These women are helping Polaris drive more diversity into the powersports world.
Many aspects of the outdoors industry, especially the powersports space, have traditionally been predominantly male-driven. Only in the last few decades have cracks started to show in this, both in the customers purchasing these products, and in the people helping to design, market and produce them. At nowhere is this shift in demographics within the off-road spaces more evident than Polaris Inc.
We recently travelled to Minnesota to check out the new model year Polaris machines. While there, we spoke with three female trailblazers within the company who are helping to break the mold of who might traditionally be considered an off-road enthusiast.
In the process we also learned more about how Polaris is supporting this demographic shift and how they are hoping to grow the industry through it.
Pamela Kermisch, Polaris Chief Customer Engagement and Growth Officer and Vice President of ORV Marketing
The huge learning curve to the off-road powersports world is easy for Kermisch to understand. She was mostly unfamiliar with it herself when she joined the company in 2015. Her family had a boat growing up, but she was not really exposed to the outdoor until she met her husband, a lifelong outdoorsman. It did not take long for her to realize she loved hiking, running, and kayaking. In 2015, she joined Polaris with a ton of marketing experience from her time at General Mills helping promote cereal, but zero experience behind the actual wheel of an off-road machine. She says this worked in her favor as she had to listen and learn.
Before she started the job, she decided to dive right into the world of Polaris. She travelled to Arizona with three friends. Most of them corporate people from big cities totally unfamiliar with machines with the Polaris RZR.
"We were excited, and maybe not we were not as nervous as we should have been," Kermisch said.
After all, the controls of a UTV are not too much unlike that of a car. Two of Kermisch's friends really got into the experience and rode close to the lead guide's vehicle in a cloud of dirt and debris.
"They wanted to eat dust. I don't know why, but they were having so much fun, they wanted to ride on the tail of that other vehicle," Kermisch said. "The guide named my friend 'DFS' for 'Dirty Faced Sherri,' because she had a clean goggle spot and everything else was desert dust. She had the best time ever."
More than anything else, that first experience with a UTV showed Kermisch these machines were not just for "the boys."
"It was one of the most empowering things and exciting things. Everybody had an amazing time. And I'm not going to lie, the next day we went to the spa. So, the beautiful part is you can still be a girl and be your empowered adventure girl. And the next day you can still have a massage and spa day with the girls."
Now one of her favorite things to do is to introduce new people to the sport. She took her 70-year-old parents out for the first time in Mexico, which showed her there is no age limit. Another time she took three families with zero experience in a side-by-side to Arizona and put them behind the wheel of some high performance RZRs.
"They felt badass, and they weren't riding like racers, but to them they were being such great outdoor adventures seeing amazing scenery in Arizona, they loved every second of it," "So, for me, it is a very personal thing to try to bring the experience to people who never would have thought about it."
Not only can anyone get into the outdoor powersports world Kermisch says the typical, older, white male demographic you might expect for the sport, is extremely welcoming to new groups of people joining in on the fun.
"For girls, it's very empowering, and I think in today's world, it's on trend, it's outdoors, it's experiences and making memories with friends and family and a lot of laughing," Kermisch said.
The numbers back up the demographic shift. She said Polaris saw 700,000 new customers in 2020. In the first half of 2021, they saw a slight decrease to about 300,000. However, she believes most of that was inventory issues caused by high demand.
"A major reason last year was people were looking for opportunities to be together with people safely outside, and so, absolutely, there were some tail winds from the pandemic," she said.
Those thoughts echo what many in the outdoor industry were saying during 2020. However, it was not the only thing. Kermisch notes their warranty registrations have indicated double digit growth in customer numbers with females, Latinos, and younger riders.
As Kermisch notes, if you are not born into the world of riding, the learning curve is steep. Polaris has recognized this and have started catering their social media, and websites to help. One aspect of this has been their "Trail Talk" YouTube series that answers questions on the basics from customers. Where can I ride? I just bought a UTV, now what? How do I load a trailer? Etc.
Though it all, listening to their customers is key for everyone at Polaris for both content to help new riders and for input on their new products.
