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Reshaping the Mold

Weston’s Leo Tsuo is breaking down barriers and building an inclusive backcountry brand

My name is Carly and I’ve been a team rider with Weston for 5 years. I learned to snowboard as an adult: I know what it’s like to feel invisible because I’m not dressed the part, how incredibly intimidating the top of the terrain park can be, and what it feels like for no one to have expectations that I ride well because I’m ‘just a girl.’ I had fallen deeply in love with the sport and was motivated to become a walking, talking underdog story. After a handful of broken bones and a few major surgeries, I am far beyond being a newbie: I have the ‘cool clothes,’ I have next year’s snowboards, and I’m put in front of the camera to spray up snow from time to time. Yet, I still feel incredibly intimidated by the entire snowsports industry.

Leo Tsuo is the owner of Weston, the second-largest splitboard company in the United States. “Getting into the backcountry was the most challenging experience when it comes to feeling welcome. It’s where elitism rules. Protectionism rules. Don’t have the right safety gear? Go the fuck home. Stay away from me. Where you going? ‘Somewhere.’ It’s the fraternal order of backcountry riders,” Leo says.

“My life has been about community building. With b-boying [breakdancing], I learned that you have to create your own community. A community is not just people with common interests, it’s uniting (comm – unity). It requires effort to create. In b-boying, it’s the practice spots where people feel welcome. It’s having events that people look forward to. It’s about teaching the next generation the ways. I took this thinking to Weston. I took the way welcoming snowmobilers treated me versus the way backcountry riders treated me, and said, let’s just create something different.”

“People have a syntax error when they see a short Asian guy pull up to a trailhead with sleds on the deck of a full ton truck.”

Leo learned to use his differences as fuel to continue breaking stereotypes and molds. He understands what it feels like to be ‘different.’ Inclusion efforts and celebrating underrepresented demographics is something I’ve watched Leo infuse into his brand since he stepped into ownership in 2016. Just recently, Weston teamed up with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education to create scholarship opportunities for avalanche education courses to help reduce potential barriers for underrepresented groups in the backcountry such as women, BIPOC, and LGTBQ+ individuals, in hopes of developing a more diverse backcountry community.

I asked him to elaborate on these ideas and ideals. “To put it simply, imagine for a second you were to walk into a party that someone invited you to and everyone is in full-blown death metal head / mohawk wearing / spiked leathers / punk rock blaring. Except you,” he says. “You need to spend the entire day with this group, would you feel welcome? This is what underrepresented groups feel every day of our lives. We’ve learned to cope, but the majority (straight white males) have no idea what it feels like sometimes to live as an underrepresented group. I think that everyone, at some point in time, has felt like they don’t belong and I believe it is within everyone’s ability to sympathize with what it’s like to not feel welcome. That is why it’s important to recognize that we can do something about it and let everything feel more welcome. In this case, we are handing out leathers at the door rather than handing out leathers to someone that’s already clearly in.”

Leo Tsuo has designed, implemented, and created a new kind of community within the backcountry: one that prioritizes education over fear, communication over secrecy, inclusion over elitism. He is, in real-time, changing the game. I am writing this to personally thank Leo for handing out leathers at the door. Without his efforts to build an inviting community, I can say with certainty, I would have been defeated by the intimidation factor and would not be able to call myself a splitboarder today.

Carly Finke is a gal living in Minturn, Colorado, chasing dreams of eating bean burritos and riding pow for as long as the snow keeps falling. @carly_finke