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31 | Heather Odendaal, WNORTH: From Grassroots to a Global Brand

  • March 4, 2020
  • 34:59

Heather Odendaal (CEO of WNORTH) shares how her career in events led to the launch of WNORTH. We also discuss content, speakers, and scaling an event community from grassroots to a global brand.

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Top Takeaways

1

IDENTIFYING CONTENT THAT SPEAKS TO YOUR AUDIENCE: Heather began planning out her first three WNORTH conferences during her time at Constellation Brands. She consulted with other women in the industry to tailor content and an event agenda that addressed common pain points for professional development. “Every year the content is shifting a little bit in terms of the type of leadership material we provide. This includes topics from the art of negotiation, to effective conflict resolution, and the impact of implicit association bias on your career.”

2

SOURCING CONFERENCE SPEAKERS ON A BUDGET: Finding the right speakers can be a big challenge for organizers. Heather uses nimble and creative tactics like leveraging her professional network and event opportunities to discover new speakers. “At the end of the day, it comes down to personal connection. Part of my role as CEO is to attend other conferences and seek out speakers. Additionally, I'm also looking for those hidden gems of speakers that maybe are not on a larger speaker circuit.”

3

SCALING AN EVENT COMMUNITY TO A GLOBAL BRAND: The WNORTH conference has grown from a grassroots community in Whistler, Canada to a worldwide movement. The success of the conference in part has come from regional chapters leaders, known as “city directors” and “city advisors,” who witnessed the power WNORTH in elevating their career and attracting other female leaders. “They are all very high powered women who serve as an advisory extension and help ensure we're getting the content right for each particular city.”

ABOUT Heather Odendaal

Heather is CEO and Co-Founder of WNORTH, an event series for women on a path to executive leadership. Beyond WNORTH, Heather is an accomplished entrepreneur, brand builder, and an acclaimed event producer. She has worked on some of Canada’s largest and most influential events including the Whistler Film Festival, Crankworx Mountain Bike Festival, and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Episode Transcript

BRANDON:

Hello, Heather. I understand that you are located in the scenic reaches of Western Canada around Whistler. I know there's a lot of great snow sports up there and I understand that you are quite the snow sports fan.

HEATHER:

Yes. So I moved up to Whistler for a job... Most people move here to snowboard or ski. Just about 17 years ago. And so I'm very passionate about snowboarding but I actually recently just converted over to skiing so it's been really humbling having this experience of going back to basics and learning something from scratch.

BRANDON:

What inspired you to pick up the skis?

HEATHER:

Actually my son is in ski school. He's four and I really just wanted to be able to ski with him and be on two planks.

BRANDON:

Do you find that you're having to take the bunny slopes with him?

HEATHER:

To be fair, I picked it up pretty well. I have been working at it for two or three years now. So now we're just trying to get my husband up to speed. He's originally from South Africa and he likes to say... Or originally when I met him he said, "Ice is for my drinks." He was not really a snow sports enthusiast, but he's getting much better. So we're working on it, both of us.

BRANDON:

That's so cool. And obviously a great location to be doing that. Let's talk a little bit more about WNORTH. Could you tell us a little bit about the mission of WNORTH and your responsibilities as CEO?

HEATHER:

WNORTH's mission is to develop more women to leading positions in business. We believe that in doing that we will elevate the teams they work in, the families that they lead, and the communities in which they live. So as the CEO, I'm responsible for curating content and professional development events around our foundational pillars, which are accelerating growth, promoting balance, establishing connections that matter, and inspiring change.

BRANDON:

Obviously I'm a big fan of WNORTH. I mentioned this beforehand. I had been following you all for a few years. Just being over here at Bizzabo, I know there's a partnership between our organizations and just hearing about all the cool things that you are doing. So really excited to speak with you today more about WNORTH and the way that you are driving this mission home through events.

BRANDON:

Before we dive into all of that, let's take a moment to look back at your career. You started working in events at Whistler Blackcomb, the resort that has been home to WNORTH since the conference first launched in 2015. Like you said, you initially came to Whistler to not ski but to work and you moved here for the job. You also worked on a film festival. You've run events for a huge beverage company. You've worked on the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and you eventually started your own events company. And in addition to that have launched WNORTH with your husband Mike. We're going to spend the majority of our time today discussing WNORTH, but before we do all that, could you walk us through each of these steps of your career and how they have led to where you are today?

