Some skateboarders are known for their precision and consistency while others build off going bigger and redefining “gnarly.” Cairo Foster’s output as a professional skateboarder was neither and both at the same time—consistently gnarly, which is a rarity and something his skating communicated from his early footage to his final full-part. No drop off, no diminished skill, and always doing the hardest shit with enough playfulness to keep his skating fun and deceptively relatable in that you can’t do Cairo’s tricks, but if you could, that’s exactly how they’d look.
There’s another constant in his career in that he’s always maintained a curiosity and engagement with the industry side of skating, eventually founding Populis which later became Popwar, as well as working on the brand side with Krux Trucks. While it’s not uncommon for a pro skater to break off and start a brand, Cairo’s curiosity and passion for skateboarding as well as his analytical perspective drove him deeper into the weeds of the skateboarding industry. Being able to traverse the streets as effectively as spreadsheets led him to working with adidas Skateboarding in digital marketing, social media, and now that he’s stepped away from the pro ranks, as the current Brand Manager for Mob Grip.
Zooming out, whether you’re watching his footage or looking at his brand work, you can see through-lines and again, consistency that reflects a lot of thought, attention to detail, and a sense of humor and lightness that grounds everything he takes on. It’s a nice reminder that whether you’re breaking yourself off to get a clip or pushing towards a deadline, getting shit done is always about finding a way to make it fun.
That’s Cairo Foster and this is us getting nerdy about work, skateboarding, and how to navigate worlds that can feel so disparate at times.
ONE37pm: You’ve mentioned moving around a lot in interviews. What were your parents doing for work that led to relocating so often?
Cairo Foster: My dad was in the Air Force. He did 20 years active duty and 16 years civil service. We moved a ton; sometimes I would move schools twice in a year. When I started high school, I spent a couple years in one place. I was getting into those formative years and it was split between New Mexico, Egypt then a couple years in Florida to finish high school.
Did you notice how different the education systems were?
I was definitely too young to pick up on it. When I had my daughter and we were looking into elementary school options in Oakland, CA —Oakland has some really great schools and some really challenged schools—I was asked by a family member what my best experience was in school and I never even thought about that. I just remember being the new kid and getting in fights all the time.
But when I thought about it, in the context of my daughter, I realized my favorite school was in Egypt. It was an international school that was K through 12 and because it was private, the teachers were really invested in the students. When I moved back to the States for 11th and 12th grade, I went to public school, and then transferred into an art magnet school which was really good because it focused on creativity.
So aside from constantly moving, you got fully immersed in skateboarding. Did that cause any friction with your parents, wanting to pursue skating instead of taking the college route?
It’s funny. I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t really recall any moment where either of my parents were truly advocating for which college I was going to or anything like that. There was just an expectation that I was going to college because I was super-duper into everything science based. I was like, ‘I’m going to MIT!’ I look back on it and think, ‘Dude, you are so way off track to go into MIT. It takes more than just good grades.’ I had no idea.
The other reason I liked the 11th and 12th grade year at the magnet school is because there were a lot of skateboarders there who were super artistic—I never skipped school until I met all those quote unquote, “cool skaters”. And then when my parents were getting divorced, it was like, ‘I’m gonna skip school. I’m gonna go skateboard.’ It was really easy to pass all the tests or whatever.
I have this theory as to why so many pro skaters don’t go to college: it’s more than just the travel or obligations, because you can pull all that off and get a degree as some skaters have done. For a civilian, you go to school for four or eight years and it could be another four or eight before you see any benefit or even start to do what you really set out to do.
In skateboarding, you could go pro in high school, start getting checks, maybe even have a shoe or some big endorsements. Because you’re already doing it, it’s easy to think “fuck school.” Is that fair?
That’s very accurate. I dropped out of high school. I don’t have a four year degree. There’s a lot of reasons behind that. I chose to drop out of high school because they were going to flunk me completely out, even though I was getting straight As, because I wasn’t going and they had attendance requirements. I wasn’t emancipated but I didn’t live with my mom, so there were some legalities around it and I had to take care of my own shit. I thought it was better to not destroy my GPA, dropout, and get a GED. I had to start working more hours because I was living with a friend, and, to me, it was more enticing to go to California not necessarily to follow the dream of becoming a pro skater, but I knew how to take care of myself and make money, so why not do it in the best place to skate?
I couldn’t process the idea of how to work 30 to 40 hours, skate six to eight hours, because you’re so excited in California and then go to college. I eventually did go to college and completed a handful of years. I don’t have any degrees that I can be like, ‘Hey, check out this piece of paper, check out my document!’
