Meeting Kim at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area is like reuniting with someone you know you connect with but haven’t seen for a long time. I was introduced to Kim through a mutual friend a few years ago and immediately resonated with her drive to uplift women in the actions sports industry. While her way of doing that has transformed, her mission to make action sports more accessible and inclusive for women and girls has only grown.
As we talk, Kim drives us to her local skatepark. She shares without reservation about her journey, her new ventures, the lessons she’s learned and what she continues to discover about herself. Her introspection and clarity leave a smile on my face as I watch her lavender sneakers guide four wheels around curves with comfort and ease. She radiates humility and inclusivity in the words she says and the things she does. I leave feeling grateful to call her a friend.
On feeding your passion:
When I was growing up in the Bay Area I was lucky enough to have access to SG Magazine. It started out at “Surfer Girl” then became “SG Skate, Snow and Surf.” Back then there was no YouTube or FUEL TV or anything like that, so this print magazine became my one access to the action sports culture and the community.
I came from more of a snowboarding background. I really only cruised around on my skateboard and I didn’t really start surfing until I went to University of California San Diego (UCSD) for college to study video and visual arts media. I realized quickly that this was my passion and after graduation, I connected with my classmate Johnny V to start a video production company. At the time there was no one creating action sports content for women (as this was pre iPhone and pre GoPro), so we decided to tell the stories within this community we loved. We just started creating content with some riders I knew and eventually we launched MAHFIA Productions.
On starting MAHFIA Productions:
We tried as much as possible to do anything action sports oriented when we started, but it was very hard because big companies did not have the the money to spend, especially on women.
So we took whatever opportunities came across our plate. At that time, DJ’s and music technology were really blowing up, so we worked with a lot of female DJ’s. Interestingly enough, there’s a lot of parallels between being a female DJ in the industry to being a female athlete in the action sports industry.
This led us down this path of us shooting nightlife photography and videography, and it was fun for a while but it wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle. At that time period, around 2012-2013, we saw that other people were starting to make awesome action-sports content because smartphones and YouTube really started to blow up.
Suddenly, there wasn’t a need for us to produce content anymore because we started seeing it everywhere. We realized the new need was to give all of this new content a home because it was really hard to find all these stories in one place. I remember thinking, “There’s not one magazine or website in action sports that really speaks to me as a woman or makes me feel like this is 100 percent for me like SG Magazine used to.”
Johnny and I ended up creating a site that was the end product of that idea. We planned for the revenue to come from advertising and ideally branded content, and our aim was to offer custom content creation as well as a platform and an audience to market the products to. And it worked. Kind of. (Laughs)
On the challenges of entrepreneurship:
For a long time we presented ourselves as the go-to content media production company in the realm of girls action sports - specifically skateboarding - and our biggest potential clients were these big companies we continually pitched to. We had a few successful partnerships, including a contract with Penny Skateboards for two years. But brands were constantly shifting how they spent digital marketing budgets and usually said, “Cool, we’ll keep you in mind.”
It all came to a head when these same companies we had been trying so hard to work with began poaching our footage and not paying us. To put it to a surf metaphor, I felt like we were always paddling and never in the right spot.
We would catch a few small waves but it felt like constant repositioning. For a time this was exciting because it’s part of being an entrepreneur and a creative, innovative person, but at the same time it felt like a never-ending race. I felt tired and was ready to actually ride a wave and stop paddling around aimlessly.
So that’s where I was at, thinking, “Man, I haven’t figured it out and we haven’t been able to grow. This isn’t working.” I decided to move back to the Bay Area where I grew up, thinking I would find more for me in that environment.
This is when I started exploring the question, “What gets me excited to jump out of bed in the morning?”
On Skate Like a Girl:
Through MAHFIA, I had already worked with Skate Like a Girl. I knew there was a chapter in the Bay Area that was real grassroots. This environment felt inclusive to me, so when I moved home I started skating again, after skating very sporadically on and off.
Eventually the Skate Like a Girl Bay Area chapter was put on hiatus because there wasn’t anyone available that was able to fully commit the time and energy necessary.
Meanwhile, the Pacific Northwest chapters in Portland and Seattle were growing and and hosted programming in school, after school, ladies nights and more. They offered a lot of free programming to underserved communities. They did youth camps. The organization had really involved into a community serving organization and it wasn’t happening in the Bay Area at the same level.
When they put this chapter I loved on hiatus, it was really sad for me. The whole reason I got into this industry was because when I was 15 I was really stoked to snowboard and skate and surf and but I had the hardest time finding people to do that with. I went to Southern California and came back and nothing had changed. There was no way for girls to learn to skate despite having so many great skateparks and a great chunk of the skate industry up here. It just felt really disconnected.
On finding a new way:
Eventually I got to the point where I was like, “There’s no one else doing this. I can’t wait around for someone else to. I’m inspired to take this on.”
