PUBLIC Chats: Surf the Greats Interview

Surf the Greats is a Toronto-based organization focused on educating, exploring, and cultivating change through surfing on the Great Lakes and beyond. PUBLIC sat down with founder Antonio, to dive deeper into what makes Surf the Greats so great!

1. How did the idea for Surf the Greats come about?

I grew up in Brazil next to the ocean, surfing my whole life. When I was 20 I came to North America to study in California. I was there for 4 years, and it was there that I fell in love with a Canadian. My partner’s family is from Bahamas, so it was on one of our trips to the Bahamas that I met someone from Toronto who said that he surfed the Great Lakes. When I got back to Canada I did some research and found out that it is possible to surf the Great Lakes, and this information is what changed my life.

About 5 years ago, there was not a lot of information on surfing in the Great Lakes, so I found that this could be an opportunity for me to offer resources and educate people on this topic. It’s important for me to nurture the communities I live in. With this in mind, I started Surf the Greats as a way for me to connect all the surfing communities surrounding the Great Lakes.

Surf the Greats now runs workshops such as training and safety sessions, we have a school where you can learn how to surf, a brick and mortar to rent and buy surfing gear, and we host lots of community events!

I really believe that just because you live in a big city, that doesn’t mean you need to accept the perceived limitations of that lifestyle. It’s not all about going out to the bars and chasing money, it can be about surfing too!

2. Do you feel like you’re changing the perception “city life” for board sports loving Torontonians?

Yes I do, and that is one of my goals. There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the Great Lakes, for example, what the water quality is really like. This city was formed on the lakes, and I want people to know that we should only be taking what we need from them… As a community builder, I’m really trying to inspire people to connect with the lake in different ways.

3. You do a lot of shore cleanups and community events around clean water and environmental conservation, was that part of the business model from the beginning or did it evolve into the business over time?

From the beginning we have always tried to do things that are community based. Even before I started the company, I organized small events to get friends to the beach. Then we started the shore cleanups, and this really inspired people and started opening up surf to a broader community. This very quickly became a life goal of mine – to inspire others to take action. A commitment to the environment and to the community is really at the core of what we do.

4. Do you find that you bring in more people for the surfing or the community aspect of the business?

I would say we bring in people for both! Of course we are a for profit, but we are not old school profit only. We don’t just want people to buy surf products, we want them to be part of something bigger.

5. What you do is pretty unique, not only the lake surfing, but also the way the business functions on so many different levels to create a community. Have you found a lot of other businesses going for this full circle, non-traditional model?

Patagonia’s business model really inspires us, and Yvon Chouinard has been a huge role model for us. Surf the Greats was built on some of the same principles as Patagonia. Today, companies that do not have community or environmental initiatives built into their companies are in trouble. Some companies are trying to reverse their business models to change this, but if it’s not part of their core then it’s not something that can just be covered up with a band-aid.

6. Do you feel like the purpose aspect of the business helps drive growth?

Absolutely! We have been community first from the outset. We are really trying to create the most community engagement with the limited resources we have. For example, our entire shop was built at by the members from our community, who are also surfers. Everyone who works here is a surfer. People are very personally invested in the business, and it’s important because we want everyone to know that they are an integral part of it.

We also like to think of ourselves like an incubator: a community where people can express themselves and connect with each other. One thing we do every month is showcase an artist’s work in our space, it gives them a place to thrive… At the end of the day it’s really about nurturing and growing the community in a sustainable way.

7. Being a business that plays in both the for profit and social impact space, are there any challenges that you are facing?

Yes, being a business that plays in both spaces is a challenge for us everyday. We do the things we do because we are passionate about them. All our beach clean ups are funded by us, but at the end of the day the beaches must be cleaned. I have to listen and ask myself, do I want to inspire more people to do good things today? Or do I want to sell more surfboards to pay rent? And it’s almost always the first answer. I think by giving, I will eventually get the financial return.

8. Where do you see Surf the Greats a few years from now and what kind of legacy would you like Surf the Greats to have 10, 20 years from now?

Well, I would love to start some type of social programming in Brazil. The sustainability movement is just gaining momentum there. I am having a lot of media reaching out to me saying that they are interested in the work that I am doing here. It would be amazing to change the way that people perceive garbage down there. I think this is something I owe to my home country.

In terms of a legacy, when I die I want to know that there is no longer any localism on the Great Lakes. This is something I will fight for and hope to achieve in my life span.

I also want to make sure the Great Lakes are clean, that they are swimmable, surfable and fishable. I think it’s easy to take them for granted sometimes. We live next to some of the largest bodies of freshwater on Earth. Water is becoming a limited resource and we are trashing it when we should be treating it like gold – it needs to change!

Leaving a legacy of no localism and clean water for all is what I would like to do. I know I am not able to tackle it on my own, but if my actions can be part of the solution, I will be very happy.

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