When you hear “Rio,” you probably think of beaches, Carnival, or bikinis. Asa Firestone thinks Rio de Janeiro could be a rock climbing mecca. And that’s not surprising — at the end of Brazil’s famous Ipanema Beach lies the iconic Dois Irmãos (“Two Brothers”), a double-summited 530-meter granite peak that draws the eye of any climber.
But, as Firestone found out during a semester studying in Rio in 2003, the peak is not exactly safe to climb. The rock is fine, but the peak is surrounded on three sides by dangerous favelas, the slums of Vidigal and Rocinha, historically a gang-controlled area where as many as 2,000 men were murdered each year. A climber going to college in Colorado, Firestone saw a tragedy: All that beautiful rock above Rocinha, and 200,000 people living beneath it without the means or access to climb it.
“I have traveled the world on expeditions and all too often the adventurers I meet enjoying the local natural resources are from California or Europe but not from the local communities,” Firestone says. “It seems like the kids from the favelas should have the opportunity to climb right above their homes.”
He set out to change that. In 2010, Firestone and fellow American Andrew Lenz created Centro de Escalada Urbana, a climbing program for youth who live in Rio’s favelas. CEU is committed to making climbing accessible to disadvantaged children and teens, and using it as a positive influence in their lives.
Now, Firestone wants to build a climbing wall in a government-run sports complex in Rocinha. But instead of raising the $50,000 to build the wall, he’s launched a line of products called BEYONDgear to fund it, building the company with a small team (which included co-founder Gil Weiss, who died in July 2012 while descending Peru’s Palcaraju Oeste). All proceeds from the sales of chalk bags, jewelry inspired by climbing hardware, t-shirts, and hats, will go toward building the wall. BEYONDgear’s IndieGoGo campaign, launched Nov. 22, has raised almost $8,000 in contributions so far of its $50,000 goal.
“I don’t want to follow a normal non-profit model,” Firestone says. “What I really want to create is a movement of using adventure for good and sharing adventure with people who would never have exposure to it otherwise. I think the best way to do this is not through a non-profit donation model, but through a for-profit brand with a bulletproof giving model. I want to get people excited to purchase our products, knowing that it goes towards using adventure for good but also because they like the products.”
BEYONDgear is not itself a nonprofit, but a social enterprise, or as Firestone says, an “impact enterprise,” along the lines of Tom’s Shoes, which gives a pair of shoes to children in developing countries for every pair of shoes purchased.
“We are adopting some of the business structure of Tom’s,” Firestone says. “But rather than giving away products, we give experiences, which I think is much more powerful.”