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Rising regardless

Whistler's business community is flush with women leaders — but what hurdles have they crossed to get there?

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We're witnessing a watershed moment. There's been a tidal wave of conversation, heated debates, and marching in the streets, pushing the subject of gender equality to the forefront of our current cultural moment. Some believe these discussions have only pulled us further apart, while others see it as a call to arms, a rallying cry. Either way, we have to decide whether this wave is going to wash over us, leaving only small fragments in its wake, or if it will alter our social landscape forever. With women coming forward and sharing their stories like never before, of stunning abuses of power, of systemic barriers to entry, of unfair and unequal business practices, we need to be ready to listen, and then we need to be ready to act. With all that we're being told, what will we do next?

In light of International Women's Day on March 8, which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the globe, Pique brings together the stories of seven Whistler leaders, change-makers, and entrepreneurs. It gives us a snapshot of what these women are thinking, feeling, and experiencing in their day-to-day lives as women of power. It gives us a sense of how these business leaders have navigated often male-dominated sectors to get to this point in their careers, defying the hurdles placed in front of them, shaping their own narratives of perseverance. These instances have moulded them, and in turn, they're creating the next generation of leaders as they mentor, coach, and parent.

NAtasha Strim: Co-Owner of Nonna Pia's Balsamic Reductions

To say that Natasha Strim is competitive would be an understatement. It's her inexhaustible drive that helped secure Nonna Pia's, the Whistler-based producer of gourmet balsamic reductions and glazes, its historic deal with Dragons' Den investor David Chilton, leading to their product being placed in retail giants such as Costco and Whole Foods in both Canada and the U.S.

She attributes these remarkable achievements to surrounding herself with people who constantly support and encourage her to push through the many "nos" and moments of self-doubt she encounters. But underneath that is a steely sense of grit that she's had since childhood, when she wasn't satisfied unless she found herself at the top of the class. In a cutthroat industry that remains male-dominated, Strim is often, in plush boardrooms, in high-pressure buyers' meetings, the only woman in the room. She says it's like being a girl on an all-boys hockey team.

"I was once told that, with what I wanted to do and where I wanted to take my business, it was a man's world, and that it was going to be tough. I immediately thought, 'Great, I'm going to nail this,'" she says.

Strim believes that, because women present with more emotion and passion, their message often resonates with investors and buyers. As the lead salesperson for Nonna Pia's, it seems this tactic has paid off in spades. However, she admits to being reduced to tears on occasion. Judging by the incredibly confident air she gives off, that's hard to imagine. When she's spoken down to, sometimes derogatorily, she shrugs it off as jealousy. Strim's success, her tenacity, her unwillingness to take no for an answer, can stoke insecurity in some. In response, she says she simply puts on her best "smiley face" and pushes on — as so many women working in a traditionally male-centric sectors do.

Strim is aware that people are beginning to look to her as a role model. following her story with interest. Women often reach out for advice, and, more recently, so too have men, she says.

A strong believer that men and women possess qualities that are complementary to each other, she feels the world would be a more harmonious place with more women in positions of power.

"The more we hear about successful women, the more confident we become. 'If she can do it, I can do it.' We need more female role models that people can relate to, and we should be celebrating how well they're doing. Not in opposition to men, simply celebrated for what they've achieved — gender aside."

Kerri Jones: Co-Owner of Peaked Pies

Kerri Jones is originally from Australia, brought up by a father and grandfather who were strong advocates of gender equality. It's no wonder then that she grew up with an "I-can-do-anything" attitude that gave her the confidence to open a pie shop in Whistler, back in 2013. On the back of its success, Peaked Pies recently opened its second location in Vancouver.

"I was brought up being given the message that you help others and give people opportunities who deserve them," Jones says.

Although Jones would describe herself as an independent, self-assured woman, she did waver before signing the lease on the Main Street shop with her partner, Alex Relf. The debt they were taking on was sizable; there was no room for the business to fail. But the aplomb her family instilled in her has stayed with her — she was determined to make it work.

Jones says the mentorship she has received from groups such as Vancouver's Women's Entreprise Centre, B.C.'s leading resource for female entrepreneurs, has been invaluable. Jones says women are natraully more willing to seek support from groups like these. Men, especially in business, tend to have an innate self-confidence because the expectation of success has been ingrained in them from a young age; it's what they're taught in school, see in the media, and read in books. While Relf gets asked about opening another location, Jones has had to dodge questions about when she's going to have a baby.

This tendency was compounded by recent experiences Jones had at some local trade shows.