I personally don’t like to talk about it too much because I’m a huge advocate of education but also, there’s a lot to be said about getting that real life experience. A year of school, a year of life… could really help you rather than spending four years in a school aimlessly to get a degree you might not use and build a ton of debt.
The flip side is that in skating there’s a lot of ways to monetize, but with that comes tough decisions. If you ride for something sketch people will look at you differently and that could impact all your sponsors. You managed to avoid that during your pro career. Was that hard to navigate?
To use a super tired word, I feel like it was really organic. I didn’t take a hard look at what my monthly income was from my sponsors until my daughter was coming and I had to provide for a third person and give them all the opportunities and tools for life. So yeah, that was heavy and I realized I needed to pay attention to it.
I never felt like I had the impact in skateboarding that required an agent or representation. I was making money and I could pay my taxes so it never felt like that bump was going to come. I think agents are great for advocating for their clients and finding opportunities though, because Lord knows there’s a bajillion opportunities out there. The amount of people I know that I’m surprised are sponsored by a CBD sponsor, I’m just like, ‘Oh, I would have never thought that that person would need backing from CBD.’
But hey, money takes care of our desires I guess. For me, I had to feel good about riding for someone. Can I look at myself in the mirror? That was my guiding principal. I’m not mad about anyone I rode for.
It seemed like you were aware that you wanted to have ownership of your career really early on by starting companies. Was it that or just to have a vehicle for your ideas?
I wanted to start a company purely based on friendships and I think that’s what a lot of people do. Those super successful companies—whether it’s fabricated or real—like the Bones Brigade or Baker, they feel like a crew… they’re all homies. Riding for Real and being a part of Deluxe was amazing—everyone was super supportive. I saw how awesome Rasa Libre was and had grown from Matt Fields’ vision to working with Michael Leon and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a way to get Kenny Reed to ride for the same company as me?’
Looking back, I don’t think I would have asked Jim (Thiebaud) if Kenny fit on Real. To me, I just asked Jim if there was an opportunity at Deluxe to start a board company so that we could ride together. Deluxe had a lot going on before things changed with Rasa and Krooked was starting, so over time, I realized if I wanted this company to happen I’d have to look elsewhere. The opportunity came to talk to Giant Distribution who had New Deal which Kenny was riding for and we brought up the idea of doing a brand. I wasn’t telling myself, ‘Cairo, you got to figure out what the percentages are? What’s your business plan?’ It was just to start a brand with Kenny.
So that ended up being Popwar which was a very different brand at the time. Can you talk a bit about that?
Popwar was originally called Populis and the idea was to inject—which was a bad idea in hindsight—a view on world politics. The name Populis was speaking to the population—let’s bring awareness to what’s really going on. It wasn’t like, based on conspiracy theories, it wasn’t based on right or left wing politics. It was trying to cut through the masses as a skate company and bring awareness to individuality.
I quickly learned you do need a plan and you do need to figure out percentages and you do need to get a team together and not just the homies you skate with. So working with Bod Boyle and Giant later brought in Yogi Proctor, and we started Popwar and got front row seats to understand how you take an idea and grow it with an actual plan. The problem was, I wasn’t fixated on running a company. I wanted to skate and travel. I think about Rick Howard. I’m the hugest Rick Howard fan and wished everyone of his parts were five times longer, but he also was able to create some of the greatest companies ever. I would imagine he had to sacrifice a handful of hours per week to focus on the company, as opposed to focusing on his skateboarding career.
So Popwar was your first look behind the industry curtain. I’m jumping around, but you later worked for adidas which is a much more structured environment. I think something we champion almost to a fault in skating is that everything is DIY and isn’t formalized, but personally, there’s a lot of value in having both experiences. I remember walking into an advertising job with no training—not even knowing the language of advertising—and realizing I didn’t know shit and I learned so much so quickly because I was humbled.
It’s good to have that realization, because I think, whether it’s skateboarding, whether it’s politics, whether it’s religion, whether it’s sports, if you surround yourself with everyone that either thinks like you or thinks you’re the best person, you can’t learn. Sometimes you need to be around people who think 180 degrees differently than you to realize you can both cohabitate the same space of Earth, but you can learn a lot by exposing yourself to other ways of thinking and doing things. It can be weird going from a really core environment to something buttoned up, but don’t shut people off because they don’t wear the same clothes as you or have the same background.