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Do I Belong Here?

Outspoken Summit 2023

November 11-13, 2023 (Tempe, AZ)

- Alex Forte Howell, Dirty Kitten Productions & Basecamp Frederick

Full disclosure: I wasn’t going to do it. Flights to Phoenix from Baltimore were expensive; I would have to get a rental car and a hotel room (additional costs); and I HATE FLYING! In fact, I’m absolutely terrified of flying in any type of airplane for any amount of time or distance. Yes, I know all the reasons why “airplanes are safer than cars” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Nevertheless, Chris (my incredibly supportive husband), my teammates, and pretty much everyone I know told me I should go…so I did.


My primary reason for attending this year’s Outspoken Women in Endurance Sports Summit (hosted by Feisty Media) was not because I had been nominated and selected as a finalist for the “Race Director of the Year” award (although that’s a great honor). It was because I needed to get away from the daily grind and spend time with like-minded folks, specifically women, who were in the process of developing and building their businesses. I wanted to meet and learn from the amazing women in the cycling and endurance sports world who were attending as speakers. I wanted to share my experience as both a female athlete and race director with other women in this arena to learn about ways that others are tackling similar issues, questions, and challenges.


What I didn’t realize going into this weekend was that it would be a life-changing experience for me. So often I am the one directing and managing events, making sure everyone is having a good time, and creating the experiences. This time, however, I was on the other side of the fence as a participant. To be honest, it was a bit unsettling. If I wasn’t in charge of anything, what was I supposed to do? (Relax, slow down, listen, and share.


I flew out to Arizona a day early (Thursday) so that I could visit my mother-in-law who lives just outside of the city before the conference started on Friday evening. The flight wasn’t bad at all (no turbulence), but I could have done without the the group of 6-8 golf “bros” sitting in the rows behind me, drinking White Claws at 8am, and talking loud enough for the entire plane to hear their “locker room” conversation. When I arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, I picked up my rental car (apparently there was a soccer tournament happening over the weekend, as well as Veterans Day on Monday, so it took me a few hours) and headed to Goodyear, AZ for a visit with my in-laws.


On Friday, after a quick visit, I drove back to Phoenix Airport to pick-up my social media friend and roommate for the weekend (Lorri). After attempting to navigate the somewhat confusing airport arrival area, I met Lorri on the side of the road near a toll entrance past the airport terminal (thankfully she didn’t get hit by any of the buses). We then drove to the host hotel, The Graduate, on the ASU campus to check-in, relax, eat, and prepare for the Outspoken Summit Welcome Reception that evening.


After we picked up our gift bags (complete with special edition “Feisty” sunglasses by Goodr), the night started with a little “get-to-know-you” icebreaker followed by food, cocktails, and a fabulous keynote speaker: Victoria Brumfield, CEO of USA Triathlon. Listening to Vic speak, I knew I had made the right decision coming to the conference. She is an amazing woman: bright, funny, tough, and kind. As she talked about working with USAT and being the first female CEO, I found myself getting emotional, thinking about all the things I’ve done and want to do with my business.


Saturday started bright and early with a morning group run (which I skipped because I wanted to sleep in), breakfast, and a guest speaker panel led by Molly Hurford (sport journalist, author, podcaster): Shut the F Up - How to Overcome the Negative Voice in Your Head + Move Past Imposter Syndrome. It’s funny how things seem to “happen for a reason” as this entire experience felt like an extraordinary coincidence. How did they know what I have been feeling? Imposter Syndrome is real and hits me quite often in my personal and professional life. So often I find myself feeling as though I “don’t belong” or am “not good enough” for the situation. Even though I have been an athlete for most of my life and an event director for many years, I still find myself thinking: “Maybe no one will notice that I don’t know what I’m doing.”