HEATHER:

I started out my career in the marketing department of the biggest ski resort in North America, Whistler Blackcomb. And this role was a really cool role. It afforded me the opportunity to do everything from riding in open door helicopters for ski photo shoots to organizing brand experiences for major brands like Coca-Cola and General Motors at the top of the mountain. A very cool first job in events, which I did for many years.

HEATHER:

And then I moved on to a major event here in Whistler called the Whistler Film Festival, which is known as Canada's Sundance. We have about 30 events that took place over four days. And I was the events and sponsorship manager there. And from there I moved into a role... It was leading up into the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the company I worked for was Molson and they were the official beer sponsor of the Olympics. So as you can imagine in brand and marketing and events, lots of really cool opportunities to promote their involvement. And I split my time between Whistler and Vancouver, which were the two venues of the Olympic games. And it was just a really exciting time to be in the events space.

BRANDON:

Well, what were you doing specifically for the Olympics?

HEATHER:

I had two roles. One was when I was working for Molson. And that was very much a lead up role in which I was executing events for essentially a lot of our activations. So we were giving away tickets to some of the events, some of the Molson Canadian Hockey House, which was an activation that took place downtown Vancouver with bands. And every night there was a different concert. And then I was also took a role at the hockey arena in which I was working in client service for some of the top sponsors. So I would be welcoming dignitaries into the suite for the hockey games for the Olympics. So that one was a short role, but a very cool experience.

BRANDON:

Oh, wow. So it sounds like amidst all of this and the film festival, you have a lot of experience working with sponsors and partners and all those folks who keep events running.

HEATHER:

Definitely. And when I first actually launched my company, Bluebird Strategies, it was mainly in sponsorship and events was a component of that. But I had worked that previous 10 years... A lot of the work had been in sponsorship and client service. And then following the Olympics was when I launched my company. It was my first jump into entrepreneurship. I should say that when I launched my event company, event and sponsor company, it soon did move into a side hustle as I took on a sales role at one of the top beverage alcohol companies in the world, which is Constellation Brands. And while I was in that role, I had been seeking a professional development leadership forum that was really serving women who had aspirations for senior executive leadership. I had looked across North America to try and find a conference that really brought together women from a number of different industries in developing them for these top positions. And as I could not find what I was looking for, in 2015 that's when I decided to take my events and sponsorship experience and create the first WNORTH conference.

BRANDON:

You were working at Constellations. While you were there, you were looking for an event that really created an opportunity for women in executive positions, aspiring to be and in more senior positions, but you weren't able to find these. So it inspired you to eventually launch WNORTH.

HEATHER:

Correct. And we did our first conference in 2015 and we're going into our sixth this year.

BRANDON:

Looking back at all these different steps, as we mentioned, you picked up some lessons around sponsorships and around a bunch of different facets of the event space. Are there any particular lessons that bubble to the top?

HEATHER:

Fundamentally, when I started the conference, it was to solve a problem that I had myself. And I figured at that point if I was seeking this conference and this forum, that there were other women out there looking for this type of opportunity. So I actually built... The first three conferences that I executed, I was still working in my role, so I was a dual entrepreneur and corporate leader at the same time. So I would often consult with some of the women that I was working with in other positions to find out their pain points in terms of getting to that next level of leadership and what type of development opportunity they were seeking.

HEATHER:

And it really helped to form some of the content as we evolved. So every year the content's shifting a little bit in terms of the type of leadership. We have topics from the art of negotiation to effective conflict resolution and the impact of implicit association bias on your career. One of the things that I have really seen come up this year and a new session that we added in was around just in terms of leadership styles changing and people were seeking to lead in a more human and compassionate way. And so we added a session this year called Lead Like a Coach, which is teaching managers and directors to lead and almost mentor their teams in a little bit more of an executive coach style. So definitely an evolving content even in just the six years that we've been in existence.

BRANDON:

And when we talk about this type of content, it sounds like some of this is more typical keynote speaker, some of it is panel-based, but I understand there also are a good amount of workshops as well.

HEATHER:

We have five workshops at this year's conference. Workshops are a key element in the professional development landscape in terms of ensuring you have that takeaway or that action. It's great to go to a conference and feel inspired and have a keynote speak to you. But that workshop element, it's the lessons that you've learned that you've actually been able to either physically write down or have a conversation one-on-one with somebody that you remember for weeks to come. So over the last few years we've added more and more workshops every year based on feedback that we get from our attendees of, "I really need to practice this exercise while I'm at the conference so that it really sticks in my brain." So yes, workshops is a very important piece of our conference.

