A personal health challenge and a worldwide pandemic aren't generally considered part of a strong business plan. But for Sunshine Loveless and wife Michelle Dunn-Loveless, these two events have led to a growing business, a renewed love for life and even more exciting changes on the horizon.
Outshine Adventures is a relatively new outdoor adventure company in Chattanooga, offering guided adventures, outdoor yoga instruction, a twice-yearly women's outdoor retreat and even the ability to rent a camper van for do-it-yourself outdoor exploring. Outshine Adventures maintains an active calendar of events for adventurers of all skill levels.
And it all began with a whitewater rafting trip.
Sunshine, who uses pronouns they/them, grew up as an athlete. As a young softball player, Sunshine had dreamed about being a gold-medal-winning athlete in their sport. It's a goal that eventually was realized but in the sport of American Football. Sunshine played football locally for the all-women's Chattanooga Locomotion and in 2010, was a member of the U.S. women's national team that won the first-ever world championship in women's American football in Stockholm, Sweden.
But a move to Chattanooga in 2000 and a whitewater trip on the Ocoee River led to a new career and a new passion for life in the outdoors.
"It blew my mind about halfway through the trip," Sunshine says. "I looked at the guide behind me and had the realization -- he was getting paid to do what I wanted to do."
After six years as a whitewater guide and guide trainer, Sunshine decided it was time to grow up and put their education to use.
For nine years, Sunshine worked as a social worker, doing "all the adult things you're supposed to do in life." But a lung cancer diagnosis caused a change in approach to life and a renewed focus on what matters.
"That was the wake-up call I needed in order to move back to the outdoors and do what made me happy rather than what I thought I was supposed to do," Sunshine says of the cancer scare, which fortunately was resolved surgically. "So, I had lung surgery, quit my job, sold my house and moved down to Chattanooga."
Sunshine joined the staff of Outdoor Chattanooga, helping manage the work of the city-operated program to introduce Chattanooga residents and visitors to the outdoor adventures that surround the Scenic City. It was while working at Outdoor Chattanooga that the idea of a new business began.
"In that job, I was answering four to five phone calls a day with people asking, 'Where can I rent a kayak? Where can I rent a paddleboard? Where can I rent a canoe?'" Sunshine says. "That got my wheels turning about doing a side hustle offering guided paddleboard tours. We started humbly with just two paddleboards and an idea, and we've grown to the portfolio you see today."
For Michelle Dunn-Loveless, Chattanooga has been home for 17 years, and she worked as a public school teacher for 10 years before retiring in 2018, the year that she and Sunshine married. A personal interest in yoga led her toward getting certified as an instructor. In 2020, Michelle achieved her 500-hour certification as an instructor. Initially teaching yoga in a traditional studio setting, Michelle joined with her partner, Sunshine, to offer yoga in an outdoor setting such as paddleboard yoga or other natural settings.
Yoga, Michelle says, "is not just moving your body. It's also sitting among the trees or a pasture or looking at the sky to help you connect to the world around you and that in itself has its own health benefits."
The small business that began as a side job in 2018 was first called Sunshine's Adventures, but in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created more opportunities and interest in outdoor adventures. While other companies were scaling back or shutting down, Sunshine and Michelle found an opportunity as people searched for things to do and ways to find meaning in an uncertain time.
"In the moment (it was surprising) because, you know, the world was closing in on us, and everything was confusing and hard," Sunshine says. "But the statistics showed when they told us to stay inside, how many people went outside and used outdoor recreation as a reprieve from being trapped inside and not being allowed to hang out with one another and do our traditional forms of social gathering."
As the company grew, Michelle's yoga instruction was added and the company was rebranded as Outshine Adventures. The yoga instruction has proven so successful that it will be branching out under the separate brand of Outshine Yoga, allowing Michelle to build her side of their business and her focus on teaching Kundalini, a form of yoga that focuses on spirituality, meditation and movement.
"We really have seen a need for it," Michelle says. "We're really kind of basing it around helping those connect with nature and their mental health. Doing yoga can help do that."
As the pandemic restrictions eased, Sunshine and Michelle grew the business even further, adding a camper van that can be outfitted and rented by anyone wanting to try their own adventure. The van, a solar-powered adventure vehicle, can be customized for a variety of uses and trips. What began as a desire to have their own van for personal use turned into a partnership with Chattanooga's Nomad Be Happy van-rental company and a new addition to Outshine Adventures.
"I was out of town, and Sunshine is like, 'You've got to see this van,'" Michelle remembers. "And as soon as I saw, I was like this is it. We just call it a 'Transformer' van because that's what it does. We can transform it to carry 10 passengers, but we can turn it into a camper van and take out all the seats and put up two bunk beds that will sleep four people."
Over the years, Sunshine and Michelle have continually added more trips and new adventures including last fall's first-ever women's retreat. The first retreat combined the skills and interests of both Sunshine and Michelle for a women-only weekend of yoga, outdoor adventures and growth.
"I think it had to be symbiotic between Michelle and I, too, because what she does is just as important as the outdoor recreation piece," Sunshine says.
Using the lessons learned from the first retreat, the Lovelesses are actively planning for their second retreat this April in Ellijay, Georgia, and an overseas retreat in the fall. The success of their first attempt is shown in the returning participants this spring.
"It was just magical, and it was seamless, and the women loved it so much," Michelle says. "So that this next one, at Mulberry Gap Adventure Camp in Ellijay, Georgia, we have, I would say, at least five of the women from our previous women's retreat that have signed up."
Both Michelle and Sunshine say that providing space for women to enjoy the outdoors helps lift them up and show women they can achieve anything.
"The empowerment that happens when it's like, 'Oh, I can do this by myself. I don't need somebody else,'" Sunshine says. "Maybe they try an activity for the first time that they didn't think they could do. Everyone just leaves empowered, inspired and confident."
Another important aspect of Outshine Adventures that is important to Sunshine and Michelle is their ability to survive and thrive as a same-sex married couple running a business together. Sunshine says the acceptance found in the whitewater community on the Ocoee River was inspiring and helped them feel more included, and that is an effort that continues in Outshine Adventures.
"I think I'm still learning how to be comfortable in my own skin, but it's something that I strive to do in our messaging," Sunshine says. "I know how it feels to not have that sense of belonging, and we want to say, 'I don't care what you look like or how you identify. This is for you, too, because there are true health benefits from just spending time outside, especially in our modern society.'"
Similarly, Michelle is working to demystify yoga and make it accessible to anyone who wants to learn in a nontraditional setting that breaks some of the stereotypes that surround yoga.
"I've been in the yoga community for a very long time, and it's typical you see, you know, the yoga pants and the halter tops and all of that," she says. "I'm the opposite of that. I come in my baggy pants and a T-shirt. That's how I do yoga, and that's just talking about the physical appearance, right? But not only that, I offer a safe, welcoming space that helps people feel welcome (in yoga)."
As Outshine Adventures and Outshine Yoga move into 2023, the married couple can look back on a tumultuous but ultimately amazing adventure with gratitude.
"It's pretty astounding how the universe lines things up for you," Sunshine says. "We aren't promised tomorrow. So taking the time to do the things you enjoy every day instead of waiting for retirement is what has really resonated with me.
"My (cancer) diagnosis was super rare, and I only needed surgery. It was just enough to make me realize my own mortality and that I don't have forever on this planet. So, I better be doing what I love to do versus what I think I'm supposed to be doing."
Learn more and see a full schedule of outdoor events at outshineadventures.com.