Editor’s note: This story is running in the June issue of California Sportsman
Photos courtesy of Girls With Guns
By Chris Cocoles
There’s nothing quite like summer in Red Bluff – if you love triple-digit temperatures on almost a daily basis there – in the Sacramento River valley off Interstate 5 in Tehama County.
But here were friends Jenifer Adams and Norissa Harman, in the latter’s two- car garage, living out a dream, albeit a sweltering dream in the summer of 2008. The then 20-somethings wanted to combine their love of the outdoors with a sense of a fashion and creativity to produce a line of apparel for sportswomen. Born from this blending of ideas was a company they called Girls With Guns (gwgclothing.com).
“We pulled out all the vehicles and we had box fans (running),” Harman says. “Of course, it was summertime when we were pumping out our products. And around here, we’ll have 118-degree weather, and we would be sitting here in shorts and tank tops, not in any high fashion whatsoever. But that’s what we were doing and it was fun.”
Five-plus years later, a fun and harmless idea between friends is now a growing enterprise. Girls With Guns has graduated from the carport to an actual office space, then a larger one, and continued to get bigger until the company began sending out products from a 5,000-square-foot warehouse. Besides being able to buy from the website, Girls With Guns apparel is available in multiple states’ local outlets and chains like Scheels All Sports and Sportsman’s Warehouse. They have partnered with Montana Silversmiths with their jewelry line. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin wore GWG apparel on her outdoors reality show and sported their belt buckle on her appearance with Jimmy Fallon. The girls also are selling accessories like luggage, and The Sportsman Channel is currently filming a TV show, Universal Huntress, where Adams and Norissa will get to hunt and explore the world (it’ll debut in 2015).
Their friendship has made them “love each other like sisters,” Adams says, and they will be soon sister-in-laws; Jen is engaged to Norissa’s brother.
“We were family long before that happened years ago,” Adams says with a laugh.
The girls behind Girls With Guns, just back from a hunting adventure in New Zealand, chatted with us about their journey:
CHRIS COCOLES So how did this idea get off the ground?
JENIFER ADAMS We started working together at my real estate office, and we did a fundraiser that was called Shoot For Purpose and it was for breast cancer awareness. The first year I was the secretary-treasurer, and Norissa was the vice president. We raised $15,000 in one event in one day. And through that Norissa al- ready had this plan in place for a name – Girls With Guns. And she kind of just said, ‘I’m not really sure how to go about this on my own; I have an idea. What do you think?’ And I’m a business-minded person. That’s what I do and that’s what I love. And I already had a real estate business going. So I told her I’d help her out for a year and we’ll see it how it goes. And by August (our apparel) was in Scheels and they were asking for more. We were working 12 to 14 hours doing our day job and then at night I’d go to her house. We’d work out of her garage filling orders and doing designs. Eventually we got to the point where we built enough revenue that we could jump on an airplane and flew to China. We started learning about manufacturing and import-export and all those things.
NORISSA HARMAN I started an embroidery business when I was 21 years old, so I kind of had all the means and the access to get shirts and hats and all that stuff. I already knew that market, how to get it and that was a little bit of a jumpstart for us. I had the name already trademarked. Jen had the same love and passion for shooting as I did. She was the famous sales agent here in Tehama County and she was very savvy at sales and marketing. We kind of had the same drive and vision toward business and shooting sports. At the time, we never imagined that we’d be here today. To see where the company’s evolved, from my garage and my home office where we fworked every night on everything, it’s kind of amazing. It’s been fun to see where it’s going. When we started with little money, it’s really taken off.
CC How did both of you grow to love the outdoors so much?
JA I grew up in the real, real, Northern California in Modoc County (Adin; population: 272) in the mountains. I graduated high school with 15 people in my graduating class. I lived on a small cattle ranch with my family. So I was a total country girl. We had alfalfa, chickens, goats, sheep; we had everything. I was a cowgirl who did rodeo. That’s how I grew up. It was really outdoorsy. My dad did a lot of hunting, but I didn’t get involved in hunting. I’d go with him but it was usually my dad and brother’s thing. But when I was 29 and we started the company, I’d always been a shooter but never hunted anything. I got my hunter’s ed and my license. I started on birds the first year and by the next year I was killing my first buck. And then I was on my way to (hunting in) New Zealand. And I’ve been addicted ever since.
