There’s nothing unusual about female ski instructors. And women in resort human resources, marketing, communications, and sales? Not uncommon at all.
But women in the upper levels of ski area management are a somewhat rarer breed. That’s why it’s particularly noteworthy that Vail Resorts has begun a corporate-wide initiative to encourage more women to seek careers and leadership positions in the ski business.
I hardly need to tell you how important this is. Not that long ago, when Vail was confined to a few resorts in Colorado, this initiative would’ve been far less consequential than it is today. But with 37 resorts throughout the world, Vail has become the gorilla in the room, and what it does has big repercussions throughout the ski industry.
Is gender diversity important?
Without a doubt, both to anyone who’s a customer of Vail, and to anyone who works for them.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, significant research has shown that diverse teams can develop more innovative ideas than non-diverse teams. Men and women have different viewpoints and insights, and their unique perspectives often lead to greater creativity. But there are other benefits, too. A workplace that champions diversity is more attractive to new talent. It only makes sense. Companies can’t be competitive if they ignore half the potential workforce. In a survey of 1,000 respondents, the job site Glassdoor found that 67% of job seekers overall look at workforce diversity when evaluating an offer.
It makes a difference to customers, too. After all, how can a company deliver what its customers want if it lacks leaders who understand where they’re coming from? (This is also a good argument for racial diversity, but that’s a piece for another day). With women making up 40% of the ski market, you need people at the top who know what we’re about. So yes, women leaders are important.
POWDER: The Vail initiative
Fittingly enough, Vail’s new initiative, POWDER, or Providing Opportunity for Women through Diversity, Equality and Respect, was introduced this year on International Women’s Day by Vail CEO Rob Kratz. He talked about how it came about in the company’s Epic by Nature podcast. In it, he explains the inspiration for the initiative came from a program at Whistler Blackcomb called WOWB, or Women of Whistler Blackcomb. “In 2015, women leaders from every division across Whistler Blackcomb came together to ask, How do we do better?” he said. “Driven by their passion to find an answer, they led a culture shift within the resort, impacting hiring practices, scheduling, development, advocacy, education and recognition.”
[Note: I highly recommend listening to the podcast. Besides giving more in-depth information about the initiative, some of the women in Vail’s upper management talk about how they got to where they are today, and their journeys are both fascinating and inspiring. One of them is Beth Howard, General Manager of Vail, whom I interviewed shortly after she began working as GM of Northstar in 2014. You can find that here.]
Even though Vail already has a few women in leadership roles, the initiative recognizes the disparity that exists in the ratio of women to men in upper level management. POWDER’s mission is to change all that.
Vail has already started holding events that focus on gender diversity. Last week, for example, I attended a discussion on Being Brave led by Olympian Donna Weinbrecht at Mount Sunapee, NH. Why Being Brave? Because a woman has to be brave to compete in a largely male work force. In the months ahead, events addressing different aspects of gender diversity will be held at Vail resorts across the country.
Carol Fabrizio, Vail Resorts VP of Communications, gave me some more insight into the company’s effort:
SD: I know POWDER was inspired by a program at Whistler Blackcomb. But what was the impetus behind Vail dealing with this on a corporate level? How and why did the company identify gender diversity as something that needs to be addressed?
CF: Even though we’re dedicated to advancing women across every level of the company, we knew that we could do more. Through POWDER, we’re working toward fostering an inclusive culture that attracts and retains a broad range of exceptional talent, while promoting diverse leadership growth opportunities. We know that having women in leadership roles at every level of our company isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, too.
SD: Up until now, how have women been represented in mid- to upper-level positions at the company?
CF: While there’s more work to be done, we’re proud to have so many female trailblazers in operational leadership — a part of our industry that’s been historically male. We have women in senior operational positions in every region we operate; the majority of our Colorado resorts, for example, are now run by female COO’s [ed. note: Vail Mountain, Beaver Creek and Keystone]. We’re also proud of the strong number of women on the Vail Resorts Board of Directors and Executive Committee. In fact, this week we were honored by the Women’s Forum of New York as a Corporate Champion for having 30% of our board seats held by women.
SD: Vail is such a large company with so many resorts, each with their own cultures and styles. Can you describe some of the things you’ll be doing as part of this initiative on a corporate, and then on a regional/resort, level?
CF: Because we have unique interests, challenges and needs in each of our locations, the priorities for each POWDER team vary. We’ve also engaged local POWDER champions to mobilize each location. In general, POWDER revolves around three key pillars that will come to life in various ways:
Awareness and Mindset, which involves fostering a culture of inclusion through the continued evaluation of our current atmosphere and the development of personal awareness;
Development, Growth, and Support, or developing and supporting strong leadership throughout the company by providing mentorship programs and development opportunities; and
Talent and Hiring, or recruiting and hiring leaders that thrive in an inclusive culture.
SD:I know that Vail has already been recognized by Forbes as a good place for women to work. What’s already in place that makes this so, and what will Vail do, going forward?
CF: Yes, it was an honor to be recognized by Forbes as one of America’s Best Employers for Women. We were also recently named a Champion of Change by the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce. Vail Resorts has always invested heavily in leadership development programs, including those focused on growing women leaders within our company. In addition to POWDER, Vail Resorts has been running a Women in Leadership program for several years focusing on establishing connections among senior-level women leaders and creating an environment in which we can share experiences. We have a strong number of female leaders across the company — from operational leadership to our Executive Committee to our Board of Directors.
SD: How will Vail measure success? What’s the ultimate goal?
CF: Success will vary at each location, depending on its particular needs and priorities. In general, through an inclusive culture, POWDER aims to attract and retain a broad range of talent and provide growth opportunities for women at all levels of the company.