In the hills of southern West Virginia alongside the New River Gorge, known for its world-class whitewater and rock climbing, is ACE Adventure Resort.
ACE is one of the largest outfitters on the East Coast, taking hundreds of guests down the class IV-V rapids of the New and Gauley rivers daily, rock climbing, rappelling, zip lining, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking and pretty much any other outdoor activity you can imagine.
During its peak season, ACE may employ up to 250-300 guides. Sitting at the helm of this controlled chaos along with two other men sits Shanna Crompton, a five foot four, small-framed chick with a big personality.
In an industry overwhelmingly male dominated–especially in management positions–it’s great to have role models such as Shanna who seem to not even pay attention to the obstacles, but rather stay true to who she is, and lets that do the convincing.
Earning nominations from publications such as Blue Ridge Outdoors for guide favorites, it’s as much her personality as her guiding skills that make her stand out.
Recently, Shanna took the time to answer some questions about her journey through the industry and why it works for her.
What is your job title and duties?
SC: Technically I have four titles.
I am responsible for over 150 employees spanning several departments. In brief, I deal with scheduling, discipline, safety and personnel issues. I coordinate daily staff assignments, communicate with other departments to keep logistics running efficiently and respond to any emergency (evac) situations.
Equipment and Wetsuit Manager (Buyer/Planner)
I keep inventory and track depreciation of all our outdoor gear.
I train all the new guides coming in each spring with the technical skills and safety standards needed to be successful guides while demonstrating ACE’s expectations for customer service.
This is where I get to get out on the river with our guests. Being a Trip Leader I am legally responsible for anywhere from four to 60 guests and guides, keeping up safety standards and order on each trip…and making sure everyone has a good time!
What got you started in the outdoor industry?
SC: I took a road trip with my friend Kate. I had just moved back to the US after working and backpacking through Europe and was searching for a job. I was back living with my parents and was really looking for a new direction.
Kate already had a position lined up at ACE and asked if I’d be interested in tagging along to break up the trip from southern Illinois to West Virginia. A week long vacation with a college buddy…I was in.
When we got to WV, I tagged along to meet the HR guy (read: old river guide they let hire people) at a bar called the Cold Spot. After several pitchers of Blue Moon and some shots of whiskey, I had secured a spot in the training class.
How did he get you to agree to stay?
SC: He said, “I can teach any ol’ idiot how to guide a raft; you just have to have the personality for it.” I figured if nothing else, it would get me out of my folks’ house for the summer while I figured out what to do with the rest of my life.
Did you think this was where you’d end up?
SC: Nope. Never.
I have three bachelor’s degrees: International Trade, Spanish and Business Administration. I always just wanted to travel and explore cultures of the world. Of course I also had visions of being a professional woman, eventually leading to becoming CEO of a major corporation.
Eventually I put that idea to the test wearing business suits, shuffling through the morning rush at the metro, coffee in one hand, tote in the other. I was everything I’d learned in school and saw in the movies that I should be.
Turns out it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. My schedule was set. I had the same plan everyday (even though Spain offers great perks unheard of in the US such as siesta, beach breaks, and month-long country-wide holidays), but in the end it was the same. Get up, wash the dishes, get dressed, get to the office, sit at the computer, go to lunch, back to the office, head home. Day after day.
Did you know when you first started that this was what you were meant to do?
SC: For starters, I never wanted to be a raft guide. I had no idea the responsibilities that come along with “playing” on the water all day.
Training was tough. There were plenty of days, after big flips and long, scary swims that I wanted to pack up and get the hell out of here. But I am stubborn and wouldn’t let myself quit. I just tried harder (tears streaming at times) and pushed forward.
Moving up the ladder was sort of subtle at first. As I proved my capabilities, more responsibilities were thrown my way. I just started organizing the PFD and wet suit rooms, which turned into keeping up with our inventory, which turned into a buyer/planner position for all our outdoor gear.
Then, I was told I was a “model employee offering exceptional customer service,” and they wanted me to instill some of these values to the new guides through training. I was pretty sure they were out of their minds, but I went for it and just tried to push our newbies just as I had been pushed.
Finally, they started to ask me about coming in a few days a week to help with paperwork in the office. I turned them down for two years, telling them if I wanted to work in an office I’d get a “real world” job and make “real world” money.
Then it hit me. If I took on a managerial role, it meant this raft guide world was becoming my “grown-up job”. I realized I didn’t have to be a stereotypical city businesswoman to be a professional in my work.
Is there anyone you look at as a mentor on your journey?
SC: Rick Miller was my predecessor and a major reason why I am still at ACE today. He pushed me during training and made sure I didn’t sneak back to southern Illinois in the middle of the night.
On the days he was manager, his office door would swing open and shut all day with guides who’d waited for days to talk with him specifically about any issues they may have had. He is a levelheaded man who could get immediate results or give clever insight into difficult problems and situations, and he kept the calm among the other managers. Since taking the position I try each day to fulfill the role as well as he did.
Any lessons you’ve learned from your experience as a successful female in the industry?
SC: I have learned more than I ever intended.
First, as a female, you don’t necessarily have to work harder or sweat more to prove yourself. Anyone with a strong work ethic can move up.
That being said, I’ve learned to lead by example. Actions truly do speak louder than words. If my peers see me working with proper technique and composing myself in a professional manner while still bringing in good tips from my guests, they’re more likely to emulate that. That in turn makes my job easier as a manager.
I’ve learned that in the rafting industry, stereotypes about women abound, but you don’t have to live up to them. Steering clear of those generalities is a major part of why I believe I moved up so quickly.
What advice do you have for women entering the industry?
SC: Be strong and independent. There aren’t guy chores and women chores. You can learn and conquer feats just as easily as any man.
Don’t be a stereotype. Don’t talk a big game, but when it comes down to it play the “little ol’ me” card to get out of physically demanding work. It’s infuriating. Respect yourself and others will respect you too.
Clearly you enjoy your job. What are some of your favorite things about it?
SC: My office. The outdoors, rain or shine. I love it. I don’t have to put on an expensive Versace suit to impress anyone, and I have flexible hours.
And the guides. We’re not all just friends, we’re a family.