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Heather Odendaal: ‘I call myself an accidental entrepreneur’

Heather Odendaal

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Heather Odendaal, 34, is the founder of Bluebird Strategy, an event management company based in Whistler, B.C. She is also a regional account manager for Constellation Brands and the founder of the WNorth conference for women striving for roles in senior leadership, which runs April 20-22.

Most people move to Whistler and then find a job. I moved to Whistler for a job, which doesn't always happen.

I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a sociology degree. I kind of found my way into business. I was one of the execs of the largest club on campus, the ski and snowboarding club. We launched the student season-pass program and That's how I started working for Intrawest. I interned in their head office and then I got transferred to Whistler Blackcomb, which was their crown jewel, to work in their marketing department.

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I call myself an accidental entrepreneur because I was looking for a job after the [2010 Vancouver Winter] Olympics in an events and sponsorship capacity. Well, there were quite a few people looking for a job in an events and sponsorship capacity after the Olympics. I had been freelancing for a number of years so I decided to make it official and founded my company. And hired a couple of people to support me.

The events scene in Whistler has gone crazy over the past 10 years and I've been fortunate enough to work for most of the events and festivals that are in town. There's also an expanding conference scene. We've seen TED conferences come and go.

I wear a couple of hats, as do most people in Whistler. I'm an entrepreneur and I also work for a Fortune 500 wine company as a territory manager. I'd started my business and then they said we need somebody to sell wine to all the restaurants in Whistler. I just happened to be perfectly qualified because I'm also a Level 3 sommelier.

I was attending a lot of women-in-leadership events in Vancouver and I was seeking a conference that brought together women not just from Vancouver, but from elsewhere to network and to prepare yourself for a job at the top of your company. I just couldn't find that. As a result, I decided to start one.

A lot of women who make it to leadership positions say the power of their network is extremely important. There were at least three women who moved into new positions based on the connections they made from last year's conference. As a lot of businesses move online, I'm noticing that I don't just want to network with people in Vancouver – I want to network with people across Canada and the U.S.

When you're in a resort setting, it's a little bit more relaxed. The networking and the connections are a lot more free-flowing. There's a breaking down of barriers between the top of the hierarchy and the rest of the company.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when you go to a conference in an incredible location and you never leave the boardroom or the banquet hall. What I really wanted to do with this event was really get you out to explore Whistler.

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A lot of times you go to these conferences and they're put on by these big corporate people. Some people I talk to assume there's this large male-centred organization that's putting on this women's conference. But no, it's just me. I'm running it like a startup because I'm so passionate about it.

This past spring, I found out I was pregnant and due in November and we'd just established this conference. Most women, when we need help, we ask for help. So I engaged my community of consultants that I work with in Whistler and asked them to be part of a volunteer committee that would help me organize this. So there were these 11 women and my husband and I. I realized I couldn't do it all.

Why did I start a women's conference when a lot of people say there are so many women's conferences out there? I've been to some of them. One of the things that drove me batty was the marketing. They were always pink and flowery. It drove me nuts.

I wanted to make sure we were addressing the conversations of women who were in my generation. The generation I find myself in is not millennial and not in the old-school business mentality but caught somewhere in the middle.

There is a huge gap between being in senior management, middle management and jumping into an executive level. How do you run a board meeting? Or how do you get onto a board of directors? How do you negotiate a better salary? Women are terrible at negotiating their salaries. We can't put all the blame on employers. It has something to do with this inherent characteristic that we don't always want to ask for more.

I went to some HR leaders in some major organizations and I asked for the top strengths they look for in leadership. Public speaking was a huge one. Ability to balance work and life. So I have workshops geared around those recommendations. My hope is that it actually translates to improved opportunities for these women to make it higher up in their organizations.

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We have a lot of women in the Canadian work force, but as you get higher and higher up the ladder, that number diminishes. Mainly, statistics show, due to family commitments. The demographic I'm appealing to, and that I'm in, is this mid-career level. That is the most delicate in terms of going on maternity leave and starting families.

Technology has changed how we work. I work out of a home office. I have a four-month-old. I do conference calls while breastfeeding. That notion that we don't have to go to a brick-and-mortar building any more is freeing up a lot of opportunities, I believe, for women. And to be honest, B.C. still has a ways to go in terms of allowing that. Canada in general actually still has a ways to go. California is all over it.

Strangely enough, Whistler is becoming this amazing epicentre for remote workers. People are moving to Whistler from all over the world, running their own businesses or working for other companies.

I also in live in Whistler because, quite frankly, I would have trouble affording to move back to Vancouver at this point.

I lost my mother to ovarian cancer about 10 years ago and it's something I'm really passionate about philanthropically. I was part of a campaign they just launched called Ladyballs.

To be honest, I didn't sort of set out in a certain path or direction. I guess I would say this as my piece of advice:

Always be open to new opportunities. And new career directions. Try to take a step back and look at where business is going to be in the next 15 to 20 years. Don't choose a career based on where there are jobs now. It's so simple, but a lot of people don't think of it that way.

As told to Vancouver-based freelance writer Jason Tchir. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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