As a queer woman of color in the U.S. outdoor and tech space, Breanne Acio and her Sēkr app are making outdoor recreation more accessible through a community-driven listing of free campsites, plus a social platform. But she’s also aiming to end the "bro culture" in the outdoor travel industry.
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When Breanne Acio and her wife decided to pause international travel to know the U.S. better, they converted a parent’s empty cargo van into a campervan that they could live in while on the road.
It was the summer of 2017.
“We took off for the first time and as teachers, we invested a lot into this little house, and we have this vision of us camping on the beach and the stars,” said Acio. “That happened, but the reality was that most of the time we were ending up in WalMart parking lots, or crappy roadside pull outs. Finding places to stay was way harder than we thought it was going to be.”
Then came the loneliness on the road. Although the couple had each other, they felt a need for community to go with the van life.
It’s this double realization that led Acio to co-found Sēkr, the largest database of over 50,000 free campsites in the U.S. and a crowdsourced mobile app that aims to make outdoor travel easier, but also more inclusive.
“Our whole mission is to make the outdoors more accessible to more people,” said Acio, who is of Filipino descent and Jewish heritage, and describes herself as “super mixed.” Growing up in Thousand Oaks, north of Los Angeles, Acio was also the first to get a college degree in her family.
Sēkr now has 18 team members globally, including 10 full-time employees in the U.S. who are all remote, and four of the latter are van life nomads.
Just this month, Sēkr announced the close of $2.25 million in seed funding, backed in part by Storyteller Overland and Go Fund Me’s co-founder Andy Ballester. Acio is now focused on creating an online reservation system and digitizing the tens of thousands of campsites to put the van life within reach of more Americans. The funding will also help Sēkr to ramp up community events and efforts to build a more inclusive and diverse leadership in the outdoor recreation industry.
A Social Platform Built From Community
What differentiates Sēkr from all other outdoor camping platforms is the fact that it was built from community.
After that first road trip around the U.S., Acio and her wife had begun hosting outdoor events to bring together more campers. Up to a hundred people would show up for the day and Acio would spend time asking them for solutions on how they could make their love for outdoor recreation life easier — not focusing on the bottom line but to collectively solve their issues.
“Being a communication professor, I know how important social support is so I just got really involved with the community and listened to people’s problems, like what do they need? So we are currently the only social platform for outdoor travel. People are able to connect with each other, find events. Community is really the center of it.”
The camping industry is gigantic, Acio added, noting its $8 billion valuation without even including the privatized side of camping. It’s an industry that has been on a record ascent since before the pandemic, which only accelerated its growth. But as huge of an industry as it is, it wasn’t easy to navigate.
“As a consumer, if I want to go camping, it’s the same thing as if I were to try to book a hotel in the 90s,” said Acio. “You have to call the campgrounds individually, they’re probably sold out, the only ones you know about are like the national parks and the state parks. And it’s really difficult to get a reservation and most people don’t have the privilege of planning ahead of time. They just want to go.”
Despite its size and impact on the U.S. economy, the technology hasn’t served the camping industry yet, Acio said.
That’s where Sēkr is coming in and starting from scratch by digitizing and making inventory or campgrounds reservable the same way that Airbnb did and Expedia and all these other platforms did it for travel, Acio said. Sēkr is starting with the user generated content of free campsites.
“We wanted to start by bootstrapping, we didn’t want to exploit our community and the places that we love so much with venture capital. But we’ve realized that building a technology platform is really expensive and really hard. And you need a team and resources to be able to actually scale and make a difference.”
Most of Sēkr’s investors are impact investors and either women or people of color, which Acio says makes her feel super proud.
“As a woman of color, I’ve built three businesses now, I built a six figure seven figure and eight figure business — getting funding, it’s so difficult, for even a founder like myself,” said Acio. ”I’m a thought leader in the space right, I’m proven right, and still. I think the key for me was finding champions like finding the people who really believed in me and then a little bit at a time you can prove it.”
Tackling Overtourism Requires Education
Breanne Acio is well aware of the challenges that have emerged in the outdoor recreation industry, particularly since the pandemic, namely the special media influencers who were gatekeeping locations as a response to the overcrowding.
“I understand it because the impact of overtourism with outdoor travel it’s very much in your face.”
But gatekeeping wasn’t the solution for Sēkr, if not prioritizing teaching people to be responsible stewards of the environment and how to use locations properly, particularly for their platform.
“My belief coming into it was someone is going to do it; there are already apps that do it. And they’re just exploiting these places and they’re not taking any initiative or responsibility for the impact that sharing them has on these places. And then you see them get closed down because there’s over use there’s trash everywhere.”
For Acio, it’s more about creating a culture and changing people’s behavior and the way they look at things — it’s not just about rules.
In creating the app, Sēkr has partnered with Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly so that when consumers download the app, they immediately see Leave No Trace on locations with guidance on caring for it.
“We’ve actually ingrained into the culture of how people write reviews and how people look at these places. You can report dirty campgrounds or flag places and then we’ll end up working with nonprofits to do cleanups.”
A Diversity-Driven Model for Outdoor Recreation
A record six out of 10 first-time American campers are now non-white, according to the 2021 North American Camping Report by Kampgrounds of America (KOA). Women of color are among this growing segment. But just how much commitment is there to diversity, equity and inclusion from the outdoor travel industry?
Acio thinks that there is some effort and representation in media and social media and in journalism is now more diverse. But that there is still a lot of performance.
“My issue is that when you go behind the scenes to leadership summits or expos or events where decision makers are and both from the legislative side and the private side, I’m almost always the only woman of color at the table,” said Acio.
“It’s uncomfortable. I have these people around me that have no idea what it has taken for me to get here. And the fact is that the consumer is not them. They are not the consumer anymore. So they’re building these products and making these decisions based on what they want. But the reality is they’re losing money, because they’re not serving the consumer at large. We need different things.”
A turning point came for Sēkr, which is one of the only companies in this space that is majority female, when its staff attended an industry event and experienced sexual harassment.
“I felt uncomfortable sending my team to an Outdoor Expo, which I should not feel uncomfortable. So we decided to create Project Respect Outdoors. Our whole mission is to build more diverse leaders in the outdoor space. We don’t get seats to the table; we want to figure out how we can get women seats at the table, to be decision makers to at least have a voice.”
The project’s website says it aims to “shake the ‘bro culture’ and ‘boys club’ out of the outdoor industry” – it’s “not about bringing men down, but joining them up there,” the website description reads.
Sēkr held its first Respect Project Outdoors leadership summit last year in November as a result, with 17 women from state legislators to CEOs to leaders of nonprofit organizations and affinity groups.
“When you have representation you invite people who look like you to places, so I realized that I’d go to events and they would be predominantly white, but then I’d host an event and I get queer people and people of color at a rate that is unlike any other event in our particular space.”
“And it’s because there’s representation, not only at the events we host but on our team and our leadership, our ambassadors, and everything we do — because we focus on that, we invite more diversity.”
Photo credit: Breanne Acio co-founded Sekr, a platform making outdoor camping more accessible and diverse.