Surf’s Up: An interview with Geoff Clawson ’98
I would love to hear your vision of the brand, what it stands for, and what you do there.
I am President and co-owner of Birdwell Beach Britches, an iconic surf wear brand founded by the Birdwell family in 1961 in Santa Ana, California. Birdwell is one of three original surf wear companies that pioneered the development of surf trunks and what has become a multi-billion dollar action sports apparel industry. Over the last 55 years, Birdwell has stayed true to its roots — hand cutting and sewing every garment in our Santa Ana factory as well as employing local craftsmen and women, some of whom have worked at the company since the 1970’s. Quality is our Gimmick is our slogan, but it’s also a commitment we honor with every stitch we sew. We believe in inspiring people to buy less stuff, by buying better stuff.
What led you to the opportunity and how did you make the choice to leave Facebook for this new venture?
Accepting the role as President of Birdwell was the culmination of a 20-year career, with every previous role helping prepare me to take the helm of a brand I’ve admired for so long. Leaving a dream company and job at Facebook is something you only do once, if ever, so it was not without considerable reflection. Our Chairman Matt Jacobson is a close friend and former Facebook colleague (Facebook’s 8th employee), who originally invited me to take an ownership position when he acquired the company from the Birdwell family in 2014. Fast-forward to late 2015, we began to talk about the possibility of me stepping into a leadership role with day-to-day operational responsibilities. Ultimately, the intersection of personal passion (surfing) and professional experience as well as the opportunity to build a team based on the leadership principles I value most compelled me to take the risk. I couldn’t be happier with the decision.
I know we both live in California, but we got here somehow after Southwestern. How did you end up working out here?
I grew up surfing on Texas’s Gulf Coast, so there was always a gravitational pull to the California coast - my own manifest destiny, if you will. In fact, I was originally enrolled at Pepperdine University in Malibu, but decided at the last minute to attend Southwestern instead. A year after I graduated SU, a friend I had met during my semester abroad in China was leaving his job in Austin to pursue a technology recruiting career in San Francisco. I took two weeks vacation to join him on a road trip across the western U.S. It was sunny and 72F when we stepped out of his car in Oakland’s Rock Ridge neighborhood, where we’d be staying until he found an apartment in the city. It was June 1999. The dot-com madness was in full swing, and I just knew I had found my new home. I convinced my buddy to ditch his previous roommate plans, find a place with me (we ended up in SF’s Western Addition neighborhood), and then spent the following six weeks interviewing tirelessly until I landed a gig on Pacific Bell Wireless’s Product Marketing team.
Did you have any experiences while at SU that prepared you to lead at Facebook and now Birdwell?
All of them. My life wouldn’t be the same without my years at SU. The time with professors like my advisor Dr. Davidson, Chinese professors Dr. Chen and Dr. Gu, and Dr. Craddock’s philosophy courses profoundly shaped my thinking, reinforced a disciplined-approach to mastering knowledge, and nurtured my overall intellectual curiosity. The gift of a liberal arts degree is one that keeps on giving — I have found the well-rounded focus on thoughtful dialog, critical reasoning, and written expression is one that has served me well in life, professionally and personally. Perhaps the most important experiences though are the friendships I made while at SU. It really is true that “you are who you spend time with.” My life is richer, decisions are better, and experiences more enjoyable because I can share them with friends who have become family over the last 20 plus years.
What advice do you have to new and young SU grads who may be looking for their next gig?
Get started with getting started. There’s no perfect first job. I graduated with student loans and had to start working immediately. I ended up working at Enterprise Rent-A-Car for a year before I found a more interesting and promising role in product marketing. With the right perspective, each endeavor can teach you lessons and offer experiences that prepare you for the next opportunity.
The other bit of advice I’d offer is the value of self-awareness, particularly in relation to your professional strengths as they develop. There’s an oft-repeated romantic notion that you should do what you love with the vague promise that it will all work out. I take the view, offered here for your consideration, that you should do the thing you’re best at doing given your unique personality traits, intellect, life experiences, etc. While doing what you love can certainly provide you happiness, I’ve found there is significant joy in being good/great at something, which can provide you room to pursue many other things that you love but may not be practical choices on which to base your livelihood.
Michael Nguyen ’03 serves as the Alumni Communications Chair on the Southwestern University Alumni Association’s Alumni Council. A resident of San Francisco, Calif., Michael is an attorney, specializing in intellectual property law, with an emphasis in patent prosecution, intellectual property counseling, and strategic planning, and with a special emphasis on computer and software-based inventions. Michael also serves as the Social and Professional Networking Committee Chair for the Vietnamese American Bar Association of Northern California (VABANC), where he has previously served as chair for Communications Committee, Membership Committee, and as Treasurer. As the reigning Miss GAPA (Gay Asian Pacific Alliance), Michael also represents the GAPA Foundation, a grassroots philanthropic organization that provides funds and leverages resources to empower the Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ community. Michael received his B.A. in Computer Science and Music from Southwestern, and his J.D. from U.C. Hastings College of the Law.