NH I grew up in Nevada and my family then moved here to (Red Bluff). I never hunted growing up because that’s not what my dad was into. My dad was a fisherman and he would trek his kids all over. We would camp and we would fish for hours and hours and hours. It was fun; that’s what we did. The older I got and started dating my husband, that’s how I started getting into hunting. He hunted a lot and traveled with his family, so if I wanted to spend any good quality time with him that would be the way to get his attention. After I shot my first buck and a couple of pigs, I thought, “This is kind of fun.” I love it now. When we got back from New Zealand I messaged him and said how I get it, and I don’t know why.
CC Did you both have expectations and high hopes it would be successful?
JA You know, I will have to say at first I just thought it was just something fun I was doing with my best friend. My business was my real estate company. I made good money and a good living. But my passion, my intrigue was with Girls With Guns. I’m kind of a tomboy and it got me a little more involved in the fashion world. It was something that I was able to put my own spin on, and Norissa had her own style. Right now I’m our operations director and she’s our creative director. Those are the
roles that we fell into. As best friends we were able to work together and started taking the things we were good at, and that’s what we did at our jobs.
CC Lots of hard work went into this, no doubt.
NH What kept us so involved and engaged in this. Jen and I were just talking about working and the hours we put in working two jobs; we’d work all day and then come back and work until 12, 1 or 2 a.m. I’m not sure how we made that be- cause even now I get extremely exhausted. And I feel like there’s someone always watching over us or to help us achieve our goals.
CC So did it help make this a seamless process that you were such good friends. What’s the old adage: Never get into business or a project with a close friend? It sounds like you two meshed right away.
JA I can’t say it helped. But Norissa and I just stayed three weeks together at this woman’s house in New Zealand where we hunted. And she said to me, “I’ve never seen two people fit better together like two pieces of a puzzle. You two just complement each other.” We’ve heard that a lot, but just the way she said it and put it was definitely awesome. We’re totally different personalities, but with different strengths and weaknesses, and I think that’s what makes it work. When she’s on I’m off, and vice versa. But we’re a team and that’s how we treat it. That’s how we treat our entire team at GWG headquarters. They’re growing with us.
CC Was there a single moment when you collectively thought something was brewing with this project? NH It’s funny when people tell us we’re moving up, and Jen and I just take every day as we can. I think we’re still in denial and that we’re still a small company. We still have that small-town mentality and we still don’t realize how big it’s gotten until we’re across the country or in another country when someone says they follow us or greet us by our name. That’s when we realize how big it is.
JA I think it was when we moved into the warehouse. We all had offices, and we had a part-time crew with two part-time employees. And I realized that we needed a team. And within three or four months we had a staff of five, including Norissa and I.
I had let go of my real estate business, and we brought on three more people. It was almost like an overnight thing, though it seemed to happen about a year ago. It was always growing with new stores. But now it’s growing so quickly with the popularity, and how women are so excited about the outdoors. It’s really awesome, because women are truly gearing up for the outdoors.
CC So how did you get from Norissa’s garage to this spacious warehouse?
JA We actually did a few baby steps. My broker at the time had a 600-square-foot little building and he gave up six months of free rent. It was one of those cool, “I’m in your court” and “here you go”(situations), and after that we started paying rent. And then because Scheels wanted to come on and we got our manufacturing underway, we ended up going into the space next door, which was 900 square feet. And then we ended up occupying a place across the street, which was 1,800 square feet, and we were renting from (the original real estate broker) at that time. We just had some amazing people along the way who have stopped to help us. That allowed us to do that jump, and then, finally, we realized we had to get into a real warehouse. Right now we have eight full-time employees, not including all of your independents like our design team and such. We have anywhere from 10 to 20 temps that come in twice a year for our seasons when our shipments come in. It was pretty surreal.
CC How did your relationship with Sarah Palin blossom?
JA She’s actually somebody Norissa and I both look up to as a role model. People may have their different views on what they feel about her politically. But what she’s done for being a voice of women is huge. We never asked her to wear our clothes. She spoke in Anderson at a logging conference and we attended. We gave her a bag full of goodies that were hand-pressed in the garage by me and embroidered by Norissa. We’d only been in business for about a year and four months. We ended up giving it to her, and that following December we got an email; it was surreal. She was going to wear us on the show. One time would have just been amazing. Now, we sent her a box of clothes for her and (Palin’s daughters). We receive hand-written notes back from them. We’ve seen Bristol wearing us on her show, and we’ve seen (Sarah Palin) all over wearing our stuff. She actually buys our stuff. We were recently asked to outfit her, so we went and met her and (husband) Todd and spent the day with them. It was pretty amazing.
