Doing it for themselves Men may think they are running the show, but the women of Whistler will tell you different "If every woman who had to do anything with tourism, business or services here said they weren’t coming into work today, this valley would be very quiet." - Joan Gross, Whistler florist, in business since 1982 By Don Anderson Ever since the day a young Myrtle Philip set foot in this valley, women have been a dominant force in every aspect of its growth, development and maturity. While her husband Alex penned tales of romance on the River of Golden Dreams, Myrtle procured a fishing lodge on the banks of Alta Lake. She was one of Whistler’s most auspicious and visible pioneers, and she set the tone for what was to come in the late 20th century. Women in Whistler are doing it for themselves, and these days they are doing it in greater numbers. They are carving a niche in the area’s small business sector, a sector considerably larger than its label. Think of that flower shop you last visited, where you recently had your hair styled, the store you bought those cool shoes at, that hip clothing store you frequent, or that marketing consultant you met with last week. Now consider who is really running the show. In most cases, these businesses are owned, operated and staffed by women. If all the women of this resort did opt to take the day off we would indeed be in trouble. In some ways the trend of more women-owned small businesses has gone unnoticed, at least in Whistler where related statistics are unavailable and, presumably, not recorded. This "quiet revolution" may be explained by the attitude of the women who are doing it for themselves. It’s not a case of "I am woman, hear me roar" anymore. This is the ’90s and Helen Ready is just a faint feminist memory. Perhaps it’s a case of women seeking out opportunity, or going where they have not gone before. In 1977 a 28-year-old Ann Chiasson came to Whistler seeking just that — opportunity. She found it in Tantalus Creations Custom Clothing, the first of many businesses she would own. "I wanted to start something different," explains Chiasson, now the co-owner of Windermere Sea to Sky Real Estate with Francis, her husband of 15 years. Before arriving in Whistler Chiasson was working for the Conference Board of Canada doing economic research. She left with naive optimism, she admits, but also with the belief that opportunity lay far west of the Canadian Shield. Chiasson’s list of conquests did not stop with Tantalus Creations; in 1979 she bought Whistler Office Services, followed by Whistler Taxi in the early ’80s. Her foray into real estate started in 1981 when she joined Capilano Real Estate, which she later lobbied to purchase. When that deal wasn’t realized, she set her sights on MacAuley Nicholls Whistler, a firm she managed in 1984 and purchased a year later. "When I first went into real estate there were six or seven realtors in town and they all told me there were too many realtors in town," says Chiasson. At last count the resort was supporting close to 100 agents, 45 of whom operate out of the Windermere office. Success is something Chiasson doesn’t take for granted, or seem to let slip from her hands. Through all her professional successes she has managed to raise three children, attend board meetings for a multitude of community organizations, and sponsor a minor hockey team. "I look at myself as a fundamental entrepreneur, and if I see an opportunity that makes sense I tend to pursue it," says the New Brunswick-born, Toronto-raised Chiasson. She tends to lend much credit to her peers, suggesting that Windermere is more than just one person, that it is a team 45-strong. She is a manager, nothing more, nothing less. "There is definitely an ‘old boy’ network here, particularly in my business," she says, when asked about any obstacles she has faced. "It took a long time for (women) to achieve a level of equality — that’s not even the right word, ‘recognition’ is probably a better word — because the old boy network had started in the business earlier. It made it difficult because you were coming up from behind." But over the years, says Chiasson, women have achieved that recognition and, in her words, they don’t feel that they are second best to anybody. And the stats are there to back that up. A 1990 Labour Force Study revealed that B.C. boasted the largest increase of self-employed people of any province in the nation. At 32.62 per cent, women were identified as the fastest growing segment of the small business population. In 1994, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) published a report suggesting that almost four in 10 small businesses in Canada — 39 per cent — were owned and operated by women. Women Entrepreneurs of Canada, an organization established by eight Canadian women in January 1992, projects that by the year 2000 women will start 50 per cent of the nation’s new companies. This trend, which translates just as well locally as it does provincially and nationally, is explained by Sue Adams, co-owner of the Grocery Store, the Upper Village Market and the Amorous Oyster in Vancouver with her husband Bob. Whistler, says Adams, offers "far more opportunity" for women to open their own businesses because of the nature of the resort and its reliance on the service industry, which is typically dominated by women, and home-based businesses. "I think women are just really finding their feet in the business world and I would think that it wouldn’t be too long before we need not differentiate between women in business and men in business," she says. "But I think women are still in catch-up mode." Adams, a member of the Western Business Women’s Association, has experienced 25 years of owning and operating small businesses. It’s a field that she knows well, although it is also something that doesn’t allow her much time to play. She hasn’t been on her mountain bike in two years. Most women, and men for that matter, will readily warn you that establishing your own business takes an indescribable amount of time, patience and investment. Financing can be particularly troubling, especially if you’re a woman. "Financial institutions are wary of lending money to a) a small business, b) a person