By Sarah Stone
Most new employee orientations don’t include surfing, but Patagonia isn’t like most companies.
“My favorite memory was the first time I got to go surfing and two coworkers took me during our lunch break,” color and material quality engineer Julia Koehler says. “There’s an incredible surf break just across the street from headquarters, which has given new meaning to the term ‘board meeting!’”
Koehler recently joined the ranks of Wolfpackers working at Patagonia in Ventura, California. She’ll graduate with a Master of Science in Textile Chemistry on December 14 and earned a bachelor’s degree in polymer and color chemistry (PCC) in 2020.
Koehler is part of a team that leads color development and color innovation at Patagonia’s headquarters. That includes reviewing all material colors across their product line and communicating with suppliers in the company’s global supply chain.
Patagonia has also challenged Koehler to make its operations even more sustainable. She’s exploring dye chemistry and coloration methods to see how they can reduce water use during the dyeing and finishing processes.
“It really is a very creative environment to work in,” she says. “It’s a great place to have support and inspiration for growth.”
And she says the Wilson College community, from the faculty in Raleigh to the alumni in California, played a crucial role in getting her there.
First-year Student Finds A Degree That Fits
If you were to talk to Julia Koehler when she first enrolled at NC State, she wouldn’t have told you she envisioned herself working in outdoor apparel.
She initially planned to earn a degree in biology and work in the medical field. An organic chemistry class taught by Assistant Professor Denis Fourches, who maps dyes in the Max A. Weaver Dye Library, changed all of that.
“He mentioned that project in class and that was sort of the first time I thought of using a biology or chemistry degree to go into something more than medicine,” she says.
Koehler changed her major to PCC, intending to enter the medical textile field. Then, she took a color chemistry course with Professor Renzo Shamey.
“A whole world opened up to me that I really identified with and could see a future in” she says.
She interned at Patagonia in 2019 to learn more. The experience solidified her interest in working for an apparel brand that places sustainability at the forefront of its work.
Building Valuable Connections and Memories
In addition to exploring this new world of color chemistry, Koehler also explored the world in a more literal sense during her semester abroad in Valencia, Spain.
The study abroad experience marked Koehler’s first time traveling outside of the U.S. She says attending an international university like the Polytechnic University of Valencia, where many of her classmates spoke English, made the adjustment a little easier. She says her host family, however, didn’t speak any English.
“I really learned a lot about how to connect with people and how much it means to people when you make an effort to learn about their customs and culture,” she says. “I think that will also be really helpful in my work with international supply chains.”
Adapting With Help from the Pack
Koehler headed into undergraduate graduation in May of 2020 facing an uncertain job market. She turned to Wilson College faculty, who advised her to pursue a master’s degree.
“It was a weird time. I definitely leaned heavily on the faculty’s support and guidance,” she remembers. “It really felt like the college was always there for me.”
The support extended to the Wolfpack community at Patagonia as well. PCC alumnus Matt Swartz, who had served as Koehler’s internship supervisor, wrote a recommendation letter for her application.
Researching hemp during her master’s program has given Koehler more exposure to bio-based materials, which has proved valuable in her sustainability-oriented role. She says earning her master’s has also provided her with color chemistry knowledge that has helped her excel at her new job.
Finding Wilson Community 2,600 Miles from Raleigh
In January of 2021, Patagonia hired Koehler to her current position. She was still in Raleigh completing coursework for her master’s, but the Wilson College community stepped in to make the opportunity possible. Dr. Shamey offered up his lab so Koehler had the tools necessary to work for Patagonia remotely.
She moved to California a few months ago and says Ventura is already starting to feel like home. Having two managers and a number of coworkers with the same alma mater doesn’t hurt the transition process. Around a dozen current Patagonia employees hold a degree from the college.
“My colleagues have Bojangles seasoning in their office and you see so many NC State stickers in the parking lot,” she says. “It’s like having a piece of Wilson College here in California.”