NH I’m not sure if she realizes how important and special it was to us.
CC From what I’ve gathered, you two are very different personalities, right?
NH think that’s why our company has be- come what it’s become; I think I have some great ideas and I wasn’t much of a risk taker. From the beginning our friendship has been like that. I think that’s why it works for us, and I think why the show’s going to be great. You’ll see in the show there’s one of us that’s more of adrenaline junkie, and I’m the scaredy-cat.
JA I’m very much a risk taker; and she’s very conservative. I’m kind of a go with the flow and a planner both at the same time. Norissa and I work together day-in and day- out, and we’re very like-minded even with our opposite personalities.
CC So what was New Zealand like?
NH The first time we went we were stag hunting, and it was only the second time we’d been out of the country ever. It was pretty eye-opening for us. To go back this year we realized how the terrain is different. And it’s an outdoor mecca; people train there for triathlons; running, biking and kayaking. There is good food and good wine. There’s an energy that you can feel when you’re outside. I just love it; it’s a spiritual place.
CC You’ll be soon traveling all over the world filming the show, but where do you get away in California for your outdoor fixes?
JA I do a lot of hunting in Modoc County where I grew up. I just went and hunted with my dad and future brother-in-law last fall and took my first mule deer. Duck hunting up here is huge in my family; my cousins, my fiancé and my brother are duck-hunting addicts. I love it now too. We actually just put our dog in training; he’s an amazing 9-month-old Lab. So next year is going to be awesome. When I want to get away, I go to Modoc County because there are so many open spaces.
CC I’m looking forward to watching your Universal Huntress show. Just talking to both of you it looks like this will be fun.
NH The show is basically going to be real time; we’re not going to re-enact anything. We’re just going to out there and being real. I’m not going to profess that I’m perfect by any means. I get to learn about different countries and different animals. We’re growing up on TV; the friends and the family who get to see us every day, we get to share that with them. I hope everybody loves that, so we’ll see.
JA It’s just going to be us. When we met our producer and he pitched for us to come out and fly to South Africa and see how we did hunting with him, he said, “All I want you to do is be yourselves because that’s what your fans love.” So we’re going to be Norissa and I being Norissa and I; we’re going to be goofy, but we’re going to be serious about our hunts and fun. We’re going to see the world and you’ll see it through our eyes.
CC Give me a short description on what you think your products represent?
JA It’s not really too hard for me to describe because it’s really mine and Norissa’s lifestyles combined: it’s a little bit of redneck, a little bit of fashion. We love the outdoors, period. And we love guns, so it’s not just about guns of the outdoors; it’s a universal brand and it’s about the women who love to wakeboard, who love to snowboard or work out or shoot. We want women to love our brand because it’s all about the out- doors and empowering women.
CC Where do you see this company going?
NH Of course we’d love to keep building the brand, and that’s been our goal. We want to make outdoor fashion fun and trendy for everybody. I don’t know how it’s going to go. We’re just enjoying our journey and hoping people are picking up our brand in the homes of every country girl.
CC I get the feeling no matter how successful you are, you’ll always be just down- to-earth Jen and Norissa from small-town Northern California.
JA Oh, yeah. Just because our company is doing well doesn’t change the person that I am. That’s very important to me to stay the same person. We’re just normal girls.
NH What you see is what you get. I’m not any different than I was four years ago; I’m not changing. I think I’m a down-to-earth person. Hopefully that shows; sometimes we’re big dorks, and we love to just laugh and have fun.
CC This last question I think is the most important one: Do you hope you are role models for women who want to be involved in not just an outdoors apparel company in what’s been a male-dominated genre, but any kind of business venture?
NH We have people approach us and tell us they want to take a chance and a leap to try something new in their life. And also we like to see young girls coming up with their own business ideas, either in the same industry as ours, or in a whole different industry. They’ve followed us so much and thinking, “If they can do it, we can do it.”
JA You know what’s funny? I have people tell us now we have been an inspiration because they see us working so many days and into the wee hours of the morning trying to build our company. And just now this year, we’re finally able to relax a little and enjoy this. Norissa and I up until last July were doing this on our own. So it is really awesome to show that hard work does pay off, and that’s the American Dream. That’s really important because that’s what Girls With Guns is all about. As for what’s male-dominated, that doesn’t mean anything to me. Women are taking over the hunting world. I’m excited about it.