Growing up on a small farm in Connecticut, Sarah was no stranger to hard work and getting her hands dirty. She worked several seasons for an organization that provides outdoor programs for youth and adults, where her frustration grew with the lack of workwear for women. After a few years, she decided to move to Montana and work on a solution to the pants problem.

Twenty-five-year-old Sarah sat at a local coffee shop with a how-to book on starting a small business. Soon, a stranger sat down and asked what she was dreaming up. She told about her idea to start a women’s workwear company. It turned out the stranger Sarah was talking to had a long work history in outdoor apparel production and design. He gave her a business card and has been a vital mentor since she established the Red Ants Pants company in 2006.Sarah Calhoun smiling in a red corduroy jacket with a white collared shirt underneath

Photo: Red Ants Pants 

Sarah Calhoun

“I would not be even halfway to where I am now if I didn’t have phenomenal mentors to lean on over the years… So many people have already created the wheel and or have made some mistakes, learned some lessons, and we might as well learn from our mentors and let them guide us along the way.”

In 2011, Sarah’s passion for community led her to create the Red Ants Pants Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to develop and expand leadership roles for women, preserve and support working family farms and ranches, and enrich and promote rural communities.

Two women using a circular carpentry saw, one is teaching and the other is learning.

Photo: Red Ants Pants Foundation

Every July, a cow pasture outside White Sulphur Springs transforms into a hub of music and community. The Red Ants Pants Music Festival, a multi-day, family-friendly event, attracts acts from all over North America. The festival is a program of and its proceeds support the Red Ants Pants Foundation and its other programs in girls leadership, women in agriculture retreats, work skills courses, and community grants. Mentorship is woven throughout these supportive programs.

“We build the mentoring components into all of our programs by the organic nature of their design and connections that are made… That’s been really awesome to see, because it’s leadership development and truly mentoring every step of the way.”

Large group of women surrounding an old blue truck looking happy.

Photo: Gloria Goñi

Red Ants Pants Foundation Girls Leadership Program participants and mentors gather at the Red Ants Pants Music Festival. A portion of the proceeds go to support the foundation’s mission of increasing women’s leadership, supporting working family farms and ranches, and enriching rural communities.

Leadership and mentoring are at the heart of the girl’s leadership program, which pairs eight rural Montana junior high girls with women mentors who volunteer time for a year-long leadership study. Mentors and mentees attend three-weekend retreats to learn leadership skills. The mentees return to their hometowns where they apply new skills to a community project while supported by their mentors.

“That role (mentorship) is pretty huge. We see that the mentors learn just as much from the students, as the other way around.”

The foundation also offers women’s work skills courses such as carpentry, chainsaw, and trailer backing. These programs are taught by women in a safe and supportive environment, and some participants even return as instructors.

More than $180,000 in grants have been awarded to Montana organizations and projects that parallel the Red Ants Pants Foundation mission. Many grantees are in isolated places. The foundation connects them with resources and other grantees to support the mission, and to create connections and relationships with others in areas that might otherwise feel cut off. As Sarah put it, this support network is really “mentoring as we go.”

Small group of women holding learning books listening to another woman speak.

Photo: Red Ants Pants Foundation

The Red Ants Pants Foundation Girls Leadership Program just completed its sixth year.

This year the foundation is hosting weekend-long women in agriculture retreats. They bring together women in the agricultural industry to add mental health resiliency techniques to their toolkits. Participants connect with other women in similar fields from different areas of the state to reflect and learn restorative practices. Participants walk away with a network of mentors they can turn to when needed.

Sarah knows the positive impact a mentor can bring to a person, a company, and a community. That fateful day in a coffee shop led to a relationship that helped her build Red Ants Pants. This resulted in a foundation that helps Montanans learn and connect through mentorship, and communities will see the ripple effects of Sarah Calhoun’s efforts for a long time.

“Before this program, I did not know I had the ability to be a strong leader in my community. I also did not know what an honor it is to be a strong rural woman. I now have the confidence and drive to empower others to make an impact.”

— 2018 Red Ants Pants Foundation Girls Leadership Participant


Erika Malo is the MSU Extension External Relations Coordinator.