"It's not just me. I have a whole team of people, men women, different ages, ethnicities, different geographies, different riding experience, that when we're out at events, we love to talk to people," Kermisch said.
Halli Winter, Product Manager - RZR
Like Kermisch, Winter has noticed the growth in the female sector of powersports the last few years. She credits her father as being the inspiration for her love of the outdoors. He and Halli's mother got into riding dirt bikes shortly after they met, and they later passed that love to their daughters.
"What really sparked (a love of the outdoors and powersports) was my dad never treated my sister and I like we couldn't do something," Winter said. "He really wanted to teach us what he knew."
For Wenter that encouragement carried into every aspect of her life, especially her career. When she got to Polaris, she teamed as part of a group who along with Kermisch, helped lay the foundation to start "Women Leaders in Powersports." WLP is dedicated to the networking of women who at Polaris. This has helped the company because it gets more of the female demographic collaborating and talking about different ideas for the products. Now Polaris test markets products across more diversity segments and age ranges than ever before.
"My team has been historically very male dominated, but what was cool, and why I think they hired me in was to get a different opinion, to start pulling on different resources," Winter said.
More importantly, the group helped connect Winter to other women who also share a passion for off-road and powersports.
"There are so many freaking awesome women in the company," Winter said. "My best friends are in the company."
Not that she did not have some tense moments early in her career. She recalled being nervous when she was the only woman in the room and being worried that she may have just said something stupid. Her worries ended up being for naught because her co-workers were genuinely interested in her opinions on the matter.
"My group wants to hear my voice, it feels like I have voice," she said.
Since then, both men and women have reached out to her at times asking for advice on breaking into the powersports world or looking simply to get into riding with no prior experience in the space. Her advice? Simply to be authentic and be yourself.
"One thing that really comes to mind is just being organic about it, to have a welcoming space and say 'Hey, we like to go ride,' and reaching out to different people," Winter said. "It's really being true to yourself, if there is something you want to challenge yourself on and go try it, to know that there is a group of people out there that is super open to talking to you."
Collett Mazula Director of Product Marketing - RANGER, GENERAL and Sportsman
Mazula understands the traditional Polaris fan base well. Her love of the outdoors was fostered by the typical small-town atmosphere many RANGER and Sportsman fans are familiar with. Her father helped foster that love and a work ethic into her at a young age. It was also where she gained a love of powersports since they were always using ATVs to assist in that work.
"My weekends were always 'Okay, you're getting up, it's 6:30, you're getting up with the sun,' and we're going out to my grandpa's farm to go cut firewood because that's how my family heated our homes during the winter," Mazula said.
Her family, especially her dad, drove home the point that if they did not put in the hard work, they would end being cold all winter. This work ethic has carried her forward into her job at Polaris where she has worked a variety of marketing positions within the company during the last eight years. It quickly became apparent that Polaris cared a lot about the female segment of their riders.
"Within Polaris you realize like it's not just the men who are out there riding," Mazula said. "They are bringing their partner, they are bringing their friends, family."
Polaris quickly realized women were not just tagging along, they were loving every aspect of powersports as much as the men. This has led to a more inclusive marketing strategy for the company that seems to be working extremely well as this segment of the market just continues to grow.
"Overall, they have just done a good job understanding women are very enthusiastic about the outdoors and experiencing what nature has to offer and leaning in and even just showing that inclusivity comes back in spades," Mazula said.
Through sponsorships of events like International Female Ride Day held every May, Polaris hopes to connect more women with others who share a similar passion for off-roading.
"That is one that continues to deliver every time that we are there. It's a great event, a great community, it's not just Polaris, it's about bringing everyone together collectively riding and to have a great time," Mazula said.
She noted there is an option for everyone in Polaris' lineup and for women wanting to join in on the fun of off-road, the possibilities are endless. She encouraged any women on the fence about wanting to start off-roading should jump right into it.
"Go out there if it is something you enjoy, go try it," Mazula said. "Don't be afraid to be the only woman that is showing up and doing something others don't get, they don't understand, or appreciate, or think that you can do.
"Don't take no for an answer," she added. "You can do it, don't be afraid. Get in there, love it, crush it, and you're going to be stronger for it."
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