Sensi Graves is a professional kiteboarder who consistently ranks as one of the best in the world. She is also the founder of Sensi Bikinis, a swimwear line that is changing the game for adventurous and active women. Sensi has constantly pushed the limits for herself as a successful and inspirational entrepreneur and, in doing so, consistently challenges the status quo.
Where did you grow up and what were your teen years like? How did that influence your interest in kiteboarding, yoga, and adventure?
I grew up in rural Northern California. My parents had 80 acres in the woods in Mendocino county and my three brothers and I were constantly playing and exploring there. The competition between my brothers and I was always fierce and that certainly fueled my desire to "keep up with the boys". I've always loved adventure and travel and feel the most alive when stimulated by new experience. Growing up I played basketball, volleyball and ran track and it's safe to say that sports were a huge part of my world. I also snowboarded, wakeboarded and started doing yoga. Physical fitness has always kept me feeling good.
It wasn't until I was in college that I was introduced to kiteboarding. This new sport that combined a boardsport, water and the added element of traveling anywhere was super exciting. It was the ultimate stimulation. I fell completely in love.
Photo Credit: Andre Magarao
You're a very experienced kiteboarder, and were recently ranked as one of the top in the world by International Kitesurf Magazine, how did you get interested/started in kiteboarding - a relatively new sport?
My freshman year of college my father booked a trip to North Carolina to learn to kite. My brothers and I had no idea what we were in for. My father often took up new sports/tried new things/got hooked on the latest and greatest and in the wake of my mother's death a few years prior was looking for more things to fill his life. As I mentioned, I had no idea what we were doing and hadn't even heard of kiteboarding at that time. We were in North Carolina for a week and I still remember my first time up on the board. I dove the kite and rode! The feeling was awesome!
The next few years we kept in touch with Real Watersports (where we had learned) and went on a few kiteboarding trips. I was still a complete novice but in the Spring of 2009 Real was hiring coaches and invited my brothers and I out to try out. I remember thinking that they were more interested in my brothers coming up but I jumped at the opportunity and in the Summer of 2009 moved out to North Carolina. From that blustery June on, a kite was nearly always in my hands. That Summer I slept, dreamt, and breathed kiteboarding and the infatuation was solidified. I moved back to San Diego to complete by senior year and the following June loaded up my car and drove cross country to begin what would be the start of an endless summer as I chased the wind.
Because you have so much free time outside of being an accomplished kitesurfer.... you decided to launch a business! What is Sensi Bikinis and how did you come up with the concept?
I've always had a desire to do something entrepreneurial. Sensi Bikinis was born from a need. That first summer at Real, I was in the water every single day. A bikini was my uniform and my recreational outfit. I quickly became fed up with what the market had to offer. At the time, there wasn't anything that was designed or marketed for active women. There were a few older, frumpier brands but nothing that identified with what I was; a young, fashion-conscious athlete that wanted to look flirty and fabulous but also be able to rely on my wardrobe for when I was doing all of the fun sports that I loved (namely kiteboarding and surfing at that time).
There were a few of my clients, women who had started their own businesses, that I first expressed the idea. It was simply a whisper at first and I was hesitant to even voice that desire. But quickly those women, Terre Peck and Isabella Jones, encouraged me to go for it. I remember the simultaneous pull of wanting to try coupled with the deep, gut-wrenching fear of failure and being judged that goes along with a new venture. I decided it was something I did want to pursue and soon got up the courage to voice it. To me, once you say you're going to do something, you can't back down from it and once it was out in the open I knew I had to give it 100%.
What sparked your interest in entrepreneurship?
It's who I am! In Junior High I wanted to start a community newsletter, The Leggett Letter. I oversaw my fledgling paper for only a few months but the spark was lit. I've always been very independent and like to see things through. After my mother died, a whole lot of responsibility landed on my shoulders which I think also prepared me for the ups and downs that come with entrepreneurship.
Photo Credit: Toby Bromwich
Have any lessons from yoga, travel, and kiteboarding translated into your experience with entrepreneurship?
From yoga: the ability to de-stress, live in the moment and BREATHE. From travel: the knowledge that things are oftentimes out of your hands and that worrying about upcoming circumstances won't do one bit of good. Plus the reminder to be grateful. We (in the US and first world countries) are SO much better off than the majority of the world.
From kiteboarding: There will be good days and bad days. A fresh perspective can help a ton. Just. Keep. Trying.
Did you experience any challenges launching your bikini line? What are some lessons you learned along the way?
Ha. YES! So many challenges. I'll give one example: Our fourth production run of Sensi Bikinis was a nightmare. Since I didn’t have a background in manufacturing, the first three runs were interesting and, luckily, progressively less frustrating as I learned what to do and what not to do. By the fourth run, I was much more comfortable with my manufacturer and we had refined the process a lot. I went into our 2015 collection thinking it would be the best yet. Unfortunately, a step had been missed during the sizing process on a few of the different style bottoms. When the completed bottoms came out of production, they were TINY. The larges would fit a small, and the smalls… let’s not relive it. I was beyond overwhelmed and discouraged, faced with a whole bunch of pieces that we’d have to send out to retailers and distribute online. It would have been easy to throw in the towel. However, I bit the bullet and called our retailers explaining the mishap, posted disclaimers on the website and dealt with customer complaints and inquiries over the next year. It was not a fun time but I stayed committed to the vision of the brand and kept the positivity going. A huge lesson in perseverance and tenacity!
Where have been some of the most interesting places you have kiteboarded and why?
In the fresh water lakes of Patagonia, Argentina. The most clear, blue, fantastic water you've ever seen. Mountains and trees are jutting up around you but you're kiting over what looks like a tropical paradise. It's magical.
Also, most recently snowkiting on the sand bar in Hood River. Rarely do we get enough snow in town to cover the sand bar but this winter we've gotten dumped on. Getting to snowkite where we normally kite on the water has been a surreal experience. Plus it's tons of fun! I don't snowkite very often and the novelty of it still hasn't worn off.
You're an avid chef - what are some of your favorite things to cook, and things you have tried on the road?
My favorite meal when traveling was the fresh Pho we ate a million times in Vietnam. Their ingredients are so bright and flavorful-the flavors poignant on your tongue. We traveled to Vietnam last January and the weather was decidedly cold. That Pho was warming and delicious and has introduced me to whole class of flavor profiles that I hadn't yet explored. Exciting!
Finally - you're given the chance to teach three people kiteboarding for the day who you have always wanted to meet - either alive or dead - who do you bring?!
Great question! Ellen DeGeneres: I think she'd be hilarious. It takes a certain attitude to get through the near-drowning experience that can be learning to kite (don't let that scare you) and I know Ellen and I would have a fantastic time.Gandhi: So much wisdom in such a small package. I'd love to spend a day around that kind of energy. Learning is another one of my passions and there's so much to learn from him. Yvon Chouinard: One of my heroes! His books have inspired me, his business ideals are unparalleled and his products are top-notch. Oh what I could glean from his brain!