this by scaling 20,000-foot mountains and treading through hundreds of feet of snow, equipped with a JanSport.

“It’s really amazing how he went to extreme conditions to test his products,” said Matt Gohl, a junior journalism major interested in entrepreneurship. “You could tell he really believed in what he was doing.”

That’s because being Yowell says being outdoors is his true passion in life.

“I don’t take myself too seriously,” Yowell said. “I do take business seriously.”

Taking business seriously – 37 years ago, at least – meant climbing mountains and taking a 16-hour road trip to San Francisco to meet with a potential JanSport buyer. But Yowell said his true motivations in making that trip were to catch Janis Joplin at the Fillmore.

Yowell had more than just shop talk and war stories to tell the class. He also delivered some sound business advice.

“You can never rest on your laurels,” he said. “You have to take some risk in business; you are not going to get there every time.”

Staff writer Bob Shipton can be reached at news@collegian.com

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