"It's definitely subtle; Alex hasn't noticed it. If we enter a meeting or go to a tradeshow, most people there are men, so they direct their questions at Alex, or look to him first. When we went to a food trade show in Vancouver recently, 100 per cent of them shook Alex's hand first; 75 per cent of the time they didn't even acknowledge me. I am not a person who is easily ignored — I'm not a wallflower, and yet this was still happening."

For the first time, Jones says she could understand what "women were talking about." She's got a thick skin, knows her worth, but understands how these kinds of experiences can be deflating. Ultimately, Jones believes it's the wider society that is missing out on innovative ideas and thriving business models by dismissing female entrepreneurs.

"I don't know how you educate men, and sometimes women, that they're doing it. If I'd made a scene at the tradeshow event, I'd have been classified as a 'bitch,' Jones said. "These conversations need to happen with our partners. When I open up the dialogue and explain how these exchanges make me feel, Alex understands and then he treats people differently."

Jones mentions how, in the past century, women have fought for the vote, narrowed the pay gap, and are now pushing to have equal representation in the boardroom. She imagines a future when workplaces are staffed equally between female and male leaders, leading to a more productive, emotionally attuned environment. To keep moving towards that goal, Jones is a big supporter of events, programs, and mentorships that enable women to get into business and take on leadership positions. She encourages other female leaders to share their stories, take on a mentee, and keep pulling women up so that they can shine and succeed.

Shannon Susko: Serial Entrepreneur, CEO Coach, and Speaker

Shannon Susko grew up in a large, traditional family, but as the youngest of five children, she was often left to her own devices and quickly discovered what she was capable of. From the start, she had a firm grasp on who she was and what she wanted to do. Susko's determination and unshakable disposition led her to co-found and sell two very successful companies, less than six years apart, in two industries historically seen as a man's domain: engineering and technology.

Susko says she doesn't think much about her place in these male-centric fields, because she has always remained hyper-focused on her own success, first and foremost. She claims not to differentiate colleagues and competitors by gender, but instead by drive, ethics, and grit. A history of competing in multiple varisity sports helped her establish these core values.

Today, Susko works with CEOs and business leaders, helping them grow personally as their companies expand.

In Susko's mind, gender is actually a moot point. She firmly believes that each of us possesses specific abilities that can be leveraged in different situations to win in business, as well as in life. For the companies Susko created, her main question was: How can I build a high-performing team? The answer was to hire the best, regardless of gender or background.

While she's aware that biases exist and has experienced them personally, Susko says that dwelling on them only gives them power. Instead, Susko tries to foster an "I'll-show-you" attitude, a mentality that came in handy when the board of her first company didn't initially consider her a viable CEO candidate.

"The feedback was that I was too young, too tech, and too woman. I was 28 and I hadn't come across that before," she remembers.

Susko fought back — and won, landing the CEO position. When she sold that company, she stayed on with the new team to assist in the transition. The first woman on the executive team, her colleagues developed a habit of calling her "kiddo" and "little sis." This did not sit well with Susko. Despite her age and gender difference, she took it as an opportunity to stand up for what she believed in — herself.

"When I tell people my husband has been a stay-at-home father for 15 years and that I'm the breadwinner, they look at me like something's wrong," Susko says. "It's 2018 and people still say, 'Really?'"

Nicolette Richer: Owner of The Green Moustache, Social Change Maker, and Health Educator

Nicolette Richer grew up with a green thumb, watching her grandmother work the farm and her mother make nutritious meals from scratch. As a child, she had a penchant for vision-boarding, setting herself audacious goals that she was willing to do whatever it took to achieve. She didn't ask for permission, knowing that nothing was going to be handed to her, a feisty stubbornness that she has used to her advantage as she has forged her own path.

Richer worked in the government and non-profit sectors for 15 years, but wasn't seeing the change she wanted fast enough. She cast off the golden handcuffs for a career in entrepreneurship, and began to build businesses that would make the world a healthier place. She understood from an early age that food could be used to heal, and paired this with a fierce entrepreneurial spirit to launch eight organic restaurants, a health consulting business, and a wellness centre.

She's come up against her fair share of hurdles along the way. While on the hunt for investors, Richer was told repeatedly that she was spreading herself too thin between her family and business obligations. She was reminded to keep her goals realistic, to only focus on one thing at a time. One time, in a bank meeting flanked by a male family member, the employee spoke to him, not realizing it was Richer who called the shots. She was recently in a room where a fellow business owner argued that women should have to tell their employers in advance when they plan to become pregnant.

