The question: “What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?” isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s been uttered for decades by high school guidance counselors hoping to give direction to aimless malcontents to get them excited (or at least satisfied with) the inevitable fact that the next five decades of their lives will be spent working some kind of job. But Volcom, a clothing company that specializes in surf, skate, and snowboarding apparel, decided to take that question and invert it when it launched its #ThisFirst campaign in December of 2015.
The nature of the campaign was to find 15 kids and let them take something they were already passionate about, then turn it into a way for them to make a living. Todd Hymel, Volcom’s CEO, came up with the idea when searching for a way for the company to better connect with the youth of today by asking “How do we go and find people that have the same passions that we all have, but in different spectrums of the world?”
That’s where the idea for #ThisFirst was born, “finding passionate people around the world who have a passionate story to tell and a passion that they pursue and they put first,” Hymel says. “So it’s really about how you find people who are thinking about that word ‘passion’ everyday.”
Once the campaign was launched, and sponsored posts started turning up across Instagram and other social media platforms, they’d expected maybe 1,000 people would submit entries. By the time it closed, Hymel said they got more than 10,000 applications. “There were moments in there where it was like, ‘Oh, can we add honorable mentions?’ We were trying to find ways not to tell people ‘no.’ It was excruciatingly hard as we got closer and closer to 15.”
To commemorate the close of the inaugural campaign, 12 of the 15 winners were present for the #ThisFirst party earlier this month at the Volcom store in Austin, Texas. Some had their artwork adorn the walls, while others performed on stage, both solo and with one another. Gathered from all corners of the globe, each of the winners all shared one singular characteristic: they had an unwavering passion for what they do, and wanted to be able to make a living with it.
“Graduating college as an art major there’s that umbrella sticker where they’re like, ‘You’re not going to make any money, what are you going to do?’” said Sara Becker, a printmaker from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who uses her work to challenge the stigma of talking about mental illness. “I mean, you need that confidence that somebody wants to see your work, somebody feels your work touches your heart, what you make, and Volcom really gave me that platform to not only feel like I had confidence in my work, but my concept.”
“The fact that Volcom really latched onto that specifically — my heartfelt concept behind my work, the fuel to the fire — really meant alot to me,” she continues. “It’s helped me to actually want to pursue activism in that, not just to create art that touches on that conceptually, but to also personally go out and hear people’s stories.”
Another #ThisFirst winner, Canarus Leon, a breakdancer out of Houston, Texas, said the campaign first came on his radar when he spotted it on Instagram. “I was like all right, guess I’ll try, see what happens, because it doesn’t seem like a contest where you think you would win,” said Leon, who described the contest as the kind of thing he didn’t expect to win, before adding “but I’m here now, so…”
While #ThisFirst celebrates the individual winners’ accomplishments and creativity, a real camaraderie has come out of bringing the winners together. Next month, when Leon travels to Philadelphia for a dance competition, he’ll be staying with Becker. “She’s planning my trip for me,” says Leon.
Fabian Ruiz, a street musician from Alajuela, Costa Rica, entered even though he knew that his chances of winning were a long shot, but has grown used to standing out. “In my country, music is a bit difficult, because it is a very small country, and the scene is almost nothing,” Ruiz explains. “But I had this office job and I hated it so bad, and I was really into music, and, well, I got fired, and so playing on the street pushed me to make my music, because the street is a bit more hard.”
To help him stand out from other street performers, Ruiz designed and built a lap steel guitar and makeshift drum rig fashioned out of an old skateboard. “When I started I was just playing the guitar and people, if they gave me something it was out of pity, but that’s not enough. I [needed] to go next level.” With his revised setup, Fabian’s notoriety started to grow. “I feel like music is a kind of medicine, so I feel like a bit of a doctor because when I see people having fun and that’s what you need you know? And I can see it. If you make people happy, and [they] enjoy their time, you are doing something good for people so I can share with bigger audiences.”
Robert Wall, a cliff jumper and drone pilot from Burney, California, was working construction jobs during the week, which allowed for him to pursue his passion every weekend. “For me, we didn’t know if there was money in something like cliff jumping, like we always imagined. We had schemes of how it was going to be, but you never know until someone else feels the same way.”
But as soon as Wall was chosen as a winner, “all [my] doubts went away. I was so stoked to make it to this point. There’s totally like a common string I feel like in all of us that we’re not really sure yet and you’re like, ‘I really want to do this, I don’t know if there’s a path,’ and then, the minute someone tells you like, ‘Hey, this could work,’ it completely reframes everything you’re doing.”
Joanna Painter, an artist who works in large scale charcoal and pastel, saw #ThisFirst as a chance of “real validation.” While working a 9-to-5 job, she’d do her artwork at night and on weekends. She ended up quitting her job just two months before entering the contest. “[I] was feeling a bit like, ‘Ahh! How am I going to pay my rent?’” Painter explains. “I was in this stage where I was like, ‘Yeah, wicked, I’m doing something I love, but also like, does anyone actually like what I do?’ This has given me a huge amount of confidence. The decision that I made was the right decision and just to keep going with it. And pursuing your passion is really important.”
Having been declared a winner, Painter says she’s been “given that extra confidence, [and] working with Volcom is like a super amazing opportunity to show your art to loads of different people who wouldn’t normally see it. So it’s that extra push that’s been awesome and will hopefully carry over a little bit further.”
The feeling of not only validation, but the chance for their individual passions to reach a larger, even global, audience was a common thread for all the #ThisFirst winners. “This just inspires me to keep going, you know,” explains Leon. “Like I said, when I go to competitions, people come to me and tell me how they feel about my dance and stuff, it just makes you like this is actually I am doing like the right thing here. Just touching people through this makes you want to keep doing it. Hopefully just to inspire, that’s all that really. Just inspire and create more art.”
Similarly, Ruiz wants to use his newfound spotlight to help inspire others to be more fearless in doing their art. “I want to get more people inspired to do what they want to do because a lot of people [have] a lot of fear of doing,” says Ruiz. “But the thing is, people need to start wherever they can. From below is from where they continue growing. So to spread some inspiration for those that want to keep on growing.”
In the end, all the #ThisFirst winners could be summarized by the story of Atsushi Miki, a solo percussionist from Tokyo, Japan who mixed traditional and contemporary instruments. Speaking to me through a translator, Miki “didn’t have much money, but he was doing his [music] on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media. He saw this contest about passion. He really saw this [as something] he had to do. He saw the chance that he can hear his music around the world.”
Looking back at the inaugural event, Volcom’s Head of Global Marketing, Ryan Immegart, reflected on the unprecedented success, calling it an “affirmation of the direction, and giving you that confidence that you’re doing something meaningful.”
As the party continued on into the night, sets from Fat Tony, Night Beats, and Al Lover filled the patio with music, while skateboarders took turns doing tricks on a ramp set up in the corner. Near the end, the winners gathered together on stage while attendees watched a 10 minute documentary that looked at their individual passions, each hoping for the chance to have a greater impact on the world, along with the chance to inspire others to follow their dreams.