Story by Rob Gerth
Photo Courtesy of Forest Harger
Forest Harger’s journey to Burton Snowboards took a gnarly path.
Forest Harger’s career, so far, has included stints with the National Audubon Society‚ a United States Senator‚ the U.S. State Department and the aerospace giant Boeing. Starting this past spring‚ she began working at Burton Snow-boards. “My general approach toward my career‚” says Harger‚ a Lehigh Business FLEX MBA student‚ “is‚ what haven’t I learned yet?” She thought it “would be cool” to learn about a self-made business in an industry that she didn’t know anything about.
Harger is the new chief of staff for Donna Carpenter‚ Burton’s owner and chair of the board. Donna’s husband‚ Jake Burton Carpenter‚ founded the company in 1977 and died in 2019‚ but Donna has been involved in the business for most of its 45-year history.
Early in her career‚ Harger was working on a degree in school counseling. “I was on track to become a middle school counselor‚” says Harger‚ “but I just didn’t like it as much as I wanted to.” Halfway through that program‚ she had the opportunity to work on Kay Hagan’s North Carolina U.S. Senate campaign. Hagan won‚ becoming the first woman to defeat an incumbent woman‚ Elizabeth Dole‚ in a Senate election.
While working for the Senator‚ Harger made a connection that helped her get a political appointment to the U.S. State Department‚ working in protocol—something she had wanted since working for a nonprofit that hosted a luncheon for the King and Queen of Norway.
As Harger’s political appointment was ending‚ she decided she hadn’t worked in the private sector yet. “I really wanted to work for a big company‚” she says. “I was interested in defense.” She set her sights on Boeing. “I just knocked on the door there until I found something.” She ended up at Boeing International‚ a small unit within the company that supports the company’s overseas teams.
Harger moved to Vermont when her husband‚ Tim‚ got a new job there in 2019‚ before the pandemic. She says it took a little convincing to get blue chip‚ old school Boeing to consent to allowing her to work from home full time.
One day‚ a recruiter contacted her with a pitch for the position at Burton. Harger resisted. Besides not being a snowboarder‚ “You get to a certain point in your career‚” she says‚
“where you don’t want to just jump for the heck of it.” But the more she learned about Burton‚ the more intrigued she became. “They decided 20 years ago to start working towards gender equity.” And she was excited to work for a woman who had been an integral part of getting Burton up and running.
“The snowboarding ethos definitely has an edge to it‚” says Harger. “But there’s also a lot of athleticism and accepting people for who they are. I thought that was really cool‚ especially at this moment‚ where a lot of companies are attempting to evolve toward this kind of thinking.”
Part of Burton’s culture is autonomy for its employees‚ says Harger. “It was a little scary for me here at the outset‚” she says. “I had to trust my own instincts‚ which I haven’t really‚ truly had to do for most of my career. It’s refreshing.”
As for her MBA? “MBA is a currency‚” Harger says. “It makes me more marketable.” Plus‚ she says‚ “I feel well-positioned to be able to help Burton’s leadership team think about the company’s next evolution in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do a year and a half ago.
But‚ she almost didn’t start her MBA. “I felt like‚ is this the right thing for me‚ to be taking the time away from my family?” She had just had her second child‚ but she says her husband convinced her that it was a good decision to continue developing her skill set‚ and also good for her two sons to see her doing it.
“It turns out that being in an MBA program is my self-care‚” says Harger. “Yes‚ it’s hard work‚ but it’s also your other life that you get to live outside of your family. I think women should keep that in mind—it’s truly a hidden benefit.”
Forest Harger’s been a FLEX MBA participant since February 2021 and plans to graduate in the spring of 2024.