Kristen Ebeling, our Executive Director in Seattle offered to guide me through the process of resurrecting the chapter. Shortly after, I met my co-director, Ashley, at a panel I was speaking on. She just came up to me and told me she had been teaching skateboarding for more than ten years and I was like, “Oh my god, where have you been my whole life?” Once I met Ash, we started moving forward, first just by meeting once a week whether it was in person or on the phone.
So it started from there. Now we have 18 people volunteering with us in the Bay Area, we have had two years of programming, including hosting summer camps (adult + youth) and a school program in 2018. This year we will expand to more after school programs and a larger camp offering while still hosting free clinics for the community.
As this grew, it meant I had less time to focus on MAHFIA. It took a lot for me to accept that but it was a blessing in disguise. It wasn’t easy to let go of but having something awesome that was growing and expanding really helped.
Eventually I realized that I could still fulfill the same mission statement, which is to empower and inspire folks to be part of this community, but it didn’t have to look the way that I thought it did.
On letting go of a company you built:
After MAHFIA I was ready to walk away from action sports. I had this story of myself that I was a failure, that I wasn’t cut out to be an entrepreneur or a leader and everything would be easier if I just fell in line with an existing corporate structure.
I felt like I had to prove to my whole family that I can do what they did -- which is work super hard and make it happen. There were no handouts for them. They built everything that they have from my grandpa’s generation to my parents generation.
Growing up I went to Chinese school and I hated it. Now I can speak Mandarin Chinese and I’m super appreciative because I understand the backstory of it now. When Japan invaded China, my grandfather randomly chose to go to Taiwan with one of his brothers while seven of their other brothers stayed.
They thought they’d go for a few months because shit was hitting the fan in China but after they left, all the borders were shut down and no one could come back in to the country. They never got to go back. As a result, he was stuck in Taiwan and was like, “I’m going to work hard and build a business here.” They eventually moved to America for more opportunity.
This is why I felt a deep drive to prove myself to my family that I could be just as hard working and successful. But one day I had the realization that maybe they worked so hard so I don’t have to claw my way to the top. Maybe they worked super hard so I don’t have to prove myself -- so that I can just contribute to others and do something that’s meaningful to me.
Once I looked at it from that perspective, everything changed.
On the blame game:
With MAHFIA, I was essentially doing everything by myself and I got super burnt out. It’s one thing to wear a lot of hats and be multi talented but it’s another to feel like you’re the only one who can do anything. I had created this almost deathtrap for myself where my versatility was also my disadvantage.
The big game changer for me was shifting my perspective on collaborating with other people. I didn’t use to think that every person I met was someone I could collaborate with. I’d always find a reason not to and start to close off to the possibility of working with others.
Now I’m able to see myself and other people for exactly who they are and totally accept them, strengths and weaknesses, and then figure out ways to work together.
I am still a judger but at least I catch myself now. A big part of it was noticing when I judge myself or make myself or other people wrong and actually giving that up.
Now I’m more aware of the things that I do that hold me back from what I want -- which is so ironic because when things are going wrong, we always want to say, “It’s not me, it’s them.”
And we were doing that to the entire skate industry. As women we were making the guys wrong, saying, “They don’t do this,” or, “They don’t let us do this.” It was a world of complaints and none of it was productive. So we could sit there and just be angry and bitter or we could start creating things that would actually make a difference -- and that was the shift.
Regardless of our history, there’s women currently in the world that don’t have the choice and are unhappy because they can’t choose. And we can choose.
So if we’re unhappy we better do something about it because we can. Get out there and go surf because not everyone has that option. We should exercise the luxury to choose because so many women can’t.
On getting out of your own way:
Anyone who’s really passionate and motivated and driven knows it’s hard to get out of that tunnel vision sometimes because if you put everything into something it’s hard to see it any other way.
We’re so good at creating and analyzing all these scenarios in our heads, but fear is really just a feeling and an emotion, not an actual tangible thing. I think it’s healthy to have a little fear but for me it became paralyzing and limiting. After realizing that and doing some self work, I became a happier and less anxious person, and I actually became a better skateboarder too.
I realized my contribution to others would be using where I’m at to help kids that have never seen the beach or don’t have money to buy a skateboard or access to a place to snowboard.
I have a really unique opportunity and I want to spend it not only making a difference but just being happy -- because if I’m not happy and I get to choose what I do with my life, well then that’s just ridiculous.
They key for me was realizing that I could still be and do what I wanted to do with MAHFIA, which is empower women in action sports, and understand that it just looks different now than I thought it would.
On true community building:
There’s a level of value that I get or that you get from contributing to others and physically participating in the things that we love. Of course it’s necessary to put food on the table, but once you cover the basics there’s definitely something else that keeps you going beyond money.
I’ve realized through Skate Like a Girl that it’s incredibly influential and impactful to give young people -- all people, really -- a physical place to go to where they can have real experiences with real people versus on a screen.
When Skate Like a Girl does events or retreats or panels or film premieres or whatever, there’s just something that screen time and social media can never ever replicate or come close to. This is true community building.
