By Bridgett Harris
As a self-described Jill-of-all-trades, Jolie NeSmith brings an array of unique experience to her role as executive director of Pike Ride, Colorado Springs’ first and only nonprofit bike share program.
She’s opened restaurants, bartended, worked with at-risk youths and driven all over the southern half of Colorado as the regional manager of Special Olympics Colorado. She talks about solo backpacking trips as casually as other people might mention strolling to the park. She also loves cycling — a must when you’re the person responsible for overseeing a fleet of e-bikes.
“I think it’s funny when people like to ask me how I ended up in this position,” NeSmith said. “I used to always joke and say, ‘Oh, I have a bachelor’s in bikeshare.’ But really, it’s come about because of how I live my life, being open to new things and putting myself out there and doing something different.”
She has a deep love for Colorado Springs, where she lives with her dog, Gypsy, a large lab-Great Pyrenees mix that she brings to work in a wagon pulled behind her bicycle.
“I like the people, the community — it’s my world and I’m not leaving,” NeSmith said.
She spoke with the Business Journal about her journey to Colorado Springs, her work with Pike Ride and her thoughts on leadership and community support.
Tell us about your background before starting your position at Pike Ride.
I have a bachelor of fine arts degree and a master of social work — community based. That combination can be difficult to relate to my current work, but it fits. I didn’t want to do clinical work, but the community aspect of figuring out how to leverage, empower and build the community fits into the work I do now.
I have turned that into a lot of nonprofit experience. I have worked at nonprofits in Denver and in North Carolina, working with high risk or adjudicated youths. When I came to the Springs I was actually working for Special Olympics Colorado and I was responsible for the southern part of the state. I spent most days in the car traveling to Limon or Trinidad, Buena Vista or Salida — basically anywhere south of Castle Rock. I had taken the job to work on building the community, but I couldn’t because I wasn’t in any one community for very long. I couldn’t really have a significant impact.
How did you end up at Pike Ride?
When the opportunity came up with Pike Ride, I was interested because bikes had always been a part of my life; when I first moved to the Springs for my previous role, the first group I got connected with was the Women’s Mountain Bike Association. When I took the job, it was clearly articulated that the goal was for Pike Ride to be its own nonprofit within the first year or two of operations. I had that nonprofit background, so it became an opportunity to blend both bikes and work.
What does your work at Pike Ride entail?
I’m the executive director of Pike Ride and it varies. Some days I’m cleaning toilets — we are a startup nonprofit, so we all do the chores. Other days, I work on social media, grants, balancing the budget — well, trying to — or hiring staff. We’re small. We have three full-time employees and four part-timers. During the summer months we might get up to around seven or eight part-timers. So I do a bit of everything.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m not sure that I could pin a definition for some stereotypical style on it. I would say I use a lot of different experiences from different areas of my life to lead. In leadership, creativity and collaboration are important because you have to be able to think outside the box to rally people behind your cause. I try to meet people where they’re at, whether they’re an employee or a customer, and work together to see how we can best serve the community.
What is the best piece of leadership advice you have ever received?
Listen more than I talk.
What is the best piece of advice you could give someone else?
Be open to new things. Be willing to be a little bit vulnerable or even scared and do something new. I would also say it is important to realize that failure is sometimes just as good as success. Sometimes I learn more from failure than I do from the great stuff.
When you started with Pike Ride, what were some of your goals as a leader?
There are a lot of bike shares and scooter shares all over the country. The biggest thing I’ve asked our staff to think about since we started is: How are we different? The big goal has always been to be a part of the community. There are venture capitalist-backed companies with more resources that might launch here someday so it’s important that we show how we are very different from those companies and maintain the focus that we are here to really, truly serve the community in multiple capacities, not just through bikes.
How does a service like Pike Ride help the Colorado Springs community?
We give people the opportunity to get outside and to have a bike that functions and works. You don’t have to worry about maintaining it — just get on and go. It gives people ways to get around our town who may not have the reliability of a vehicle. Bikes also benefit our tourists. A number of tourists come here and don’t want to rent a car. This is another way to get them around our town.
Based on your experience as a cyclist are there other ways cycling impacts the community?
When I’m in a car, I’m going so fast that I can’t really see what’s going on around me. There are storefronts, businesses and restaurants and maybe I’ll glance and see one or two, but I’m trying to pay attention to traffic when I’m driving. I’m trying to get where I’m going at a faster clip. Since I’ve transitioned to riding a bike more often, it’s really cool how much I’m aware of in this town and what I can see and experience and smell. I can’t go past a restaurant on a bike without smelling the food. The opportunity to see our city from the saddle of a bike is very different than behind the windshield of a car.
Do you think that slowed-down perspective benefits the local economy?
Absolutely. There are plenty of stats out there that show that people who are walking or biking past stores and restaurants are much more likely to walk in and spend money than somebody that’s driving past.
Pike Ride recently announced it would offer free rides to businesses and community members to help out during the COVID-19 crisis. Can you talk about that?
Right now, we’re offering any business that’s in our service area the ability to use the bikes for free for deliveries for an unlimited amount of time. We just set them up with a membership and they can use them however they want. We’re also giving out free 30-minute rides because we have people that are dependent on our bikes right now for work or groceries or just getting outside. We have a large community that is used to getting its outside time. One of the more reasonable social distancing activities someone can do outdoors is ride a bike — and we can help people do that.
What has been your proudest moment in the development of Pike Ride?
My proudest moment would probably be the transition to e-bikes. We were right at one year of operations as a brand-new startup and we launched purple pedal bikes. The community was very vocal about how hard it was to get around — we’re very hilly — and we listened to their feedback. The ability to transition our entire fleet from pedal bikes to e-bikes has resulted in a drastic increase in the diversity of our ridership because more people can ride. Whether it’s somebody who had a hip replacement or a knee replacement or just someone who can ride a bike but maybe not as far as they would like, it’s no longer just the seasoned cyclist. A larger majority of people can now ride our bikes and that’s pretty cool.