The remainder of Saturday consisted of multiple workshops all of which sounded intriguing, but sadly we could only pick a few to attend. Our options were: “How to Write Content People Will Actually Want to Read” with Selene Yeager, author & podcaster; “Using Sport for Professional Growth” with Melanie Mitchell, founder of Poppy Sports & Brand Director for Women’s Running; “Podcast Primer - A Hobby, A Hassle, or a Home Run for Your Business?” with Carrie Barrett, Feisty Media Podcast Editor; “The Art of Fundraising” with Stacy Perlis, Wahoo Fitness VP of Finance & Administration; “Inclusive Sports Leadership” with DEI specialists Dr. Lisa Ingarfield, Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold, and Dor. Gabriela Nunez; “Four Key Tools that Every Business Needs to Grow” with Kathryn Taylor, Feisty Chief of Staff & Storybrand Certified Guide; “How the Hell do I Manage My Business Finances…and Other Money Management” with Brenda Smith, business professor & financial services professional; and “Marketing Made Simple” with Michelle Duffy, Marketing Director for Life Time Events. I attended as many as I could and took copious notes. It was like being back in grad school and I loved it! I’m such a nerd.


All day on Saturday and for pretty much the entire weekend, I found myself getting very emotional. Seeing all those strong, bold, and driven women in one place, hearing their stories about overcoming odds and building their businesses made me feel more alive and connected than I have in a while. It reminded me that there are other people out there struggling with the same questions and fears as I do, trying to chase their dreams, and supporting each other along the way. It was both shocking and comforting at the same time. I tried to listen, take notes, and soak it all in while also feeling as though I was on an emotional rollercoaster.


It wasn’t that I was having a breakdown; it was more of an emotional release. All the pent-up emotional stress from the last 1, 2, 3, whatever years suddenly came to the surface: moving, getting married, losing family members and friends, leaving my profession as a teacher, starting a business, directing events, managing a team, training for races, buying a house, selling a house, re-considering my long-term career goals, wanting or not wanting a family. It all came clearly into view while I was sitting in a room full of amazing, brilliant women (many of whom are my industry role models) listening to their stories. And then a realization came over me: “I’m not the only one.” That single, simple thought suddenly made everything OK, and I was left feeling a strong sense of gratitude for everything I had done and being able to have this experience.


That evening, Lorri and I hit up a local taco place for dinner and found ourselves sitting amongst a gaggle of college students, eating guacamole and tacos. We talked about the conference and our lives, shared our struggles over the last few years, and told each other that we were ready to take the next steps for our individual businesses. Lorri owns and runs a fit studio in San Jose, CA called Savvy Bike. She has been working in the industry for over 20 years as an athlete, coach, team manager, store manager, fit specialist, and business owner. We knew each other through other people in the cycling world (primarily from my former team, Vanderkitten) but had never really spent time together other than when she came out to race DKGR a couple years before.


Sunday’s activities started early with a morning panel discussion: “CEO Mindset” hosted by Sara Gross (Feisty Media, CEO) and Vic Brumfield (USAT, CEO). Sara and Vic talked with each other about what it means to be women in the endurance sports industry, constantly fighting for equality and respect. They discussed obstacles and barriers that they both have encountered along the way, but emphasized that in the end it comes down to having a strong sense of purpose and the right “team” of people around you. This, of course, made me think of my own “team” in both my personal and business life. You cannot achieve great things on your own. Both Sara and Vic acknowledged their mentors and support systems, encouraging new entrepreneurs (or “solopreneurs” as Sara put it) to “lean on people who are truly experts at what you need help with” instead of trying to figure it out alone. They also discussed values and emphasized the importance of knowing what you want. “Get out of your own way” and just go for it, they said.


Our final workshop activity on Sunday was to spend an hour or so working on an outline for our own businesses. We were given a worksheet (yay school!) and told to find a quiet place alone to gather our thoughts and apply some of what we had learned throughout the weekend. Walking outside to find a spot in the sun, I fell into step with another participant, Sara (yet another Sara), and we started chatting about our plans. Sara told me that she wanted to expand her yoga business but wasn’t sure quite how to do it or the direction she wanted to take. I explained that I was in a similar situation with my business. So for the next hour, we talked through our business outlines together and were surprised by the amount of similarities that existed. How serendipitous!


Back in the conference room, we were all given the opportunity to share our business plan outlines with the group. I didn’t really want to share because I wasn’t quite sure what to say and felt that my business ideas were still unclear: Do I want to work on expanding Dirty Kitten Productions and do more events or Do I want to focus more on Basecamp? Chris and I had talked about both but, at the end of the day, as Owner/CEO it’s really my decision and I had no idea. Then a woman whom I had chatted with at lunch the day before, Theresa (Founder of iTri), stood up to share her business goals and mentioned at the end that she would like to visit me in Maryland next year to check out “Basecamp Frederick” with her staff. Suddenly everyone wanted to know about Basecamp!