BRANDON:

I really appreciate what you say about creating those opportunities for different attendees to connect and to share their experiences with one another and actually put what they're learning into practice through those workshop settings. When we look at leaders in the speakers that are heading these different sessions, I know that WNORTH in the past has featured folks from IBM and Cisco and Telus, Google, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Lyft. WNORTH is in many ways... It's a grassroots movement. This is something that you produced yourself that you were doing as just on the side for a while. And with that in mind, maybe I'm not making too big of a stretch if I say you don't have the same budget as say a Cisco or an IBM or just a huge enterprise corporation. So how do you land all of these amazing enterprise level speakers?

HEATHER:

It's a great question. And you are correct. We don't have the same budgets, so we have to be more nimble and creative. But at end of the day it comes down to personal connection. So a part of my role as CEO is to attend other conferences and seek out speakers. And in addition to seeking out those speakers, I'm also looking for those hidden gems of speakers that maybe are not on a larger speaker circuit. But it's going to see these speakers and meeting them in person.

HEATHER:

And I'll tell you a story. In the case of one of our keynote speakers for this year's conference, Esther Wojcicki, she just wrote a book called How to Raise Successful People. I met her at the Forbes Women's Summit in New York City this past June and she was by far one of my favorite speakers. So I tracked her down after her session and I personally invited her to join us in Whistler and she accepted. And I think once people hear about our purpose to support women on their leadership journey to C-suite, they're usually easily convinced. And I definitely think in the case of the conference itself, the location of Whistler helps as well.

BRANDON:

Yeah. You've been there since the conference first launched.

HEATHER:

Yes. And I do get this question a lot as to, "Well, obviously we picked Whistler because you live there." And I'm actually very quick to explain to them that we live an hour and a half outside of Vancouver. Vancouver could have just as easily been our location or any other location. As you know, events are global. But one of the reasons I selected Whistler as location is prior to starting the WNORTH conference, I worked on a number of other conferences and I got to see some corporate conferences come into town. And there was this really interesting dynamic of people letting their guard down in this resort community. If you haven't been to Whistler, it's very similar to an Aspen or Vail type resort where there's a pedestrian-only walkway with shops and cozy fireplaces everywhere. And it just has a very relaxing feel.

HEATHER:

And I loved the fact that when people were coming in, they were disconnecting a little bit from their work. And when you go to a conference in the center of New York or San Francisco, it is sometimes hard to get people to disconnect from their work in a way that they can really fully engage in the content or fully engage in the connections that they're going to make. If you host an evening event, sometimes you're getting a lot of drop-off in a city, because people are going home and there's other elements. By bringing this type of experience into a resort community, we were maximizing those points of personal connection. And so from the foundations, that was one of the reasons why we selected Whistler as our location.

BRANDON:

It's totally apart from the world. It seems almost archetypal in that sense. There's something about that proximity to nature. It's like crossing a threshold.

HEATHER:

Definitely. Yes. And if you haven't been here, there's a lot of trees. So you can be in nature very quickly. Just step out the door. And so it definitely has a calming effect.

BRANDON:

So Whistler has been home to a WNORTH conference since the get-go as we mentioned, but at the same time WNORTH has grown to be an international affair. You now have chapters in Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, and even London. How did you first make this move from Whistler to elsewhere?

HEATHER:

Our community asked for it. It was a couple of years after we had started the conference itself. And our conference attracts women from across North America. And they were coming year after year and the question was asked, "Well, I want to continue staying in this community for more than just once a year. Can I do a connect dinner?" Which is one of our flagship events, is these dinners of 24 people with a speaker. "Can I do a dinner in my city?"

HEATHER:

So we started just with doing dinners in all of these locations. We're now in six chapter cities. Three in the US, two in Canada, one in the UK, the London. And those people who put up their hand, many of them eventually became city directors and helped us evolve that strategy. But it's an interesting thing when growth happens as an entrepreneur externally when there are the entrepreneurs that have product that they just want to grow and they just want to build and push. And then there's the other entrepreneurs wherein you build a product, you're very happy with it, and then there's your users out there that are like, "We want more! We want more! Give us more!" So that is essentially what pushed us to our international growth. And we now do about 35 events globally in total in all of those cities.

BRANDON:

Wow. I think that really speaks to the atmosphere that you have created and that sense of community starting of course at the flagship conference itself. But we discussed some of the content. We discussed the way that you're connecting people in these workshop settings. We discussed the value of getting out of a city environment and going someplace that's very separate from that day-to-day hustle and bustle. Just looking at the conference, are there any other aspects of it that you think have really lent to creating this community?

