Tuesday, April 23, 2024

CEO of Protect Our Winters

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Queensbury and Harvard grad Erin Sprague is the CEO of Protect Our Winters non-profit in Boulder, Colorado.
Harvard and Queensbury Class of 2001 grad Erin Sprague is the newly appointed CEO of Protect Our Winters, a Colorado-based climate advocacy not-for-profit targeted to and run by skiiers, snowboarders and outdoors enthusiasts like herself.

“I’ve always been a passionate outdoor athlete,” Ms. Sprague told The Chronicle in a Zoom call from Boulder.

“I loved every every season outdoors in this beautiful part of the world. I ran on the cross country and track teams. I was on the Nordic ski team, and spent most weekends skiing at Gore, or Cole’s Woods in Glens Falls. It had a huge influence on my life and the way I want to spend my time and make the world better.”

The oldest of four children, Ms. Sprague’s father Bill worked for the State Police and ski patrol. Her mother Gerri was a Glens Falls Hospital nurse.

“We’re all really outdoorsy. We did a lot of hiking and skiing in the Adirondacks,” she says. Now she said she brings her young family home for summers, Gurney Lane swim lessons and “Camp Grandma and Grandpa.”

Ms. Sprague earned her undergraduate degree in History at Harvard, then went to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business — “to learn and understand really how corporations work,” she said. “It proved to be a really great professional training and background.”

POW CEO Erin Sprague, center, in Colorado with sisters Colleen Cowper (left, a guidance counselor at Queensbury High School), and Cara Bachman (an ER doctor in Flagstaff). Photo by Alexis Ahrling
She started her career, working “in finance” at Blackstone Group, she says, where “I did a mix of investment analysis in our Hedge Fund Solutions group, and I did some government policy work.”

Running marathons “on the side,” she says, “I became really interested in outdoor sport, how it empowers people, and I really wanted to work in that industry.”

She went west, hired to grow the women’s division of California-based Specialized bike company, and then was Vice President of Marketing, running marathon and fitness events for Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

She then was named Chief Brand Officer at Aspen Skiing Company, which operates four mountains in Colorado.

“That’s when I started to really understand the climate crisis,” Ms. Sprague says. “When you’re working in snow sports, you see it every day. It was really affecting our business, and it certainly affects the business in the Northeast…

“The earth is getting warmer. I’m sure you’re seeing warmer winters, variability, extreme weather events. I know the Northeast was really impacted by flooding earlier this year. That’s going to keep getting worse.”

She joined the Protect Our Winters [POW] board, eventually chairing it while also working for climate tech startups, small companies creating products to reduce food waste, for example, or home heating and cooling systems “that don’t burn fossil fuels,” she said.

When the CEO of POW stepped down, Ms. Sprague said Jeremy Jones, the pro snowboarder who founded the company in 2007, pressed her to apply.
“I wasn’t sure at first. I’d never been a CEO, never led an organization like this.

“One of the things that guided me was, first how much I believe in its mission. And second, to just really make a difference in this world. I think this is an organization that’s doing that really well.”

“The most important thing is to think about how we basically stop burning things for fuel and transition to cleaner sources of energy,” Ms. Sprague says.

Erin Sprague and her sister Cara Bachman, hiking and skiing Aspen’s Highland Bowl. Photo/Pete Stine
POW targets outdoors enthusiasts in get-out-the-vote efforts at all levels of government. It advocates against developing Western lands for fossil fuels, champions legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act that included alternative energy incentives, and supports films that celebrate outdoor sports with environmental messages.

“Decarbonisation is a complex topic. We try to distill it and help people see the good that it’s going to do, and also inspire,” she says, aiming to show “you can solve a big problem and do it in a way that’s joyful, simply connected to the fact that we all love the outdoors and want to make it better.”

“We’re a bipartisan organization,” Ms. Sprague says. “Unfortunately, this is an issue that is sometimes politicized. For us, it’s about how do we create a better world for the future, a world that’s safe.

“There are going to be economic impacts from extreme weather. There already are and it’s only going to create more chaos. That’s what we’re trying to prevent. Sometimes I feel sad that it gets political, because I think this is something that every family wants for their children and for their communities.”

She said, even as alternative energy has flaws, “There’s been a lot of progress, on car manufacturers for example, and charging infrastructure is catching up…

“You try to solve one problem, and you can create another. That’s part of technological change. But if you really look at the scope of the problem, the biggest threat is the amount of carbon that we’re putting into the air.

“I’m an endurance runner. I typically run marathons, but I’ve run distances up to 100 miles. There’s a proverb I like that says the journey of 1,000 miles starts with one step. What we’re doing as a small organization is trying to take those steps. If we take enough of them, in a couple, maybe 10 or 20 years, we’re gonna make progress on climate change.

“And if we don’t take those steps, we’re not, and the world is going to get worse. That’s why I stepped into this role, to help take some of those steps.”

Ms. Sprague said she became at age 24 the youngest person to complete a marathon on all seven continents. Her current side project is a 10-year plan to run a marathon in all 50 states. Aiming to run six a year, she’ll tackle her 17th, Grand-ma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN, in June.

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