Here today, some of Canada’s most influential women – women who have fast-tracked their careers – are starting from scratch on an actual racetrack to experience another type of high performance.
Twelve women, 40 and under, are taking on the Circuit Mont-Tremblant about 145 kilometres north of Montreal for the first-ever “Women on the Fast Track” event. They are winners of the Mercedes-Benz emerging leaders award – a new category in the Women Executive Network’s Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100.
The chief instructor for the day, Melanie Paterson, a former race car driver and Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy instructor, begins with a brief in-class session on the do’s and don’ts of driving on the track. After an hour, it’s time for the ladies to gear up and let loose on the 4.26-km track. A dozen vehicles are up for grabs including a 577-horsepower Mercedes-AMG GT R Coupe that’ll hit 100 km/hour in only 3.6 seconds from a standing stop.
They’re all nervous. No wonder.
Most have never been in a Mercedes; none has ever driven on a track. They’re completely out of their element.
“The worst part is always the beginning,” said Genevieve Pinto, a partner at Renewal Funds who flew in from Vancouver. “You take a deep breathe and you go to it. The nerves are there, but once you get going you, get into your groove and realize you can do it. You’re capable of doing it even if its new and scary,” she says, grinning ear-to-ear after the morning track exercises covering the importance of vision, trail braking and vehicle balance.
In the afternoon, it’s time to tackle the entire track – an instructor in the lead pace car heads out first, followed one-by-one, by three other Mercedes-AMG vehicles with women at the wheel. At first, they all drive slowly and cautiously with huge gaps between cars. But it doesn’t take long to gain more confidence and speed, especially for Toronto-based Zahra Ebrahim, executive adviser at Doblin. By late afternoon, driving a Mercedes-AMG S 63 4Matic+ coupe, she sticks to the pace car like glue with each passing lap.
“It was awesome," she says. "I’m not a person who physically likes to move fast and it was such a great process learning the techniques. You didn’t even realize you were driving really fast and doing all these things that you watch on TV and think are terrifying – but they’re actually just a set of moments. It really decreases the anticipation or anxiety you might think that you feel in driving a car really fast around a corner.”
Maili Wong, first vice-president, investment adviser and portfolio manager at CIBC Wood Gundy in Vancouver, typically drives a minivan with kids in tow. She admits getting behind the wheel of a powerful Mercedes-AMG C-Class is intimidating and completely out of her element. Still, she soaks up the technical aspects of the track like a sponge and draws parallels between high performance on the track and in the boardroom.
“Knowing what the plan or the course is – what to aim for and what to look ahead to in terms of the apex and when to be able to accelerate again can be applied directly into the boardroom," she says. “You got to know when to be able to push forward and when to just sit back, listen and feel your way through the path. It’s a bit of a negotiation on the track – same way in the boardroom.”
Trust is also key in both scenarios.
“Trust in your people," Ebrahim adds. "We not only had the tribe around us because you’re playing and negotiating with your trust in the instructor, who you met an hour ago, and the trust for the people around you, who are in front of you and behind you, so you quickly overcome any unknown unknowns and put your trust in the tribe really fast.”
With trust comes speed for many of the women including Sherri Stevens, chief executive of WXN. She emerges from the GT R coupe, her favourite vehicle of the bunch, surprised yet thrilled for the once-in-a-lifetime shot to drive this speed demon. She also learned a valuable lesson about slowing down.
“Because sometimes we just go, go, go – fast, fast, fast,” she says. “Really, it’s about putting on the brakes and looking to the next thing down the road. The vision. Make sure your focus is way ahead and not looking backwards in a different direction.”
By day’s end, the women are unexpectedly exhausted – mentally and physically. Some, such as Toronto-based Emily Mills, founder of How She Hustles, takes a much-needed break from the fast-paced track to reflect on the whirlwind day.
“I like the energy around us,” Mills says. “Being able to connect with other women and knowing there’s a female driving instructor has been pretty cool. I’m all about women so having these elements it was a nice theme that has carried through the day and of course, it was a lot of fun."
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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