12 Jan Interviewing Swish Suits Founders Chelsea and Victoria Berg • Alex in Wanderland
Welcome to the second edition of #WeArePADIWomen, a collection of stories and secrets from some of the most inspiring women in the scuba diving industry! We kicked off the series with an interview with accomplished underwater photographer and philanthropist Allison Vitsky Sallmon, and today I’m excited to welcome Victoria and Chelsea Berg, sisters, eco-warriors, entrepreneurs and creators of the sexiest wetsuit I’ve ever owned, Swish Suits.
As Chicago natives, Victoria and Chelsea weren’t exactly born ocean-side, but they’ve spent many years making up for it. Chelsea has a degree in Environmental Economics and has lived in beach towns all over teaching diving and yoga — from Barbados to Thailand to Roatan to the Red Sea to the cenotes of Mexico. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she owns The Green Yogi, an eco-conscious yoga studio in Manhattan Beach.
Her younger sister Victoria followed in her footsteps, studying Environmental Science and later working in the diving industry in Australia and Thailand. She recently finished her Master’s Degree from New York University in Human Rights and Climate Change while working as a Gallatin Human Rights Fellow with the World Food Programme in Nairobi.
me in my swish!
Both are accomplished PADI Pros with penchants for tec and cave diving. Their thousands of hours underwater and their years spent living seaside inspired them to create Swish Suits, a line of eco-friendly wetsuits made by women for women, which they now run from their adopted cities of Los Angeles and New York.
Swish Suits first came on my radar when Victoria and I were both working in the dive industry on Koh Tao – she as an instructor and I as an underwater videographer. In the years since, I’ve never found another wetsuit that makes me feel more like a Bond Girl! It wasn’t long before I asked the girls for a discount code for you guys and have been hearing nothing but love from the readers who have used it ever since.
Get 10% off anything on the site using the code “Wanderland!
Now, over to the Swish sisters. Let’s meet the women behind the wetsuits.
AB: When did you each start diving and what was your motivation for doing so? How did diving go from a hobby to a career for each of you?
VB: We both started diving on vacation in Jamaica and just feel in love with the whole process. I think I was about 17 and Chelsea was 20 at the time.
I was always an avid swimmer and my parents had trouble keeping me out of the water when I was younger, so diving was a natural extension.
CB: I was also always very sporty and Victoria and I both rode horses competitively growing up. Diving seemed like the next big adventure. After Jamaica I NEVER looked back. I knew at once that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
VB: It was great to travel the world and meet wonderful people. (Ahem, looking at you, Alex!) But — you still have to have love for the diving aspect, otherwise you burn out and are just doing the job for the lifestyle.
So far I have been diving in Jamaica; the freshwater lakes and rivers in Quebec, Canada; Khao Sok National Park, Song Hong Cave, and Koh Tao, Thailand; The Great Barrier Reef, Australia; Cabo, the Cenotes and all over the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico; Bali, Indonesia; Vietnam, and most recently — Zanzibar.
CB: I did my divemaster in Roatan, Honduras, while spending a summer donating my time to a reef ecology project. I “lost” my passport that summer and decided I was not going back to university because I wanted to be a diver instructor for the rest of my life. My father came and got me 😉
Later I got my PADI Master Instructors in Koh Tao, Thailand, worked on liveaboards in the Red Sea, Egypt, and have dove Khao Sok National Park in Thailand, all over the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and in Barbados. We are both PADI DSAT Technical Divers, IANTD full Cave Divers, and PADI Master Instructors.
VB: I really cannot tell you how many logged dives I have or how long I have spent underwater. I don’t think Chelsea can either. Also — we haven’t taught anything in a long time, and possibly may never again as our careers have shifted above water. But what we can tell you is that diving and teaching diving helped launch Swish, and then really led to other career opportunities in our lives — like pursuing how climate change is impacting the lives of people globally while working with the UN and becoming the vice-chair of UNICEF Next Generation New York.
Speaking of Swish! How did Swish Suits eventually emerge from your lives underwater?
CB: I have always loved business. Our father is a great businessman in manufacturing so I was always fascinated by the tangible concept of creating a product.
Once I had received my degree in environmental economics and passed my Canadian Securities License I started trading alternative energy stocks. Then 2009 happened and I was essentially out of a job so I left to Thailand to make my dive instructor dreams come true.
When I first started diving professionally, it was a very male dominated industry and there weren’t a lot of female specific wetsuits (Cynthia Rowley had JUST come out with her first suit for Roxy.) There were really just male wetsuits with some pink slapped on them.
That’s when I first start messing around with wetsuits. They took off but teaching took most of my time until a political crisis and natural disasters scared tourists away from Thailand, so I took a job on liveaboards in Egypt.