Just knowing you have a whole community that gets it and understands resilience is incredibly special. When all your friends skate and surf and snowboard and you encounter a challenge in life, you know on some level you have the tools to get through it.
This is because every day we have the experience of falling and getting back up or wiping out and getting back out there. We’ve learned resilience and we ultimately know falling is not the end. I just wish that every person in the world could have that.
One of the things we’re excited to do up here is an after-school girls skate club so when we leave, they have each other and their community so it will thrive and grow with them. Because that’s the end goal, right? It’s not just to serve ten girls and when we’re gone they have nothing but give them the leadership and confidence to becoming their own community leaders so they can take it to wherever they want to.
On Vanessa Torres and “SLMBR PRTY”:
People love Vanessa. She is such a personality in the limelight and her skating is very outspoken. She’s really open and eloquent about her challenge with alcoholism in the past and overcoming it, which I think is really refreshing and relatable. When you get to know her she is actually just an introverted, nerdy misfit kid (like all of us). She found skateboarding back when it wasn’t a predominant activity and just started skating by herself purely because she loved it.
I think once you’ve gone through the full cycles of ups and downs like Vanessa has, you can be more open about it because there’s nothing to lose anymore, right? That’s the part that a lot of people struggle with. We’re worried about what other people think and worried about looking good. Of course I have that -- we all still have that.
There’s so much freedom in just being able to be like, “This is just how I am and I’m not perfect.” But at the same time, we’re all not perfect -- and therefore we’re all perfect. Everyone’s not perfect. Together.
The brand is called “SLMBR PRTY” because Vanessa has always wanted to wear what makes her comfortable and not what other people says she should wear. Back then, the norm in the industry is that you pretty much just had to conform to wearing what your sponsors wanted you to wear without any real input. It’s suppressing in many ways.
How do you navigate that when you feel like you’re compromising yourself?
A few years ago, Vanessa started skating in sweatpants -- and to skate in sweatpants you have to have a certain level of confidence because if you fall, there’s almost no material protecting you. So she kind of coined that and it was cool because around this time everyone started wearing what they wanted and looking different, whereas before it felt like everyone was wearing the same thing.
Eventually Vanessa was like, “I just want to wear pajamas and have fun all the time,” and our brand was born from this concept of being in pj’s, having fun with your friends and all the good memories associated with that for young girls and us adult women. Shred trips, camping trips and road trips are basically the adult version of a slumber party and the best thing ever because you get to be with your friends and have fun no matter how old you are.
Even though she’s one of the most accomplished skateboarders in the world, for her skating has always been about fun. If she’s in a contest she’ll definitely do her best and be competitive, but she always skated because it was fun and it was with her friends and no other reasons.
People want to support what Vanessa represents and her brand of skateboarding, which is be creative and have fun. And fun is what speaks to people. There are only so many people want to be the best or to be professional or Olympian, and everyone else is like, “I wanna have some fun.”
Vanessa and I decided from the beginning to make this a brand that’s fun for the entire community. It’s not just about skateboarding and it’s not even a skate brand. It’s about anything that involves having fun and being with your friends, which is basically your entire life as a kid. That’s the cool thing about surfing and skateboarding and snowboarding. You’re in the moment, and in the moment you are just a kid because you can’t be worrying about anything else. You’re not like, “What email do I need to send?” as you’re dropping in on a wave. You’re just present and in the moment, the way we were as kids.
It’s funny how “authenticity” has become a key phrase in the action sports industry.
I grew up playing team sports. In a lot of ways team sports teaches amazing life skills, yet it can often be about giving up what’s authentic to you to contribute to team as a whole. Whereas with action sports it’s more self-expression driven as opposed to goal oriented.
As a female in this industry, I can say we often feel the voice inside us saying, “This is what I want to do and this is what sounds fun, but this is what I should do instead.”
Even with simple things, like, “I shouldn’t go skate right now because I have emails to answer,” keeps us from listening to our authentic inner voice that says, “I really need to be outside and move my body and have some fun.”
As we get older, we are definitely more impacted by what we “should” be doing versus what we want to do.
When we’re kids it’s like, “Do you want to go play? Go play.” No one’s telling you you shouldn’t do that. It’s when we get older that we begin to have awareness of what we should be doing, how much money we should have in the bank, where we should be in our relationships, etc. These are all just things that society created and at the same time, you and me can create whatever speaks to us. We can really do anything.
You literally can do anything -- it’s just a matter of looking into the future and working backwards. Looking at what re-energizes you versus what sucks energy out of you. I discovered that I felt the most empowered when I focused on others. When I was only focusing on myself it was really hard to feel fulfillment and contentment.
I think right now is such a great time to work with young women and girls and break down the barriers of class and race and background in sports.
Think about it this way -- when you see someone else catch their first wave or learn how to drop in -- that stoke is the most powerful fuel for anyone and everyone around. It fills everyone else up. That’s what I’m after now.