by Marlis Schmidt
Inside an old General Mills research complex in Minneapolis, you won’t find Betty Crocker, but you will find Betty Green Risser, a quiet, unassuming woman sitting at her computer, most likely also on the phone. In front of her is a large panoramic photograph taken by her friend Stuart Klipper, whose work hangs in museums around the world. This one is relatively simple, yet provocative: a gravel road with farmland on each side going towards an infinite horizon. Betty says it’s the road that takes you away from the farm she grew up on.
A photo of flat Minnesota farmland is not the first image you would expect to see at a company that celebrates the world’s highest mountain peaks. But that’s exactly what Betty Risser’s business, Geographic Locations International,
is doing. Her most popular line, SummitMark, replicates geographic markers placed by surveyors on many of America’s popular peaks. Mountain climbers and hikers enjoy getting the replicas as souvenirs of peaks they’ve visited.
While the Midwest doesn’t boast mountains, it does boast a strong independent work ethic, which served Betty well as she took a circuitous route to her current career. Even as a young girl (the only girl of six siblings), ideas were dancing around in her head while she was being swung around the dance floor.
Growing up to be an inventor was not something a young Midwestern woman would even consider in the late 1950s and early ’60s. When she graduated from college in 1965 with a BA in education, women’s career choices were still relatively narrow and conventional, and generally deemed as not even necessary. So, like many women of her time, Betty became a Mrs., taught for two years, then quit to raise a family. Not like everyone else, however, she eventually became a divorced, single mom who needed a job.
Focusing her energy on her own children instead of on a classroom of kids, she became a seamstress at Dayton’s, a local department store that would later found Target. In her 25 years at Dayton’s, Betty rose to become the haute couture alterations fitter—and kept accumulating innovative ideas.
A turning point came in 1992 on a road trip to go Cajun dancing in Louisiana. Betty Risser started to share her inventive musings with her friend Sara Smith. When Sara took her ideas seriously, Betty decided to do the same and began to research how to protect her creations, apply for patents, and take the other steps necessary to start a business. Coincidentally, she also happened to be dating a geodetic engineer, who told her about all the applications of GPS technology that would someday be part of our lives.
Unbeknownst to Betty, all this was laying groundwork that would converge years later as she stood over a 3-inch diameter hole in her kitchen floor, exposed when the linoleum was removed for a remodeling job. Her friend Stuart Klipper had just visited to show off his new GPS device, and he had determined the latitude and longitude of Betty’s home. That gave her an idea: why not cover the hole with a brass plaque and engrave “You Are Here” along with the coordinates? In fact, maybe someone could make a business of telling people where in the world they are.
Betty quickly realized that the most interesting “you are here” signs are elevation markers on mountains. First came Pikes Peak—not simply because it was “America’s peak,” the one commemorated in America the Beautiful, but also because Betty’s brother Gary had a view of it each morning while drinking his coffee. The only way she knew to duplicate the Pikes Peak benchmark authentically was to get a photograph of the actual disk at the top of the peak. Gary volunteered to get that first photo, and Betty’s SummitMark line was launched.
Early on, Betty knew that she would need more help taking the necessary photographs for the markers. For one thing, she was still working full time and didn’t have the time or money to be a global adventurer. Nor the inclination. Betty is a self-proclaimed “fair weather” outdoor enthusiast; one of her favorite places to hike is in Hawaii, but you’ll most likely see her in a tropical valley, sitting in the pool of a waterfall. So she started asking climbers to send in their photos of markers in exchange for being honored as a “MarkerSleuth.”
Although Betty is committed to the authenticity of actual markers, she soon found that not all significant places are marked. “If a customer wants Springer Mountain and there’s nothing there, you have a gap in your collection.” So she started making “symbolic” markers.
“There are a few ‘must have’ geographic sites if you’re going to do this,” Betty says, “Two are the South Pole and Mount Everest.” Luckily, one of her customers had connections to the South Pole community, and was able to provide a photo of the 1999 South Pole benchmark. Why mention the year? South Pole marks are placed at precisely 90 degrees south, and the continually shifting ice cap always carries the marker away. So each year, a new mark is placed.
When Betty started recreating the South Pole benchmarks, the National Science Foundation took an interest and launched a design competition. Now these winning designs are part of her collectible South Pole series,
a new one for each year. “The most fun part,” Betty emphasizes, “is that the actual mark is always installed on New Year’s Day and celebrated with a big party.”
Betty Risser has been running her company full time since 2002. She now has over 125 different bench marks, three grandchildren, two employees—and a business that’s growing rapidly. Her customers are primarily national park visitor centers. Some of her best sellers have been Mt. Whitney, Mauna Kea, Mt. Rainier, Half Dome, and Grand Teton. Frequently, individuals receive a mark as a gift, or buy one at a park, then get the bug and add to their collections.
The U.S. Geological Survey was an early customer, and Betty is still providing them with markers for retirement gifts and for resale in their Reston headquarters. Other non-profit customers include the Boys Scouts of America, for whom she made markers for Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
One of Betty’s first commercial clients was outdoor equipment retailer REI. When she read in the paper that a huge REI flagship store was having a grand opening that morning in the Twin Cities, she got dressed, went down to the store, and introduced herself to the company’s president. She now does permanent markers for every new REI store that opens, and just finished making 11,000 pewter pins for employees to commemorate the company’s 50th anniversary.
Another opportunity arose when a law firm wanted to recognize the historic achievement of their client, millionaire Texan Dick Bass, the first person to climb the highest peak on each continent. The firm commissioned Betty to make a framed collection of markers representing each peak. The Continental High Point Collection
is now available to anyone.
As Betty Risser likes to say, she’s “just at the tip of the iceberg” of geographic locations. Markers for many other mountains are frequently requested, from the remaining Colorado 14’ers to international summits such as Fuji and Mont Blanc.
What’s next? Recently Betty bought a new Airstream Basecamp trailer, equipped with GPS. She plans to travel to fairs and festivals to set up her mobile storefront at the base of America’s favorite trails and mountains.
But where ever she goes, whether in business or life, she’s grateful for those friends in high places who have so generously helped her along the way.
Marlis Schmidt is a freelance writer, producer, and consultant in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has a built-in “GPS” for good stories, high adventures, and great shoes.
Originally published on August 13, 2008.