HEATHER:

What's unique about the WNORTH community is that we are pulling from a lot of women who are in... They're in leadership capacities in somewhat male-dominated sectors. So a lot of the women that I have spoken to in the membership are oftentimes the only woman at the table or one of few women at the table. And so they don't have a lot of colleagues or peers to share experiences with. So we have been able to give them that peer mentorship that they're seeking through not just only the conference, but some of the events that we do in their own city.

BRANDON:

I know you mentioned it earlier, but just enabling the growth of this community has been working with the city directors or city advisers who are more or less overseeing chapters in different regions. And these directors and advisors include folks who are at Amazon, Airbnb, and a bunch of other really cool brands. So how did you begin working with these local partners? It sounds like it was an extension of the community, but how did you begin working with these local partners and what does that relationship look like on a day-to-day basis now?

HEATHER:

You are correct. Many of them were past attendees. I think they really witnessed the power of this community in elevating their own career and they were passionate about bringing that to fellow leaders in their city. As far as our working relationship goes, it's very collaborative. They provide us local insights on the challenges that are faced by leaders in their cities. They provide us speaker suggestions. But at the end of the day we like to really keep their... They are all very high powered women in busy jobs so we use them as an advisory extension and in ensuring that we're getting the content right for that particular city. And it's really great that they are living and breathing being a woman in leadership so that we can continue to keep the content relevant.

BRANDON:

I know there are several different types of events that WNORTH is producing, one of which that is newer in 2020 is the roadshow series, Journey to C-Suite. What did the process behind this ideation look like and how were you thinking about taking this road show to different regions and at the same time localizing it in some way?

HEATHER:

This is an event that we're really excited to launch in partnership with Indeed, the job site. And what we wanted to do was really clearly create an event that served our community. So leaders who are on the path to executive leadership. When you move from management to director or director to VP, you face different challenges that you may not have experienced earlier in your career.

HEATHER:

So with the Journey to C-Suite, we're doing an evening panel event, which will feature three women at different stages. A director, VP, and C-suite. And they're going to share stories of growth and opportunities, even failures. And in each city we will focus on a different sector. So for example, our first event is going to be in San Francisco and it's going to be women in tech. So we will also be pulling out women who are in engineering roles, more senior roles maybe not as frequently covered in terms of these panel events. So definitely it's about pulling out stories of leadership, inspiring others, and having a higher level of discussion around that journey and what it looks like. Because it doesn't look the same for everyone.

BRANDON:

In addition to all these different live events that are offered by WNORTH, I know you have invested in other ways of growing the community as well, other ways of making this community extend beyond the event itself. And one of these ways is through the membership club that supports the growing community of female executives and provides them with networking opportunities and resources to support their journey. What have you found to be successful with these local chapters, with this membership club? Generally just keeping members of the community engaged?

HEATHER:

In terms of the membership, we launched it just over two years ago. And we continue to evolve the program to shape what our members are looking for. And quite frankly, what they have time for. That is a very big thing. I think in a world of data and content overload, the hardest thing to do is to make sure that your content is exactly or matches what your community needs. Some larger organizations or enterprise organizations may have huge teams to develop content. We are a smaller team so we have to be more nimble. But one of the things that we've found... A couple of the programs that we've launched over the last 18 months, one of which is our Leadership Mastermind. So four times a year within the membership, we have these masterminds which meet with a facilitator in groups of five with women from across the network.

HEATHER:

So you'll have maybe two women from the East Coast, three women from the West Coast, one from England. So a mix of our members. And they will be tackling small group coaching sessions, some of the challenges that they are having in their community... In their workplace, I should say. So that has been a hugely successful program for us. The fact that women are able to confidentially connect with other women that are not in their own company to ask questions and seek advice has been really powerful. And everyone who has participated has said that is 100% worth their time. And it gets marked in the calendar and it doesn't get missed. And so I'd say that's definitely one of our programs that has engaged the members. In addition to that, we offer monthly workshops via Zoom. So we'll bring in guest speakers on various topics from conflict resolution to women and burnout. So we'll have those workshops and you can either join them on Live, we stream them on Facebook, or you can watch them after. So it's definitely about managing people's schedule and giving them flexibility as to when they can participate because everyone's busy.

BRANDON:

Yeah, that's for sure. Looking forward to this sixth year and beyond, where do you hope the community will be?

