One of the Colorado College Career Center’s many assets is their ability to bring in professionals from all different fields to speak on campus and inspire or act as a sounding board for students. Graduation and the much anticipated summer vacation near, but so does the terrifyingly daunting “real world,” and need for a plan.
The most recent Career-Center-sponsored speaker prefaced his talk by saying, “As a senior, I had no career aspirations, other than to be skiing pow.” This was Stephen Drake ‘99, founder and CEO of DPS Skis, who shared his success story of staying true to his passions to build a company and make an ever lasting mark on the ski industry.
Drake has spent his entire life skiing: growing up in New York but traveling to the Rocky Mountains to ski. His passion became so great that he almost tried to step back. It became “a a dictating force over everything [he] did” and a path that led him to, through, and beyond CC. He commented that during his time at CC, all he wanted to do was get out of school, see the world, ski the world, and not be confined to the bounds of academia.
In response to the question, “Are you an engineer?” Drake responded, “The answer is most certainly not … I got out of my math requirements as quickly as I could.” Drake spent his time as an English major, a field he was grateful for as it allowed him to develop creative thinking skills. He explained that reading literature is very interpretive; creating a discipline around that thought process was crucial to developing a brand as was communicating through writing.
Drake and his tight-knit friend group really took advantage of the Block Plan, booking it to Pikes to ski every day after class. CC was a “great place to land as a skier, to be able to combine academics with skiing,” he said. But as many who’ve strapped on skis before can tell you, skiing is more than a sport. It becomes a lifestyle, even an art: “I wanted to pursue the sport as an art itself” said Drake.
“Graduation was an extension of the life we lived here,” Drake explained. The mountains became Drake’s graduate school, as he travelled the world embracing a traditional ski bum life. The projects over the following six or seven years were randomly interwoven, just enough to make money to fund the season, pay the bills, ski, and hit repeat. “For me, [it was] a thirst for experience,” to see different cultures, communities, mountains he’d always dreamed of, “and [to] pursue a certain aesthetic that I had in my mind about what skiing meant to me,” Drake said.
Over the course of their travels, Drake wrote freelance for several ski magazines, a practice he began in college. The pursuit of media and performance for him was to better convey the apex transformative experiences he was having on the mountain, to “push that moment, to get into the idea of sharing those stories, those experiences.” That moment is “the powder moment, the fleeting moments of perfection where we cease to be our normal selves, our normal egos, and completely transcend [them] through achieving perfection on the run we’re on,” Drake said.
This may seem a bit dramatic for those who have never strapped planks to their feet to go hurtling down the face of a mountain, but Drake described his training and search for these life changing runs to be the same intensity as any other pursuit you’re passionate about. Without knowing, Drake had subconsciously created a path towards the DPS project.
DPS, or Drake Powderworks, was inspired from the years of traveling all over the world only to stumble upon the same groups of hardcore folks congregating at ski mecca locations. It was this passion for the sport, the art, the lust to “to surf on deep snow,” the culture and the grit, that was not reflected in traditional skinny European style skis of the ’90s. Drake was on the cusp of switching to snowboarding to get that “big mountain experience” when he and his friends stumbled on two models of fatter, metal skis.
With still no apparent interest in starting a business, they began collecting these back shelved skis and engaged in a sort of “grey market trade.” They painted the skis and bent the edges to form rockers, and suddenly skiing had the same potential as snowboarding. At this point, they looked down at the gear, saw the culture in the gear, saw the difference, and said “hey, let’s start a business.”
Now, 13 years later, the company’s mission statement has stayed the same; it’s telling of the core experience that created the skis in the first place. According to their website, “DPS is about the mystery encountered during a slide across deep snow. It is the inspiration for everything we create. It fuels a reverence for mountains, storms, and the people who sculpt powder culture. It leads us on a search for distant ranges and on a quest for the most progressively shaped and built skis on the planet.”
By 2010, the company had perfected its carbon fiber technology, freeing up 30–40 percent of the weight of other skis and transforming the industry like the technology had done for sports like sailing, tennis, and golf. High performance gear in a lightweight package was the ultimate goal. Cutting edge design to match their cutting edge of engineering combined with the general lifestyle was made complete with their pledge to sustainability.
From very early on, DPS worked with Patagonia, and now has close ties to Outdoor Research, Protect Our Winters, Tesla, Sweetgrass Productions (a film company started by CC graduates), and New Belgium Brewing Co. The common denominator of these groups is that they wish to transform business from traditional capitalist consumerism into something environmentally sustainable, to make products with that last and not to be replaced.
This focus on environmental education and stewardship is manifested in DPS’ newest product: Phantom Wax. Phantom is a permanent base glide treatment that doesn’t have the hydrocarbons that even “green” wax has. These hydrocarbons enter the mountain ecosystem watershed in large quantities as the wax wears off and is repeatedly reapplied. These chemicals are harmful to wildlife and humans who come in excessive contact with it, posing environmental justice issues in areas such as Vail, Colo. where the water becomes too contaminated to drink for the low income employees living around the mountain.
Furthermore, traditional wax is limited in its longevity due to the phase change that happens with temperature changes. Phantom is chemically inert, permanently bonded to the ski base when applied, and has a temperature range large enough to satisfy the coldest powder days to spring skiing and corn snow. This cleaner solution is especially exciting as it takes on the entire entrenched nature of the wax industry, with Drake likening it to the renewable energy sector taking on the oil and gas industry.
This progressive leadership standpoint for what business means for the planet is an optimistic direction for birding environmentalism and the economy. Drake was able to follow his passions on a wild journey in search of the ultimate ride, and that ride continues as DPS and partnering company’s voices grow louder.