Shaking and nervous, I stood up to explain my business plan. I started with background on Dirty Kitten Productions and our events then transitioned into an overview of what Chris and I want to do with Basecamp Frederick as an adventure outfitter and resource center. I explained that our plan is lead rides, tours, and groups in and around the Mid-Atlantic region. Our long-term goal is to set-up an AirBnB style lodge somewhere in the area so that we can host camps, clinics, and events. Up until that moment, these were all just a series of ideas floating around in my head, things that Chris and I had talked about as our dream but never truly real. Then suddenly, in a conference room in Tempe, AZ with 50+ other women, it became real. I stood up in front of a room full of people whom I didn’t really know and explained our business plan…and everyone cheered! Wow, I guess people think this is a good idea. Maybe it can be real.


The last event of the weekend was the Outspoken Brunch and Awards Ceremony. The afternoon started with keynote speaker Zsa Zsa Porter, Founder of Level Up! She talked about starting her vegan food truck business during the pandemic, losing her mother, and publishing her book. Yet another inspirational story and a reminder that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and see what happens. Zsa Zsa outlined the 5 ways to advance a business: Assess (What is your passion?), Visualize (What is your vision or dream?), Raise Up (What are your resources & priorities?), Activate (What are your actions?), and Boost (Who are your supporters?). Again, I listened and took notes, thinking about my own business goals: What is my passion? What is my vision? What is my dream?


Then it was time for the awards ceremony. Going into this conference, I was grateful to be nominated and chosen as an award finalist; however, looking at the list of nominees, I didn’t think I stood a chance. Our events are relatively new (about 5 years old), we are a small company, and many people don’t know who we are. I felt humbled to be listed amongst some big names and well-known women in the industry. A few times leading up to Sunday’s awards ceremony, I considered the possibility of winning (and perhaps jotting down some notes in the off-chance that I was chosen and needed to make a speech), but that seemed presumptuous and too hopeful so I pushed the idea out of my mind (I really didn’t want to be disappointed).


As the award recipients were announced, a photo of each winner was projected on the screen and the person was asked to say a few words. Many of the winners were not present at the ceremony so their acceptance speeches had been recorded. The Gravel Cycling Community Service Award recipient, Denesha Snell, was there and gave a wonderful speech which brought tears to the eyes of most of us in the room. Then it was time for the Race Director of the Year award. Sara Gross listed each nominee. “There are so many amazing women,” she said. Then before announcing the winner, she read a little from some of the nomination submissions: “The winner has worked tirelessly to create races and events where everyone feels welcome and safe…she makes sure spaces are welcoming to all and addresses anything that comes up in a gracious and caring manner. Our Race Director of the Year is…” I held my breath. And then suddenly my picture was up on the screen and Sara Gross was saying my name. Wait, what!?


I mentioned at the beginning of this recap that I didn’t attend the summit because of the nomination. That was secondary or even tertiary. Winning the award was truly a surprise, and I am so grateful to everyone who nominated me/us. Even though I was the one to receive it, the recognition goes to all who are involved in our events: staff, volunteers, participants, friends, family, teammates, sponsors, partners, and supporters. I did learn an important lesson through this whole experience: Always prepare a speech even if you don’t think you will win. LOL. I was so shocked and surprised when my name was called that I started crying and could barely speak when I went up to accept the award. My speech (which was broadcasted live on the Feisty Media channel) is mainly me crying and rambling on about all the people who have helped and inspired me along the way. Hopefully it made some sense and accurately depicted the gratitude I was feeling. Of all the awards I’ve won in my life, this one may mean the most to me.

The weekend ended with a group of us taking a hike out to Hole in a Rock Trail before heading out separate ways. Thank you to Feisty Media and everyone who worked to make this year’s Outspoken Summit a success. I cannot express how positive and inspirational this experience was for me. I’m excited to work on my business plan and see how things progress over the next year for both myself and the other summit participants. Keep living feisty!

If you want to know more about Feisty Media and Outspoken, visit their websites and social media pages. A list of additional links and resources are below for further information:

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