"I wish this wasn't true. It's completely absurd in 2018, but it's pervasive. We're only just slightly better than countries that are just giving women the vote," Richer says. "There's limited thinking and language around female entrepreneurs. I can still drop off and pick up my kids from school, attend recitals, and run a business. Studies show that if I was a tall, white man, I wouldn't be having the same experience. For example, most investors are more likely to give money to men, and when women receive loans, they are at lower levels and at higher interest rates. There's no way to know, but I feel, given this advantage, I could have built an empire quicker and the world would be eating more Green Moustache, more healthy meals and less McDonald's."

Richer sees a huge need in the world for activists, policymakers, artists, and entrepreneurs that keep up the battle for equality. That society is shaped by someone standing up, using their voice, and sharing it with the world. She thinks that when men and women come together to build, female minds think more about the purpose; how it's going to serve the world. That if we allowed women to have more say in government, culture, and business, we'd have better laws, and more strategic, mindful and sustainable growth. If we had better maternity leave and childcare options, supporting working and single mothers, then Richer says more women would have the tools to reach the the upper echelons of society. This is an issue she knows requires work in Whistler, where daycare costs can reach up to $75 a day.

"We have to get creative people in business, politics, and the community to solve it. Let's break the laws and barriers in place," she says. "Whistler is already a tough place to live without trying to pay for expensive childcare on top. We need more forward-thinking people, men or women, to get rid of 'old-school mentalities' and start getting creative on today's pressing issues."

Heather Odendaal: Owner of Bluebird Strategy and Founder of the WNORTH Conference

Heather Odendaal came to Whistler for a job, a relatively unusual way to land in a place where career typically takes a backseat to the allures of a mountain lifestyle. Fresh out of university, Odendaal flourished under the mentorship of her female boss in Whistler Blackcomb's events and sponsorship department. In 2010, she decided to go out on her own, launching a marketing and sponsorship business. She worked with the Community Foundation of Whistler on the Kathy Barnett Leadership Luncheon, which opened her eyes to the fact that there were very few events and conferences locally that catered to women looking to go from middle management to executive positions. She applied to attend the Fortune's Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit, but you needed to have minimum of $5 million in revenues in order to qualify.

As a woman looking for support and exposure to global thought-leaders, Odendaal decided that if it didn't exist, she'd have to build it herself. Thus, the concept for the WNORTH Conference was born. Having lived in Whistler for over a decade at this point, Odendaal knew that the resort community would back her.

"Being an entrepreneur in Whistler presents a significant advantage," she says. "I knew that if I needed to, I could just ask for help. Starting WNORTH didn't feel too daunting because I had been working in this space for several years and I knew people would support the idea, and support me. This is a can-do community that supports people who take risks."

Working in the events and marketing sector, Odendaal notes that she's always had other women to look up to, but she's aware that this level of mentorship and support isn't present in other areas, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Odendaal defines feminism, simply, as the drive towards equal opportunity, and feels that recent social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have opened the necessary dialogue to affect change.

"The only way we can create systemic change is by disruption," she says. At a recent conference she attended, Odendall says: "It was the first time I've seen businesses standing up and saying it's a No. 1 priority to focus on diversity and gender equality. Without this social movement, we wouldn't be seeing CEOs and top business leaders taking this stand. It's shifting the way we do business globally."

In her mind, women look at business from a broad, holistic view, with concern for social and environmental impact, while also considering the bottom line. This, she believes, resonates with consumers. The stats tell the tale: Businesses with women in positions of power are typically more profitable. Women hold a lot of senior positions in Whistler, something Odendall says we need to keep fostering.

Danielle Kristmanson: Partner and Creative Director of Origin Design + Communications

When Danielle Kristmanson was six, her mother, a lab tech, and father, an RCMP officer, decided to apply for a transfer to the Northwest Territories, in search of adventure. They found it. Life in the high arctic as "outsiders" was a challenge, but one that was always positioned by her parents as exciting and fun. By the time she went to university, Kristmanson had lived in 10 different towns and cities, the connsummate nomad.

"This blows my mind in retrospect," Kristmanson recalls. "My dad's job was obvious in that transfer, but for my mom, who had always worked, (figuring out her career) wasn't so obvious. She worked as a dental assistant, a police dispatcher, and a first responder, all in First Nations communities where she was a white southerner. I remember some of the stories she'd come home with, but again, it never occurred to me that that wasn't what normal work was like."