under the age of 30, and c) a woman," says Marjory Cheales, owner of Revolution Hair Group since 1994. Cheales established Revolution with a male partner, who apparently had less of a struggle obtaining financing than she did. "When we went to get our Visa machine the guy said no to me and yes to (my partner)," says Cheales. The CFIB report emphasizes this struggle. The survey asked small business owners to identify their priority issues and 41.9 per cent of female respondents identified financing as the biggest hurdle, compared to 36.6 per cent of male respondents. "This is an area which clearly needs to be better recognized and addressed by Canada’s financial institutions," reads the report. Once you get past the banks, there’s always the struggle to maintain or develop a balance between your business and family. For Joan Gross, business has always been her immediate passion. She’s driven, says the long-time Whistler resident. Doing what she’s doing now, owning and operating a flower shop in rent-heavy Whistler, couldn’t be done if her children weren’t grown up. "I call it retail jail," she says. "It’s like having two homes, like having two families. You have your family and you have your business, and somebody always gets short-changed." Gross came to Whistler in 1969 and opened her first business in 1982 out of her home. "I think the reason why there are so many women in business in Whistler is that they’ve seen where the needs are, seized the opportunity and run with it," she says. "I think women are a little more adventurous." Women’s influence on the structure and development of the resort has extended well beyond the small business sector. Women like Dana Samu and Maureen Douglas are the driving force behind the Whistler Resort Association’s Festivals Department, and long-time residents Bea Searle and Alicia Vennos are maintaining the flow of Whistler Mountain’s marketing department. Middle management positions, they say, have traditionally been filled by women, while upper management positions — including the president’s seat — have been the territory of men. "The big four — the mountains, the WRA and the muni — are still run by ‘boys’ but they are operated by women," says Douglas. "The person at the helm is a man but a lot of the department heads are women. I think that is fairly reflective of what is going on in society." Neither of the mountains, Blackcomb and Whistler, have had women presidents, although one woman — Nancy Greene Raine — is certainly owed considerable credit to the development of the resort. "It is still male-dominated at the upper levels but that is typical of most industries," says Searle, marketing co-ordinator for Whistler Mountain. "But when you look at a situation like that and say there are no women presidents you can’t say there are no competent women able to take those positions." In its 21-year history the Resort Municipality of Whistler has had four women councillors, two of which hold court on the current council — Kristi Wells and Thelma Johnstone. The chances of a woman securing the mayor’s seat may increase if, as many predict, Johnstone decides to seek the mayoralty. She wouldn’t be the first woman to duke it out for the title; lawyer and then-councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden squared off against Ted Nebbeling, Paul Burrows and a pugnacious Grant Lamont back in 1990. Wells, 26, also has her eyes on the mayor’s throne, but not this year. Does she envision a woman running the muni? That’s a pointed question, she says, given the probable circumstances of an impending election. "Politics is a male-dominated field, in the United States and Canada on every level," begins the former deli-owner. "I think there will be a real change in political climate this coming election and in subsequent elections. As far as a female mayor, why not?" At her feet plays Wells’ 18-month-old son Malcolm, a regular visitor to muni hall. Malcolm has his own toy storage at the hall, in the bottom drawer of one of the filing cabinets in the councillors’ office. The youngster has spent much of his young life at muni hall, but that’s the way it goes when your mother is trying to balance a personal and public life. "It’s certainly not easy making the balance and I would be hard-pressed to take anything else on," says Wells. "I’m fortunate to have sold my business two days before my son was born." For three-and-a-half years Wells ran a deli where Café Escondido now resides which, interestingly, is also owned by a woman. Financially the business wasn’t as great a success as she had hoped, admits Wells, but its personal rewards were plentiful. "I probably learned more about myself, where my own personal limitations were, areas that I had to work on… for me it was a real stepping stone to meeting a cross-section of the community and to want to be involved in politics," she says. In most cases, the women interviewed for this piece described themselves as either "calculated" or "cautious" risk takers. Wells describes herself as a "logical" risk taker, capable of looking at both sides before making a decision. Paula Campbell, along with her enthusiastic partner Adele Engel, broke onto Whistler’s youthful art scene in 1994 when they opened their own gallery in the Delta Whistler Resort. Campbell is a "cautious" risk taker. "It’s a scary thing, but it’s a very exciting thing," she says, attributing much of her success to the resort’s forerunners. "I guess I look at people who were here and established long before I (arrived), like Sue Adams and other people who paved the way for me," she says. Shauna Hardy is another risk taker. At 28, Hardy has gone from giving ski lessons on Blackcomb in 1990 to providing marketing and creative consulting to a variety of local businesses. Her latest venture, with a partner, is Off the Beaten Track, a wilderness adventure tour company. "You never really know what is down the road," says Hardy. "You just say to yourself, ‘I’m just going to give it another day, I’m just going to keep going.’ And you know it is going to pay off one of these days. And it’s not necessarily the financial awards, it’s also about being able to maintain your lifestyle and your integrity within yourself and with your profession."