HEATHER:

So my hope for WNORTH is that we continue to be sought out by women who are aspiring to senior positions. Over the last 20 years, there's been a lot of talk about how there are few women in top senior positions in corporate America, corporate Canada. One of the biggest factors is that women are dropping out of participation in more senior roles. And in my research and in my experience, I really see that a part of that is losing community and losing peers that they can lean on for advice as they ascend to more top positions. So WNORTH, I want to serve more people in this community and I want to be able to grow our membership. And essentially, if it's not too lofty of a goal, but get way more women into top leading positions in corporate North America. That's our end goal.

BRANDON:

To pivot things over to you a little bit, you're managing this amazing event brand, this event community, this series. You also still have Bluebird Strategies, which is up and running. And you also have two little human beings who you're responsible for. What have you found to be helpful in balancing all these different things in your professional and personal time?

HEATHER:

I have found over the last few years, especially since having two children... So I have a one year old and a four year old. Delegation. It hasn't been something that's come easily to me. I think when you're an entrepreneur and you start small and you're working on things by yourself, as you grow, it's harder to let go. But the last few years has really taught me that in order to create balance I need to perfect the art of delegation and really work hard on that leadership. So that has been something that I've really been working to empower and it has helped me create more balance in my work and life.

BRANDON:

Yeah. Delegation is huge. But yeah, it can be tough. It can be tough to let go of it. Who's someone you look up to in events, marketing, or business in general?

HEATHER:

Halla Tómasdóttir. Halla was a former presidential candidate for Iceland. She was a investor and financial leader in Iceland during the economic crash of 2008. She has a very inspiring TED Talk if you want to look it up. It's called the Feminine Response to Iceland's Financial Crash. And she was also instrumental in pushing for equal pay and the equal pay law that was passed in Iceland just a few years ago. So she's now moved from Iceland and she's in New York City. She is the CEO of The B Team, which is a people, planet, profit company that was founded by Richard Branson. And I had the esteemed pleasure to have her as one of our keynotes at WNORTH a couple of years ago. So I am continuing to be inspired by her and what she is doing to... Essentially her goal and the goal of the organization is to convince the large enterprise organizations globally and in the United States to change their model to have more social impact. So it's a big task that she's taken on and she's doing some incredible things with that organization.

BRANDON:

That's amazing. And amazing that you were able to bring her in that as a speaker.

HEATHER:

Definitely. One of my favorite speakers hands down.

BRANDON:

Did you meet her in person beforehand?

HEATHER:

I did, yes. Yes. So she flew in from Iceland and it's a nine hour flight. It's not a short journey. And got the opportunity to spend quite a lot of time with her. And what was really incredible about Halla was that she fully immersed and participated in the entire conference. And to me that is one of the most important pieces for me when selecting speakers, is having that level of engagement, that level of connection, and wanting to attend and be a part of the conference the whole time. And Halla probably based on the conversations and the discussions that I heard almost spoke to every single one of the 180 attendees.

BRANDON:

Wow, that's huge. If you could give an early version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be and why?

HEATHER:

I've thought about this quite a lot and it would be maybe to give myself a little bit more space. When I was a very driven and ambitious university student, I went straight into that drive of getting the next job or getting the next opportunity. And I think if there was one thing I wish I gave myself a little bit more... Cut myself a little bit more slack when I was younger maybe. I worked really, really hard, sometimes seven days a week. So I think it's important to embrace that space and do things for yourself and try to at least shut off two days a week.

BRANDON:

Yeah. Is that something that you find you're able to do a bit more now?

HEATHER:

Insert LOL. So I don't check my emails very much on the weekends. And that is not necessarily out of choice, but anyone who has small children you realize that you don't have time. So the having kids part has definitely allowed me to embrace shutting work down and playing and being a little bit more nine to five, Monday to Friday.

BRANDON:

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today, Heather. It was really, really cool to hear about WNORTH, all the cool events that you're producing, the people that you are connecting, and the experiences that you're enabling people to share. If our listeners want to keep up with you and all the amazing work that WNORTH is doing, how can they do so?

HEATHER:

Best place is to go to our website wnorthconnect.com or to follow us on social media, wnorthconnect. We are having our sixth annual conference April 15th to 17th in Whistler. Tickets are still on sale. We have a few left and we also are coming round to all of our chapter cities with the Journey to C-Suite. So we'd love to see some of the listeners attend our events. So thank you for the opportunity, Brandon.