Technical diving and working on liveaboards require you to be in a wetsuit for extended periods of time and are hard on said suit. Men would make fun of me for taking too long to “kit up” when in reality most of that time was spent struggling with a wetsuit that was not designed for me.
I dove 6 times a day and then eventually became tired and cold. I made more suits in Egypt, starting to expand my manufacturing capacities to 5mm and some 7mm. I returned to Chicago to turn Swish into a reality. I had a full time job in finance for two years while I set up Swish as an LLC, got our manufacturing started in Vancouver, and brought Victoria on for marketing and branding.
Once we made $1,000 a month, I took off to Mexico because I knew I could live there on that amount of money. I started another factory in the Mayan Riveria and product tested everything in Mexico. I learned to cave dive in the cenotes and got my IANTD license for cave diving. To supplement my Swish income, I also was a cavern divemaster, taking people through the caverns, and I also was the first woman to lead regular dives with the bull sharks at that time outside Playa del Carmen.
So inspiring! What do you feel are the most important challenges and opportunities facing women in diving, in particular?
VB: What I used to see when I taught was an intimidation factor. When women start diving it is easy to be intimidated by your instructor or those around you and diving really require inner self confidence and peace. So I would say resisting intimidation.
I definitely think the diving industry has changed since we started diving — but the world has changed too. There are still specific struggles that women face but society is for the most part progressive (with pushback) and having the support system of more women and more entrepreneurs around is always helpful.
We have taken all the feedback and comments from our customers over the years to create these suits, and that makes it feel as though we have this huge team of amazing women around the world helping us make the best product we can.
CB: What we really wanted to do was to take a women’s mind off her wetsuit. We wanted it to feel like an extension of her body so that she could just worry about diving and not a saggy ill-fitting suit.
Have you personally faced any obstacles in your diving or entrepreneurial careers? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest struggle getting started in these industries?
CB: A million!
VB: And then at least five more!
CB: There are so many internal struggles like self-doubt, or being crippled after a mistake, but in regards to external struggles — I think the biggest one was being treated like and referred to as, “little girls.” We got that a lot. It used to drive me crazy in diving and then more so in business.
VB: I managed all the social media and had some trouble with internet trolls. A few men told me that I didn’t know what I was doing and that we should leave diving and manufacturing to men. A few more told us that what we were doing was dangerous. That when women look sexy underwater they are “a danger” to men because they are “distracting.” When I replied that this is ridiculous one told me that he hoped I had a diving accident. Fun stuff.
For me the solution to my internal and external struggles are the same. Just make the best product you can and rely on the amazing diving community for feedback and support. Oh, and that little “report to Facebook” button is great too 😉
There are so many aspiring entrepreneurs out there! What should those hoping to follow in your professional footsteps have on their resumes? Do you have any words of inspiration for fellow dreamers who want to share a particular product with the world?
CB: Yes! My first bit of advice is to start small. We found it best to keep working our day jobs while we ggot going. Then we just refined our product and continued growing over the years.
The best piece of advice I got is to never be so in love with your product that you cannot sell it. Your company becomes your baby. And it hurts when someone tells you your baby is ugly. Some people shut down and cannot change the issues with their product or company when offered criticism because they are so in love with their original idea and ideals. In reality you have to be very ready to change and adapt.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your careers?
VB: Chelsea always said that she would know we made it, that we were a legitimate brand, when we were in Vogue Magazine. We were just featured in the January issue of British Vogue.
CB: So I guess we officially made it last week.
VB: Another thing that I am really proud of is supply the wetsuits for the LG 360 camera commercials that feature shark diving. I think I like seeing us in media a little too much.
Wow, congrats! Now, back to diving. I know you both are accomplished tec and cave divers and that Chelsea, you are certified as a cavern diving instructor (I loved that course!) Tell us about getting into those areas of diving.
CB: You really feel like an explorer when you do that type of diving.
VB: We both grew up competing at a very high international level in horseback riding. So we have always been a bit of extreme sports junkies. Plus, it’s fun. Diving caves is fun. Diving wrecks is fun.
CB: We have also been blessed to have some amazing instructors in tec diving that have turned into wonderful friends and supporters of Swish Suits. Especially the team out of Protec in Playa del Carmen.
What has been your greatest wildlife encounter underwater?
VB: Greatest wildlife encounter is definitely snorkeling with 300 plus whalesharks in Isla Mujeres. The first time I went I was a research intern on Rob Stewart’s film, “Revolution” and he let me come aboard with them one day. It was easily one of, if not the, best days of my life.
CB: Definitely seeing dolphins ALL THE TIME when diving in the Red Sea.
