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Vail encourages women to pursue careers

Karen Wagner Interviews Donna Weinbrecht at the first POWDER program

By Karen D. Lorentz

In response to a “nice to see men here” comment,” a male responded, “We have daughters.”

It was an encouraging observation as the first Northeastern POWDER event focused on encouraging women to be brave in building a career in the ski industry.

POWDER is an acronym for Providing Opportunity for Women through Diversity, Equality and Respect, a new Vail Resorts’ program focusing on the training, mentoring and support of women to foster meaningful careers in the ski industry.

Karen Wagner, ski patrol director at Stowe and the Northeast Region POWDER coordinator, led the Nov. 4 program at Mount Sunapee. It was the first of six events that will rotate among Mount Sunapee, Okemo, and Stowe resorts this winter. The event, which was open to the public, attracted over 100 attendees.

Wagner acknowledged the bias women in the ski industry have often encountered before introducing Olympian Donna Weinbrecht, who addressed her ski career and shared insights.

The gold medalist and World Cup champion was a self-taught moguls skier whose determination and passion for the sport got her to the U.S. Ski Team. It was at that point that she first received coaching, she said, appreciating the difference it  made in her life and skiing.

Weinbrecht grew up in the freestyle era with men and women competing on the same hill. In 1988, freestyle was a demonstration sport at the Calgary Olympics and Weinbrecht was part of the pioneering effort to get moguls approved. She then became the first woman to win  gold in moguls at the 1992 Olympics.

In 1993, she suffered a serious knee injury that required surgery. Noting she was in denial and sad at first, she said she set goals for herself and focused on rehab to get her health back. “I learned a lot about myself,” she said of that challenging time. But her perseverance enabled her to meet her goal to compete in the 1994 Olympics, she said, acknowledging and crediting “a positive attitude” as key along with hard work.

Asked what she would tell young girls or women in approaching their own careers, Weinbrecht said, “Get in the gate and say ‘yes.’ Challenge yourself. Try something new. If you only do the same thing, you’re not learning. If you fall, do something different.”

Noting everyone has weaknesses and strengths, she said it is important to learn about oneself and focus on one’s strengths.  “Be social and enjoy others [you work with]. Celebrate your teammates . . .  Sometimes they show you the way so learn from your friends, be positive and support one another,” she concluded.

Wagner affirmed that advice, noting the POWDER initiative is about women supporting each other.

POWDER history, goals

Last March, in a podcast celebrating women trailblazers, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz noted that women and especially women leaders have been “traditionally underrepresented in the ski industry. Vail Resorts has been changing that,” he stated, mentioning several women who made their way to the top of the “traditionally male dominated areas of our business. Our pioneering women leaders in ski-industry operations roles have changed the face of an industry and paved the way for those coming after them,” he added.

The podcast featured several of those women who addressed the challenges and gender bias they had faced as they rose up in an industry where they “didn’t look like” the typical ski industry leader.

They spoke of aspirations and navigating gender bias as part of the story of their journeys as women leaders.

In explaining the importance of self-reflection, mentorship and leadership training, they noted the  importance of the new POWDER initiative. It  was inspired by the Women of Whistler Blackcomb (WOWB) program which began in 2015 with women leaders there addressing the question “How do we do better?” through forums, camps, and other trainings. The result was a culture shift within the resort, impacting hiring practices, scheduling, development, advocacy, education, and recognition.

With such successful efforts and given the current climate and “me too movement,” Katz said he saw the WOWB as “an eye opener” and opportunity to champion change by making an investment in women leaders.

Pat Campbell, President of Vail Resorts Mountain Division, and Lynanne Kunkel, Vail Resorts Chief HR Officer, became sponsors of the POWDER initiative with an aim of finding ways to engender more inclusivity and making ski industry jobs more appealing for women. Wagner was named to their steering committee as a regional leader. She put together a Northeast team that includes Bonnie Macpherson, Okemo communications manager; Melissa Day, guest services manager at Stowe,and Jessica Clarke, lift operations supervisor at Mount Sunapee.

Okemo’s MacPherson is excited about the POWDER initiative “sparking an interest in the sport and industry” and its “potential to launch careers.” Okemo will host the December program on bias, she said.

In the March podcast, Campbell concluded that the “future is bright for women in this industry,” acknowledging that there is still an opportunity to create space for women in operations and to find ways to make those jobs more appealing and welcoming for women. Adding there is a need for broader racial and other diversity, she noted “the need to continue to change and be welcoming.”

Katz concluded his remarks stating it is most important to focus on performance and leadership and to invest in those skills – not focus on gender.

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