Sarah Schilke wasn’t born into the motorcycling industry — her family didn’t even ride — but after she became a licensed rider herself and was hired into a motorcycle safety program, she was hooked on the sport and the industry where she’s remained ever since.
Schilke has spent time working for the American Motorcyclist Association and the International Motorcycle Shows, and she combined her passion for motorcycling with her love for Germany — where she studied in high school and college — during her time at Fairchild Sports and Hein Gericke.
Now Schilke is the head of marketing and public relations for Schuberth North America, a post she took four years ago during the company’s launch. In January, she celebrated her reelection on Motorcycle Industry Council Board of Directors. When she was newly elected in 2007, Schilke became the first woman to hold a place on that board, and has just begun her third two-year term at that post. She’s also a 2014 Powersports Business Industry Leader.
What has been the biggest challenge in your current position, and how have you dealt with it?
Probably the most obvious challenge is that we’re basically still a startup company. We started at the tail end of the industry slump, so we didn’t start up when things were going great and everybody wanted new products, so it’s been a challenge to get the word out and to get people interested on a shoestring budget. I think starting any new business is difficult, but it’s a fun challenge, and we’ve done a lot of grassroots efforts, worked with our core audience and tried to branch out that way and start slowly and build really solid strategic partnerships that have paid off, and are helping us to expand even more now.
What’s the biggest opportunity for the industry, and how can the industry take advantage of it?
Right now we’re finally seeing a rebounding of the economy, so that’s a huge opportunity that we can take advantage of. Everyone’s been scaling back over the last couple years, and now that the economy is starting to pick up again, we can slowly come out of the scaling-back phase and embrace people getting back into motorcycling, as well as going after new riders to the sport and just really taking advantage of everything hopefully going on an upward curve again.
What is the best advice that you can give others in the industry?
In order to move the industry forward and expand the industry, it’s really important for people who work in the industry to be aware of what goes on outside of their own experience in motorcycling. A lot of us are riders, and a lot of us look at the world of motorcycling through the kind of motorcycling activities that we like to do. But it’s important to recognize all of the other ways that people participate in the sport and all of the ways that are different from the way that you’re into it — the different kinds of bikes people buy, the different ways that they use those bikes, the different kinds of apparel that people use — because there are so many different aspects of motorcycling that you can’t have tunnel vision and just focus on one area.
What does it mean to you to not only be the first woman on the MIC Board, but to also be elected to three terms?
It’s pretty exciting, and that’s a hard question because there’s no reason why a woman wouldn’t be on the board. There are so many women in this industry, and women at high levels of business that it’s actually kind of surprising that it hasn’t happened until now, but I think it’s exciting. The thing about getting reelected, too, it shows that the industry recognizes the contribution of women to the industry and the sport and also recognizes that having a diverse sport is also important for growth. One of my main goals is to have the industry consider the next generation of industry leaders and MIC Board candidates … and to encourage the industry to keep an eye out for upcoming leaders and successful businesspeople who can be tapped to take on leadership roles in the future.
How important are women to the industry? Do you think the importance of women riders is sometimes overlooked?
Women are very important in the industry because women are important to the sport, and I do think that women are overlooked in the sport. Often we’re overlooked as actual motorcycle consumers. Dealers have a hard time understanding or working with their female customers sometimes, and I think that trickles down. Another important thing is looking at the statistic of women who own motorcycles, it’s reported to be climbing; people report it as high as in the 20-percent range. But that’s not the statistic that is important when it comes to women in motorcycling or in the industry because it’s important to consider all of the passengers and all of the money that women passengers spend and also the money that women in a motorcycling family control. When you look at it that way, the woman’s contribution on the industry side is also very important, so that doesn’t get overlooked.
How does the MIC benefit the industry?
There are so many ways; it’s hard to pick the most important ones, but probably first and foremost, the industry is benefitted by all of the legislative work that the MIC does. They’ve got people sitting in Washington on Capitol Hill pushing motorcycle interests every day and working with people at all levels of government to further the rights of motorcyclists and assist with any legislation that involves motorcycling … and also the business of motorcycling, so that definitely is very important to the industry. Other important pieces are all of the reporting that the MIC does that helps motorcycle businesses know what’s going on in the marketplace and know the statistics of who the customers are, what they’re buying, where they’re located, what their demographics are and, in some cases, what their psychographics are. And just being involved with all of the trade and consumer shows. The MIC certainly helps member companies participate in those shows as well as save money. And then all of the behind-the-scenes work that the MIC does to get motorcycling more visible in the world through working with top celebrities who are interested in motorcycles, getting motorcycles and motorcycle accessories placed in various stores, locations, movies — everything they do that’s subtle placement. So it’s not like a sponsorship, it’s just that general people are seeing motorcycles more and seeing them in a positive light. Those are some of the things that the MIC does, and they’re the best advocate for the member companies.
What do you bring to the MIC Board that’s different in terms of experience or insight?
If you look around the board table today, it’s a very homogeneous group of people, with differing experiences. I didn’t come from a motorcycling family, so the way that I’m interested in it, the way I experience it, the way I experience being a consumer — is pretty different from most of the other people in the boardroom. I think that’s important, so that it enhances the perspective of everything we discuss and the way we look at things. I’m different because I represent a smaller aftermarket company; most of the people … on the board are from the bigger companies, but a lot of the member companies are other small companies like mine, so I think it’s good for the smaller MIC member companies to have a voice in the boardroom as well.
What draws you to Schuberth and what makes you believe in the company?
I’ve always been safety advocate the whole time I’ve been in motorcycling, so it’s interesting for me to be involved in a company that’s safety-related, and helmets are certainly a safety product, so that’s part of it. Schuberth strives so much to really push new innovations and create premium products and really work hard to develop the best safety features possible, or new innovations and safety features. When I go to the factory, it’s so exciting because it’s so well run. It’s German engineering down to the way everything in the factory is run and the quality control, and the employees are so proud of the products and the work.