Colleen Conroy is an artist, writer, and producer in the action sports industry and UCSB graduate. She has worked with many different organizations including, The Surfers Journal, Billabong, and now Red Bull. Two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Colleen after a lecture she did for a ‘Geography of Surfing’ class that I attended, and ever since working on withitgirl, she has been on my list of people to interview. Her creative eye and graceful presence are clear in everything that she works on, and her voice is a testament to the slow shift towards broader representation surf industry. Thank you, Colleen! ~Asha Mcgee
Asha: Where did you grow up? What was the surf scene?
Colleen: I grew up in Cayucos, and then my mom moved to Templeton when I was in middle school which is just inland, next to Paso Robles. I was really fortunate to kind of split my time between, being in the ocean and surfing and then riding horses and climbing hay bales and being a little country kid as well. It's like a Western beach town. There are lots of surfers and there is a little cool skatepark as well. That being said, there were really not that many female surfers when I was growing up.
I got into surfing more when I was around 16 or 17. I would mostly go with my boyfriend and surf with him and his friends, aka freeze and get pummeled a lot because it’s not the friendliest place to learn to surf. It's a very open coastline, mostly beach breaks, it's very windy, and there are big sharks and strong currents. So it takes a lot of perseverance and wanting to be out there.
I'd say the surfing action sports community was a very strong presence, it was tight-knit, and it was pretty male-dominated. But now, there's a generation of younger girls who are a super cool crew and are like playing music together and longboarding the pier and are just, rad little humans doing creative fun things. So I'm really happy to see that the younger generations are bringing more of a female presence to the beach.
Asha: What has your journey been to getting to be a writer and producer?
Colleen: So my journey to being a producer was roundabout, I would say.
I graduated from UCSB, and I had a degree in Global Studies, and I was working as a freelance writer out of college, which is fun, but also, you don't make that much money at first.
So I started working for a photographer, as a studio manager and producer. From there, I just kind of got sucked into the film and photo world. I just started working in LA and mostly working on the production side of things: freelancing, writing, producing, just kind of working on a bunch of sets and doing different things. I got connected to the creative director at Billabong, they were looking for a freelance producer to take on this big shoot, which ended up being the 'know the feeling' series.
Asha: So what is the "Know the Feeling" Series?
Colleen: The ‘know the feeling’ series is a web series that features Laura Enever and other surfers as a host traveling to different countries around the world to connect with female surfers or other women who are pushing back against tradition or cultural norms in those countries. It's amazing. Laura is a great personality, she's just funny and a natural host. So that worked out great. And then the women that we connect with are also inspiring, each one has a really unique story and history and we get to dive in and share a little bit more about them. The whole point of this series was to bring more representation into the mainstream surf industry and to tell smaller stories, and maybe it's not about like, the hero, performance surfer or something, but stories that are still really important to tell that we felt weren't being shared. We know that the brand has a really big voice and influence in the surf industry. And ‘know the feeling’ is a way to use our platform to pass the mic to women who haven't had a chance to share their stories.
Asha: Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for women and girls who want to pursue a corporate career in the action sports industry?
Colleen: I think it can take a lot of different shapes. I never thought I would be approaching my career from such a corporate perspective. But now that I'm doing it, I'm learning a lot. There are lots of benefits as well as being able to use my seat at this table to help shift the needle towards the things that I’m passionate about.
As far as just advice or skills is know how to play the game in the corporate sense. I'm still learning that. I'm a very emotional, passionate person so you have to learn to communicate in ways that are going to be effective in a corporate environment. So knowing how to do that is really important and at the same time, don't lose your soul and your edge, and that passion. Because, the industry needs those voices and those thoughts, just as much as it needs its balance.
Stay grounded, because it's easy to just get really frustrated with things that are slow-moving beasts. So just know that it's a slow, slow push, but it's worth it.
Asha: What does it feel like being a woman in the action sports industry?
Colleen: Starting with the positive. Honestly, there's a lot of work to do. And I like working hard. So I personally think that's exciting. There's a lot of work to be done. And we get to decide how that's going to look. You have to rebuild it, but the building is fun.
I think there's no specific way to be a woman or what that has to mean. It doesn't necessarily have to equate to softness or vulnerability, although I do think both of those are huge strengths.
I do think that being able to do those things and leaning into them is really valuable. I think one of my favorite parts about being a woman in this field is the sense of connection and camaraderie between other women. Something just about surfing in particular, I feel it can be so raw, powerful, but also has a really tender, graceful approach to it. And there's a duality that female surfers get to embody. And I think it's so it's beautiful and badass. Like, it's really cool.
Cons, I think it's kind of obvious. You're just negotiating an industry in the sense that as far as the Western world is concerned, has a fairly short history in that lens. And a lot of the people who have been celebrated throughout that gaze in the surf industry are still either present or they still have a big influence on things, and it's a big stronghold on the storytelling and the narrative of the surf industry.
Asha: That's awesome. I think I really resonate with the camaraderie thing. I feel like, obviously, I'm not working a corporate job but just like, even in my day-to-day, I feel like those people are, yeah, sisters, because you're bonded by shared experience.
Colleen: That goes back to what the whole 'Know the Feeling' series was about, right? It's human connection, and how it's so true like we really do know the feeling. It's so cool to see how having that connection with surfing just strips back everything and especially in situations where you truly can't communicate in words with somebody. It's really cool.
Asha: Lastly, do you have any book recommendations?
Colleen: I love short stories. Clarice Lispector is a Brazilian author. She's crazy insane and incredible. Her short stories are really interesting and have very strong and bizarre female protagonists, and there's usually a very strong message. So that's cool. Also Joan Didion. I feel strongly that everybody should read Joan Didion. Her essays are amazing. Her essay on self-respect, I think every young woman should read might make you cry in a good way.
Asha is a director and contributor at withitgirl. She attends UCSB and loves surfing and making art in her free time.
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