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Mia Zierk

Firefighter and Entrepreneur

Why She’s Amazing

Mia Zierk doesn’t want to be a princess. She wants to be more.

Mia grew up as an athlete with a love of music and an endless amount of energy. After an athletic injury ended Mia’s dream of becoming a ski patroller and mountaineer, she didn’t give up. Instead, she put her paramedic degree to use and became a firefighter.

As a firefighter, Mia’s entrepreneurial spirit came to the forefront. She noticed a void for firefighters who wanted quality athletic wear with appropriate designs. Incredibly, she also had an art background. Mia combined these two areas of expertise to launch Ride Backwards, a high-end athletic apparel company focused on firefighters.

We had a chance to ask Mia a few questions. Read on, and we think you’ll agree that Mia’s perspective and ambition are contagious!

“There is nothing better than being around other ‘makers’. It’s contagious.” – Mia Zierk

Q & A

Q: When you were a young girl, what did you want to be when you grew up and why?

A: I wanted to be a rock star, that’s what I did my career paper on in Mrs. Erickson’s 4th grade class, and I was not kidding. I also wanted to be in the Olympics. In no particular order.

Q: What did people think when you told them that?

A: They just looked at me. My mother told me I better practice my instrument. (She was a violinist and a music teacher.)

Q: Did people call you “princess” when you were a little girl and, if so, how did that make you feel?

A: Nope. I don’t think I was ever called “princess”. Probably because of (but not limited to) the fact that from age five until 10, I walked around carrying a toy gun and wearing a holster and a cowboy hat that some guitar player threw off the stage at my older sister from a rock show.

Q: How did you become interested in becoming a firefighter and an entrepreneur?

A: I knew I was as good, if not a better, athlete than some of the other women who were on the fire department. (Competitive, I am.) I already had my paramedic degree – my first plan was to go out west and be a ski patroller and mountaineer. I blew out my left knee at Ultimate Frisbee Worlds in ’93, so that put an end to my mountain dreams. I also learned that if you wanted to get paid as a paramedic and have insurance, the fire department was the place to be.

My company, Ride Backwards, happened because it needed to happen, and I had the means to make it happen. It was just a common sense solution to fill a void for firefighters who wanted quality athletic wear and non-obnoxious designs. Having a strong art background helped, as did a close friend on the job who had connections to the apparel industry.

Q: What did you have to do to accomplish this?

A: Pretty much everything. All of it – from learning how to build a website, teaching myself Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, folding, packaging and shipping orders, going to trade shows, customer service, creating and managing my own marketing and social media… I mean, the list goes on and on. It’s a 24-7 commitment that consumes your life. Please understand, I could not and would not have done this alone. I had the key help of my partner, Melanie, and some good friends like Bob Koltes. Without them, Ride Backwards would not have happened. But, it was on me at the end of the day, and I had to fuel and drive the operation forward with new designs and products and, above all else, passion.

Q: Did you have a mentor or role model who inspired you?

A: Two people come to mind. My older sister, Nancy, who owned her own dance studio, and my brother-in-law, Mike, who owns several pharmacies. My family in general is pretty impressive. We are loaded with talented high-achievers and performing monkeys, so the bar was set pretty high for me. I have always held myself to a very high standard of success and productivity. Life is short and fast – do work. Or even better, a quote from the 125th anniversary poster from the Kohler Company which hangs on my wall: “Life without labor is guilt, labor without art is brutality”. Pretty much.

Q: Did your family and friends support your aspirations?

A: Sure. As much as friends and family support anybody, I guess. They were all very kind and bought apparel from me and complimented my designs but, at the end of the day, that is not going to sustain a business. You have to put your very own blood, sweat and tears into every aspect of it, and decide, “THIS IS WHAT MY PRIORITY IS.” Compliments are great, as is a bi-annual purchase of a $30 Dri-FIT tee, but that only gets you so far.

Q: Did you think about being called a “trailblazer” for choosing this path?

A: I can assure you that there was no such thing as “Firefighter Athletic Wear” before Ride Backwards started. I created that market. People sold shorts with a fire department logo, and there have always been a ton of firefighter tees around, but branded, moisture wicking full zip hoodies with graphic logos did not exist before Ride Backwards. At least not that I had ever seen, or been able to purchase, and not in the mainstream.

Photo Gallery

Q: What motivates you?

A: Creating. Making things. Ideas and concepts that have not been tried. Doing something totally original. Not being a sheep. Putting it out there and being willing to be unpopular because I believe in or really dig something. I like to roll the dice.
I am also highly motivated by a brilliant song or movie. An amazing photograph. There is nothing better than being around other “makers”. It’s contagious.

Q: Of what are you most proud?

A: Gosh… I don’t know. Have to think about that… I still don’t have an answer, and I’m reading this several days later. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m not a quitter. I don’t quit on people or projects. Sometimes it’s necessary to step away and regroup, but I always come back. “Loyalty – Service – Pride” I guess.

Q: What would you like people to learn from you?

A: That God is love – and love is always the right answer. (Weren’t expecting that, were you?) It’s really quite simple, and we make it really hard. Everything else is just rubbish. Play nice. Share. Don’t be jealous of other people’s success. Celebrate the awesome work all around you. Above all else, pick up your mat and walk. Get out there, try. The author Samuel Beckett said it best, “Fail again, fail better.”

Q: What three words would you like people to use to describe you?

A: Loyalty. Service. Pride.

Q: What do you want people to know about you outside of your professional accomplishments?

A: I like music. A lot. It gets me through. I love being outside. That is where I am truly alive. I’m a lover not a fighter, but I will stand up to you and call you on your crap, and then I’ll tell you about mine over coffee.

Q: If you could eat lunch with one person, who would it be?

A: Helen Keller. (She came to mind first but there are others.)

Q: Which woman would you choose to have on U.S. currency?

A: Once again, I think Helen Keller is pretty stinkin’ cool.

Q: What advice would you give to a girl who right now wants to be just like you?

A: Practice your instrument, and stay focused on what matters. Do work. As they say in design school, “Iterate, iterate, iterate.” There’s no prize for being the last one out of the bar!

Bonus Question: What question would you ask the next Modern Day Trailblazer we interview?

A: When things are going poorly for you, or you are feeling down and defeated, what helps you turn that around?

Fun Facts:

  • The last book Mia read was The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.
  • Her go-to karaoke song is “Back in the U.S.S.R” by the Beatles.
  • Mia’s favorite sports team is the Chicago Rowing Foundation.
  • Mia’s favorite quote is “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” by Helen Keller.
  • She is currently binge-watching Drunk History.