Through a little bit of self-psychoanalysis, Kristmanson says that being surrounded by parents who embraced challenge has had a significant impact on her. She has a tendency to seek out adventure, and that's exactly what she's found in Whistler. One of her very first jobs was at the Whistler Resort Association (now Tourism Whistler), in a design and marketing role. The team was female-heavy, and Barrett Fisher, Tourism Whistler CEO and president, was not only a boss, but a role model. Kristmanson decided to strike out on her own, and at the age of 26, started her own marketing and design agency, Origin, with a focus on adventure and mountain sports brands. For the last 25 years, she's been working as an entrepreneur; setting her own path and being her own boss. She feels that her journey has been like any entrepreneur, whether male or female, in that it's rewarding, discouraging, exhilarating, exhausting, amazing, and soul-sucking — all at once.

Although she knows discrimination is ever present, Kristmanso says she hasn't felt it in her business life. Part of that may be due to her naïveté, she says, but she's thankful that she never felt oppressed by it. Raising two teenage daughters has made her a lot more sensitive to the impact of gender discrimination. After watching the documentary Miss Representation at a Parent Advisory Council event at the teens' school, she was horrified at the extent to which it permeates our culture, negatively impacting both girls and boys. When the #MeToo movement started to build momentum, it dredged up old memories of situations where Kristmanson felt sexually harassed and intimidated while working as a cocktail waitress at her university.

"Watching #MeToo feels so strange," she says. "Part of me is like, 'Duh, of course it's all of us,' and part of me is like, 'Jesus, it's all of us.' To watch how much outrage has become uncorked is incredible; it makes me wonder at the power that kept us silent for so long. How could all of us powerful women, who've had such successes in business, keep our mouths shut so tight? I feel ashamed for not having stood up sooner, for victims who had it worse than me. I also feel so hopeful, because it's clear that this is a pivotal moment in our society, and I'm certain that while my girls will experience what we all have, they will never have to live with that cork on it."

One way the entrenched gender roles has impacted Kristmanson is what she calls "working-mom guilt," the feeling that she wasn't "enough of a mom" because she spent so much time at the office.

If we ever reach parity, Kristmanson feels the world would be a kinder, more collaborative place. In that same vein, she says we need to be fierce advocates for each other, to be free with advice and support, and speak out against injustice when we see it.

Anita Naidu: Engineer and Tech Consultant for Humanitarian Affairs

Anita Naidu had a global upbringing that exposed her to different cultures, while at the same time fostering a desire to positively impact change in the world. But it wasn't until university that she understood the power of combining technology with social justice. This focus has led to her work on counter-terrorism initiatives and the international refugee crisis. It also led her to being named a Google Impact Challenge Winner last year.

"It's not enough to have good intentions and good will, you have to actively take concrete actions towards pushing society forward," says Naidu. "It was during my time living in conflict zones that I became very aware of how connected, yet divided, the world is. Waiting until others decide something is important means you are late to the game."

Being sidelined because of her gender and ethnicity has been the soundtrack to many of Naidu's pursuits, whether it's in engineering, athletics, or humanitarian projects. She's turned this into motivation. From a young age, she realized you can't just tell people that they're wrong in their assumptions — you have to show them.

"I knew I was going to have to overachieve to be taken seriously, and I believe there are other women who feel similarly," Naidu says. "As a society, it's best if we turn our resentment into revolt, as that's when we can have the most impact."

When Naidu expressed interest in becoming an astronaut, she was told she didn't fit the bill, that she was "too small and soft-hearted." That perception only drove her further, and in 2016 she was accepted into the Canadian Space Agency's astronaut recruitment process.

Naidu believes that you can be a feminist ally and benefit from a sexist system. Just because someone has progressive values, they are still tacitly supporting inequality by not speaking out against the systems that perpetuate it. In a nutshell, doing nothing makes you complicit. Naidu says that #MeToo was long overdue, and that social media helped to magnify the message, making it one of the boldest and loudest feminist movements of this generation. What she finds disturbing about the current conversation is that few seemed surprised by the kind of experiences women are reporting.

"It was a disheartening reminder that systems and institutions in our society are set up to enable this behaviour. That ecologies exist that are built around the idea that women will tolerate discomfort and remain silent," Naidu says. "Ultimately, this is what has been exposed. #MeToo opened the door for everyone to be a part of the conversation. It's important to remember that turning genders into opposing, feuding camps is the wrong approach — this conversation is painful for both sides."

When Naidu thinks about Whistler, she sees a tourist haven where life is easy, relaxing — escapist even. Social justice, on the other hand, is emotional and disruptive, forcing people to face the harsh truths of the world, meanings these kinds of difficult discussions don't happen naturally. For Naidu, that fact alone reiterates how essential it is to remain vigilant as a community to ensure we don't maintain systems or practices of bias and oppression.

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