Aside from your Swish, is there a piece of dive gear or accessory you can’t live without?
VB: For recreational diving — probably a good mask and pair of fins that can handle current well. I am partial to the more rigid Mares fins and just a well-fitting black mask. I don’t travel with regulators and a BCD anymore. I actually sold them. I am very good with my air consumption so I am comfortable with all the accredited dive shops regulators and BCDs.
My dive bag is so light now that I am not a professional. It’s just a Swish, a mask, booties, some good fins, and a safety sausage!
I love that sustainability is such an ingrained part of the Swish brand. Can you tell us about how that translates into your product and everything that goes on behind-the-scenes?
CB: When we started Swish Suits we decided to build a company that gives back more than it takes and only takes what the natural world can afford to give.
Traditional neoprene is derived from fossil fuels, which are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gasses – not to mention oil spills are among the worst natural disasters for ocean life. All Swish Wetsuits are made from Bioprene, a revolutionary higher-performing neoprene that is derived from limestone instead of petrol. On the user end, bioprene stretches up to 5x; making it easy to get in and out of your wetsuit.
Most of the water logging in typical neoprene is a result of neoprene compression and breakage. Bioprene Swish Suits dries quickly and weighs nearly the same wet or dry – perfect for travel.
VB: Everything that we stand for goes into our product; the suits are eco-friendly, high performance, designed for women, and socially responsible. There is no line between who we are and our product.
I know we share the belief that divers are some of the greatest ambassadors of our oceans! What are some small ways those reading today can make a difference, divers or not?
VB: We definitely believe that too! Besides using good diving practices, advocacy and awareness is a great way to make a difference. The UN Environment webpage has great ways to take action including social media outreach and writing government officials.
CB: You can get creative too! I once ran a triathlon as a platform for ocean conservation awareness.
What’s next for Swish Suits?
VB: We rebranded last year and created a few new products that are really fun for surfing.
CB: We are also starting a small store in Manhattan Beach adjacent to my yoga studio.
I’ll have to come visit! So, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been everywhere but I’m sure that’s not true! What’s that big dive or trip that’s still at the top of your bucket list?
VB: Papa New Guinea! I really want to go and just dive all day. I have also been very into surfing lately. I am loving using the new explorer line while I am learning.
CB: I recently moved to California. I love it so much; I am never leaving. Can I just say — anywhere in California? Ha-ha. Seriously — I really want to do a road trip from LA down to Baja with Victoria and my animals, just stopping off to surf and dive and eat tacos.
On the other end of the spectrum, what advice do you have for new divers, or those who might be nervous to get started?
VB: Remember that scuba diving is fun and no one is judging you! It is one of the few sports where the less you move, the better you do. By clearing your mind and relaxing your body, you can achieve an almost weightless feeling where you glide through the water with little or no effort.
CB: Don’t let macho divers you meet tell you about how “extreme” and “dangerous” diving is, while stipulating that they are the only ones who can do it properly. Yawn, right?! Hopefully they will learn how to compensate in some other manner than scaring new divers.
That being said, yes scuba diving can be dangerous if done improperly, but if you relax, listen to your instructor and have a good time, you will enjoy scuba diving safely and find it to be quite simple!
I know you both juggle many projects aside from Swish Suits. What are you working on now? Where will your next adventures take you?
CB: I am having so much fun curating the classes and the music at the yoga studio I just bought in Manhattan Beach. Swish is up in the shop too so people come from surfing to do yoga and they love the wetsuits. It feels very holistic and like everything — business, yoga, diving, Swish — has come together in this one space. It’s a really wonderful feeling.
As for what’s next for Swish — that really depends on what women tell us! We will keep on developing new products. We would like to do some more partnerships with like-minded companies and people as well.
VB: I actually just turned in a Master’s Thesis on the topic of climate change and how it affects human rights. I am still going to be the East Coast Director of Swish Suits and I am so looking forward to all the fun surfing and diving over here, but I would also like to branch out and fuse my love for the public and private sectors by working on corporate social responsibility or public private partnerships. New York is an amazing place to do that because you have the UN and major international NGOs in the same place as high tech companies.
Plus, I built a huge bed in my apartment that I do not think I can get out of there so I think I have to die in Brooklyn.
Ha! Thanks so much for chatting with us today, ladies — and big wet kisses to all of you for joining us in welcoming my fellow businesswomen in bikinis! I know I personally can’t wait to see what’s next for Swish – and for both of you. Don’t forgot to check out the latest Swish lines and grab that Wanderland discount at checkout – and then tag me in your photos so I can see how fly you look! Follow Swish Suits on Facebook and Instagram for all the latest news on their next moves.
What kind of #PADIwomen would you like to hear from next?
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!