“The business will come if we give people the opportunity to express themselves.” – Erica Bennett, Co-Founder of ORCA Golf
There is something to be said about the power of believing in yourself. Deborah Bennett, a lifelong golfer and successful chief technology officer in the male-dominated tech industry, had quite the challenge laid before her one day at a corporate golf outing—a 51-foot putt. It was an annual tradition at her company, where executives tried their luck for the chance to win $10,000 and the ultimate bragging rights. No one had managed to win the challenge yet in the company’s history, and no one else had bothered inviting Deborah to try either.
“For some reason, I wasn’t invited to play,” she said. “I was a really good player at the time, and my boss kind of snubbed me.”
Ultimately, Deborah—who goes by Deb—asked to join in with the rest of the men in her company and purchased a ticket for the putting competition.
“There were three of us—two gentlemen and myself,” Deb remembered, “and, of course, when we get up to putt, everyone was watching. There were over 600 people at the event, the entire board was there, all of the C-suite was there. The first gentleman putted off the green. The second gentleman stepped up and he putted halfway off the green.”
With all eyes on her, Deb felt the pressure mounting.
“It was kind of one of those situations where I wanted to make a statement before I left. I stood up, got ready to putt, and the first thing I told myself is ‘Don’t embarrass yourself. Don’t ground your putter. Just put it in the hole because it’s doable.’ It was 51 feet, severely downhill left. And as soon as I released the club, I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to go in!’ And it did, and the place erupted.”
Since that moment, Deb knew that if you believe you can achieve something, the sky’s the limit. It became the cornerstone of her new business 17yards Golf, named after her iconic 51-foot putt. And five years ago, with her partner Erica Bennett, they founded ORCA Golf, a golf bag company dedicated to helping people truly express themselves on the golf course.
The decision to start this business, like the inspiration for many innovations, was born out of necessity. When Deb retired from a long career in the corporate world, she and Erica wanted to spend the next chapter of their lives dabbling in something entrepreneurial. They created a company name with brand colors and a logo. Being the avid golfers that they are, they wanted to incorporate their new company branding onto a golf bag.
There was just one problem: They couldn’t find a company willing to do it affordably.
“We thought there must be another company,” said Erica, a former public relations and marketing executive, “and we could not find it in the United States. So, we thought if we wanted our own individualized designed golf bags, there must be other people who do as well. If nobody’s doing it, why not do it ourselves?”
Since then, Deb and Erica have made it ORCA Golf’s mission to help people create exactly what they want for their golf bag. Every color and design, even down to the zippers and rivets, is customizable. Their goal is to make sure that a person can arrive to the golf course as their true, authentic selves, free from any preconceived stereotypes about what the game is supposed to look like. They are driven by the desire to see more flavor, more color, and more diversity in the game of golf, believing that identity—and a person’s ability to express it—matters in every aspect of the game.
“It’s all about them. It’s not about us,” Deb said of their company mission. “People have put others in boxes for many years. ‘Women like pink. Men like blue.’ So, for me to go out and find a bag, I typically end up with just your heavy-duty, plain ole canvas bag that’s out there on the market, and I never found something that was representative of what I like. And a lot of people like [our golf bags] because they get exactly what they want and not just a mass-produced bag that has no personality, no story, no anything to it.”
So, they set to work, meeting with industry experts and manufacturers to create a line of sleek golf and travel bags in addition to their fully customizable options. Since its inception, the company has grown tremendously, receiving recognition from not only recreational amateurs but organizations like the Annika Sörenstam Invitational and the LPGA Amateur Golf Association.
Today, as partners in both business and in life, Deb and Erica have perfected the art of balance, keeping the stress of work comfortably away from their personal lives together. They have a deep respect for each other and bond over their mutual love—and skill—of golf when they finish work each day.
“Business is tough. Being women in the golf industry is tougher. And being partners can be tough as well,” said Erica. “For me, it goes back to one basic thing—respect. I don’t even use ‘love’ all the time because it’s so overused. It’s way deeper than love. It doesn’t matter how embroiled we are in the business, or how we see things differently in the business. Once the day is over, we can put it aside and become ourselves again.”
As ORCA Golf continues to make waves in the golf world, Deb and Erica still think a lot about that putting competition that inspired their company name.
“Nobody has done it before and nobody has done it since,” Erica said of Deb’s unprecedented putt. “She was a golfer, an executive, the same level and higher than all the men, and the men were invited to play and not her.”
“But that’s okay,” Deb added, “because I made my impression.”
LPGA Women’s Network (June 30, 2021)