Ski racing may seem like risky business, but going out into the real world can feel downright terrifying. This is particularly true for the vast majority of world class skiers who have left the conventional education and career path. As with ski racing however, the right training vastly improves your chances of success and calculated risks can lead to great reward. That is what motivates the athletes who are part of GroundSwell Athletics.

Julia Ford, eight year U.S. Ski Team member, is one of them. After an injury in 2016, Ford knew she wanted to keep ski racing, even without the support of the national team. She also wanted to develop intellectually and professionally. While contemplating this, she happened to meet up with fellow ski racer Cody Marshall who, who along with his employer, Bob Bennett, was starting up GroundSwell Athletics. Bennett’s Private Equity firm, GroundSwell Resources, advises and invests in small businesses. Marshall, whose World Cup career was cut short by a traumatic brain injury, had spent six post-graduate years qualifying for the U.S. Ski Team, and saw an underserved market close to his heart.

“Lots of my friends were forced out,” says Marshall. “I wanted to help them to continue with sport at a high level and continue to develop.”

Bennett, meanwhile, wanted to address the inefficiencies and opportunities in his work: the largely theoretical course work in a typical MBA education; and the 1 million small businesses stuck in a particular stage of growth.

“The average CEO spends next to no time thinking strategically,” says Bennett.

If he could connect those businesses, with athlete “fellows” specifically trained to help them, he would be creating investments while also extending the careers of elite athletes. Considering Marshall’s ambition, natural curiosity and early rift (at age 11) with traditional education, he was an ideal candidate to test out Bennett’s training. When he was ready to test his new business skills Marshall set out to create a solution for the Post Graduate (PG) market—the many talented college-age and post-college-age kids who want to keep skiing but also need access to succeed in life. As Marshall described this venture to Ford, her interest turned to a realization: “Wait a minute…I want to do it!”

Ford, with her Holderness diploma and a smattering of college courses from Westminster became the first active ski racer at GroundSwell Athletics. Warner Nickerson, a 2005 Colby graduate who spent nine years pioneering independent racing on the World Cup circuit, joined her.

In developing GroundSwell Institute—the curriculum of GroundSwell Athletics—Bennett spent two years studying how adults learn. He distilled his 25 years analyzing, advising and investing in businesses into a hands-on, scenario-based learning model. Scenario-based learning is hailed as being faster (even 3-5 times faster), more engaging and more effective than the standard reading and lecture learning. He designed the material around the unique set of skills needed to build businesses by being strong at three things: management strategy; running the numbers; and managing people. “Few are good at all three,” explains Bennett. “The ones who are good at all three are doing it, not teaching it.”

Bennett draws heavily on the teaching of Eric Flamholz, one of his professors at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business. He targets businesses stuck in “expansion,” stage two of Flamholz’s seven stages of organizational growth. “There are 1 million companies between $3-30 million revenue in this zone. They need operating and management systems in place to stay on top,” says Bennett. He partners with them to get the business where they can attract investors or buyers. Typically, after working with them, the owner wants to keep the business and keep getting help in the transition from an entrepreneurial to a professionally run organization. That’s where GroundSwell offers options.

“We invest. We partner. You hire a fellow of ours. This is a better way than Private Equity,” explains Bennett. “It also relaxes business owner, as it is a series of baby steps.”

The course work, spread over roughly 1000 hours, covers five areas of content—organizational development; strategy; finance/investing; management & leadership; and inner game. Classes meet three times a week in two-hour video conference calls that are recorded and can be watched later. Workflow software keeps all assignments and content online, and creates a hierarchy of tasks with due dates and checklists.

“It allows us to work with students all over the world,” says Bennett.

As early as the first day in class, students are matched with a company as a GroundSwell Fellow. Ideally new students jump in at the start of the quarter, but all five areas of content are integrated throughout the year. For instance, a class on accounting started out with a mindfulness exercise to get into flow state, jumped right into accounting, then veered off into a conversation about a recent market analysis by one student and a prospective business partner for another. The class ended with Marshall giving a brief intro on TDBAC (Time Driven Activity Based Costing) by recalling his work as a fellow with a small manufacturing company. And yes, the menu features an alphabet soup of acronyms (ETPA, CAC, EBITDA, to name a very few) .

Ford, despite missing all of her March classes, presented all her deliverables on time.

