As a high school student looking ahead to college, Ryan Thompson ‘06 planned to major in either mechanical or biomedical engineering. Upon touring the NC State campus, however, he happened upon the College of Textiles. There he learned about opportunities for integrating engineering applications with his passion for getting out into nature.
Growing up heavily involved in scouting and athletics, Thompson recognized a common element among these activities is the need for high-quality apparel that provides both comfort and durability for engaging in sports and exploring the wild. His interest in working to develop materials to improve apparel performance led to his pursuit of a degree in textile engineering with a concentration in product design.
The summer prior to his junior year at NC State, Thompson received some grant money to complete a backpacking course in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
“While exploring the incredible natural beauty of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park,” he said, “I did some soul searching as to not only the field in which I would pursue a career, but also to what type of company I wanted to devote my time. I realized that integrating my passion for the environment, and working to not only facilitate others enjoying nature through superior gear, but also working directly or indirectly to protect these wild places was imperative to me.”
After graduation Thompson, a native North Carolinian, relocated to the West Coast for a job as a raw material quality analyst with Patagonia in Ventura, California. Now more than eight years later, Thompson serves as materials innovation and development manager and continues to take pride in the work Patagonia does in promoting quality manufacturing, responsible and sustainable business development, and ultimately giving back 1% of total sales to grassroots environmental projects. The company donated nearly $8 million to these initiatives in 2015.
“Whether we are reducing the impact of the fabric dyeing process or working with our ambassador athletes to address a specific apparel need, each day is a little different,” Thompson said. “The constant challenge is balancing the need for industry-leading innovation and sustainability, while attempting to influence the practices of a massive manufacturing industry in which Patagonia is still a small player. Fortunately, our business influence is often larger than our purchase orders so we can, in fact, create change.”
One of the most gratifying experiences of Thompson’s career thus far has been his work with the Textile Exchange (TE), a NGO that works to encourage business cooperation in accelerating sustainable practices and minimizing potentially harmful impacts within the global textile industry. He served on the TE’s board of directors for six years, alongside representatives from throughout the industry. Thompson said the relationships he built and projects with which he was involved through the TE have proven invaluable to his career development at Patagonia.
Over the past five years, Patagonia has hired another ten or so NC State graduates.
“While I have been a part of the hiring process for several of these colleagues, their hiring should be credited to the superior education offered by NC State and the College of Textiles,” Thompson said. “It is nice to have an influx of Wolfpack spirit out here in California, especially during football and basketball seasons! Our fellow Wolfpack alumni work throughout the outdoor industry and greater apparel industry, so tradeshows tend to serve as impromptu reunions.”
Thompson looks back fondly on his time at NC State, and noted that the Park Scholarships program pushed him to extend his education outside of his major and beyond the classroom. One of his most memorable academic pursuits outside of the College of Textiles was a rainforest ecology course and accompanying trip to the Peruvian Amazon he took with Alumni Distinguished Professor Robert Bruck. This course, along with his summer backpacking through Alaska, helped reinforce Thompson’s passion for protecting the environment. Serving on the planning committee for the Park Class of 2006 senior retreat to Yosemite National Park taught Thompson important lesson in project management, such as budgeting and logistics. (Coincidentally, Yosemite Valley and its towering granite walls were the birthplace of Patagonia.)
When asked what advice he would offer to current NC State students, Thompson reflected on his own rich experiences as an undergraduate and emphasized the importance of saying “yes” to new and challenging opportunities.
“Don’t pigeonhole yourself into experiences for only degree-related coursework,” he said. “Study abroad, take a non-required course that inspires or even intimidates you, camp out on the Brickyard, go to the away games to support the Pack, and remember that good grades are not the only attribute employers seek in new talent. Experiences can be even more valuable than exams.”
Thompson has continually said “yes” to new opportunities throughout his post-collegiate life. He enjoys mountain biking, playing volleyball and soccer, and attending live music performances. He recently completed a long distance prone paddleboard event crossing the Santa Barbara channel that served as a fundraiser for a close friend battling cancer. He also helps coordinate both Patagonia’s Bike to Work Week promotions and the company’s involvement in the Ventura County Corporate Games, a community-building intercompany athletics competition.
Certainly, Thompson appreciates the culture of Patagonia, with its casual dress code, recess-like lunch hours, and 500-employee campus situated about a half mile from the beach. When he and his wife, NC State alumna Meridith, welcomed baby daughter, Joanna, this past year, Thompson discovered the benefits of another employee perk: on-site daycare.
“The company understands the value of family,” he said.