From #vanlife to reality TV: CSU MBA grad turns passion into a career

Katie Bessert inside a camper van

Photo courtesy Katie Bessert

Living in a van down by the river used to be portrayed as a bad thing. Now, it’s considered part of a lifestyle that’s inspired thousands of #VanLife posts on Instagram and TikTok – and an entire industry. 

Colorado State University College of Business alum Katie Bessert (MBA ’14) has managed to turn van life into a career. She’s currently the client experience manager at Vanlife Customs, an Arvada-based company that does unique builds. Bessert also founded Cocovan Life Inc., which manufactures insulated window covers for campervan conversions. 

Her expertise in the industry led her to become a judge on “Gutted,” a five-day reality show competition where people compete to see who can build out the best custom RVs, campervans and school buses. 

Read an interview with Bessert about van life, reality TV and how CSU prepared her for a unique career below.

SOURCE: How did you get into the van life industry?

Bessert: I had been working at various tech startups after graduating from school, but I didn’t like it. So, I had to go out and find a company that I could actually be passionate about. 

This led me to do a search of all the companies in Denver that were up to cool things, and that’s how I found a small campervan rental company called Native Campervans. I initially applied to just clean the vans, because I thought it would be a really booming industry, and I wanted to get a start somehow. 

After I applied, they told me the people at Vanlife Customs – who actually build out the vans – were hiring, and I’ve been there on and off for four years now. That’s how I got into it, and things have been progressively getting crazier and crazier. 

We started in a shop that had two vans, and now we have 16 here all at once.

Katie Bessert at work

(Photo courtesy Katie Bessert)

Have you ever done the living in a van thing yourself? 

I did live in a camper in the middle of a national forest for a year, without running water or heat. 

I enjoyed the life, and I actually did the Global, Social and Sustainable Enterprise (now Impact MBA) program at CSU because I love traveling so much, and international business lines up with that. 

It now seems like all the adults who were hippies and into outdoor education are into camper vans. 

The van industry has grown a ton – especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. What has that been like?

It’s been a crazy change in the market. Ever since I started working here, we’ve been on a one-year waitlist, though the capacity to produce vans has grown significantly. 

We are seeing more COVID-19-era vans up for sale now though, since some people who tried it a couple of years ago are deciding it wasn’t for them. On the other end of the spectrum, our company has people waiting a year and a half for very high-end builds.

Katie Bessert working on a van build

Photo courtesy Katie Bessert 

Do you think the van life trend is here to stay?

I think it’s going to be interesting to see. Campervans and living in a mobile home have been around for 50 years, especially in Europe. I don’t think it’s going away, especially with the rising cost of housing, and more and more remote work opportunities. 

We’re seeing companies coming out and building coworking and coliving spaces in national parks, with space for people to live in campervans. I think the fact that people are investing in this says there’s been some longevity in this. Alternative housing will definitely be here to stay.

Have you ever built out a van for yourself and taken a trip?

I built one in my driveway, and it took my partner and I four months to finish it. I actually sold it to pay to start my company, but was able to take a trip for one weekend in Wyoming to look for Forrest Fenn’s treasure.

I’m honestly not much of a camper, despite what I do for a living. I prefer long, planned trips.

Katie Bessert custom van

The progress on Katie Bessert’s home-made custom van.

What was it like being on a reality show?

Absolutely wild. 

I got involved because I saw something about the “Gutted” event online and called one of the guys involved. He asked me to be a judge, and it ended up being a fun opportunity to talk about the stuff I know a lot about on camera. 

The show was shot last fall and debuts in June. Season two starts filming in October of this year. Last year the event happened in Colorado, and this year it’s in Kansas City.

Katie Bessert on Gutted

What made you decide to get your MBA at CSU?

I chose the program because I really feel that business is one of the strongest catalysts for change in our world, and if you can make something that does something good and makes money, there’s a lot of good you can do in the world. 

I thought CSU’s program really honed in on what is progressive and in line with my thinking. 

Do good and be good, and you will be ok.

What’s your advice for turning something you love into a career?

It took a lot of me stumbling through tech jobs that paid a bit better, that killed my soul, to realize that you have to do something in some capacity that fills you up. My job is challenging, it’s creative, it’s fulfilling and meaningful. 

For me, the driving force in joining this industry was doing something that serves my friends and the people I’ve met while traveling. I read a quote about this the other day and it was awesome: “do what you love in the service of those who love what you do.”

Katie Bessert and her dogs

Photo courtesy Katie Bessert

About CSU’s College of Business

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been ranked the No. 1 program in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report for five years running and Report and achieved No. 16 for employability worldwide from QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The College’s Impact MBA is also ranked by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.