“It’s not like cramming for a test then forgetting everything,” she explains. “This is real. Our tests are real life presentations to actual business owners and deliverables that are created to value a company and industry. It is not pass or fail, it is the ability to do the work, be knowledgeable and deliver a helpful product.”

She also found that the content—leadership, delegation, time management— applies to anything in life, even skiing. “A lot of what we do is apply this to ourselves,” she says.

The “Personal Foundation,” explores these three questions: Who are you? Where are you going? How are you different? Ford is now making a list of industries she would be interested in, where she wants to live and what role she wants to play in a business. For Ford, GroundSwell may take the place of college.

“It depends on what I end up wanting to do.” Currently she is working with a real estate company and continuing with her extensive analysis of the mental health industry, all while managing her own training and her role coaching at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, where she is based.

After retiring from ski racing in 2014, Warner Nickerson had his “what do I do now?” moment. He felt like he couldn’t fall back on his 2005 degrees (econ and government) and his only job offers were to be a ski coach. He did that, along with a little work for a lot of different companies, all while living in Stockholm. While working on a potential book project called “50 Lunches” meeting with the most interesting people he could find, he found himself not fully grasping the business sides of these conversations. The “Chief of Staff” role GroundSwell creates, as described by Marshall, seemed interesting. Along with Ford, he finished his course work last fall and is now finishing up his final project for Dodge Boots, for which he does marketing work.

“It’s an MBA program designed in a small private equity world,” says Nickerson, who was able to bring his own experience and entrepreneurship (funding and building out a tuning van by selling ad space, etc) to the classroom discussions. “The other compelling part about GroundSwell was not having to be in one place, like at grad school. I didn’t feel like putting my life on hold.”

Warner Nickerson working as an announcer at the 2017 Killington World Cup. // Image Credit: GEPA / Greg M. Cooper

There are now 25 GroundSwell students. While most of the World Cup level athletes enroll a quarter at a time, outside of the competition season, some keep going through the material at full speed. Like Nickerson, Norwegian World Cup skier (and 2014 UVM graduate) Jonathan Nordbotten was looking for an alternative to grad school. Even as one of Norway’s fully-supported athletes, and one of the best SL skiers in the world, ski racing does not bring financial security. Furthermore, no graduate school program in Norway would accommodate his training and competition schedule. Nordbotten started GroundSwell last summer, and is testimony both to the flexibility of the program and the power of time management. While traveling full time on the World Cup, he manages to call in to class most sessions, keep up on his homework and missed classes, and have weekly meetings with the CEO of a solar company for which he is creating a strategic plan. For Nordbotten, the hands on aspect, both in class and with the company he is working with, is key: “It is the essence of how to run a business, practical without a lot of the BS of college. You can apply it to any business and also to your own life.” The side benefit is the diversion it offers.

“There’s 24 hours in a day and its good to break it up, use your brain and to get your mind off ski racing,” says the Norwegian.

“We are his small army.” That’s how Nickerson describes the role of fellows to Bennett, who looks to create businesses and business leaders instead of finding them. “They are my lifeblood,” says Bennett. “We’re investors (of our time) not consultants. Consultants get paid by the hour. Ultimately we want to be very fast at what we do and good at what we do, to be rewarded for being efficient and good.” Clearly, this is more than a business for Bennett. As a former elite rower, during and after college, he understands the toll that worrying about making a living takes on performance. As a masters ski racer he also has respect and a soft spot for ski racers and for the enormous challenges they face in the US, where the costs are so high and the National Team support is so low. “If we can get kids skiing for 5-10 years longer we’d have different Olympic and World Cup results,” says Bennett. “This is a skills sport that requires passion, discipline and time. Why not solve the strategic problem?”

The cost for the full training is $12,500, which can be paid by the quarter, as attended. Fellows are able to earn money for project work at their portfolio companies and potentially land salaried positions.

“Anyone on the development pathway,” says Marshall. “There are so many kids 30-50 points that just don’t have the chance to keep skiing.” The sweet spot is with athletes who have some life experience and approach career development with a sense of purpose.

“Don’t do it if you do not enjoy the process,” warns Bennett, sounding a lot like a ski coach. “You’ve got to be challenged by it and you’ve got to like the challenge. The money is an awesome by-product.”