Shattering boundaries: Inside Vail Resorts’ diversification efforts
In a traditionally male-dominated industry, Vail Resorts has taken steps to put women in leadership roles, leading to a sizable shift in the operation of the company and skiing as a whole
The ski industry is constantly evolving and innovating to bring new elements to the sport. And for the past decade or so, the industry has begun to shift from the inside out, answering calls for diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in the sport.
Vail Resorts has been one of the companies leading this change, making a deliberate push to put women into leadership positions at all levels of its organization. Not only does the company have women at the helm of seven of its mountain resorts — including three of its five Colorado resorts, two of which are here in Eagle County — but 44 percent of its corporate board is women and 45 percent of its executive leadership team (director level or above) are women.
In a male-dominated industry like skiing, making this shift comes from calculated efforts to shift the company’s culture, to build programs that support women moving into leadership and to change what is possible for all individuals that want to make it in the industry.
And for all the women rising to the very top — Beaver Creek Chief Operating Officer Nadia Guerriero and Vail Mountain COO Beth Howard, for example — there are just as many women following their precedent, climbing through the ranks of all of the company’s departments.
“Inclusivity comes from the top down and peer to peer; both as a leader and a teammate, I am happy to see more women in leadership roles and ultimately leveling the playing field,” said Addy McCord, director of ski patrol at Beaver Creek.
While its hard to pinpoint the exact start of Vail’s diversification efforts, many would identify the appointment of Patricia Campbell as one of the country’s first female resort managers. Campbell took over as COO of Breckenridge in 2009. (She now serves as the president of Vail’s mountain division.)
Campbell would eventually mentor Howard, current COO of Vail Mountain, as she prepared to make the transition from food and beverage to mountain operations. Howard began her career with Vail Resorts in 1985, and took her first mountain operations job as COO of Beaver Creek in 2016.
This mentorship was the result of a corporate initiative from Vail to provide employees that were interested in becoming resort GMs with a path to success. In an episode of Vail Resorts’ Epic by Nature podcast, Howard attributed this “camp,” and the mentorship and development plan it provided, as the reason she was considered for the job at Beaver Creek.
Today, these women are held up as trailblazers for other women eyeing the top of the mountain.
Another leap forward for Vail came as a result of one of its large acquisitions — the Whistler Blackcomb ski area. In 2015, one year before Vail purchased it, Whistler started the Women of Whistler Blackcomb program to address the problem of gender diversity at the resort.
The idea behind the program was to elevate more women into leadership positions by providing personal and professional development as well as learning and mentorship through networking opportunities, forums, camps and more.
When Vail purchased the resort in 2016, the company recognized the power of its female-empowered program and used it to create an enterprise-wide model called POWDER, or Providing Opportunity for Women through Diversity, Equality and Respect. POWDER launched in 2019 under the sponsorship of Campbell and Lynanne Kunkel, the chief human resources officer at Vail.
POWDER offers opportunities for the company’s men and women to meet six times a year. At these events, employees will hear from top female leaders, discuss challenges within the company and industry and seek mentorship and training to pursue leadership within the company.
“Since we launched POWDER, the company, as a whole has been more deliberate at naming and celebrating the women we have in key roles,” said Kate Schifani, manager of snowmaking at Vail Mountain. “This may seem like a small change, but so much about empowering more women to step into roles is enabling them to see themselves in people already there. It is a constant commitment at every level to say this is something we value and something we will pursue.”
Leading across departments
Schifani represents just one of many female leaders at Vail who is redefining typically male-dominated sectors of skiing. She is currently the only woman at Vail Resorts leading a snowmaking operation.
After leaving Air Force active duty, Schifani joined Vail Resorts in 2015 working on the race crew for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships at Beaver Creek and never left. While her predilection for leadership flourished during her 14 years Air Force, Schifani feels fortunate to work for a company that pushes for gender equality in leadership.
“There is still room for improvement, but it is incredible to see more and more women a few levels above me excelling in their roles and making our company stronger,” she said. “I don’t totally feel like I’m a major part of this push because I’m fortunate to just do what I love and have supportive champions, sponsors and advocates above me who let me do it.”
Another woman redefining possibilities for women in the industry is McCord. McCord joined the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol in 1981, the mountain’s second operating season, merging her nursing degree with her love of skiing. In 2000, McCord became the first female ski patrol director at Beaver Creek. Since then, she has continued this momentum, building the department to be 25% women. When she joined the patrol in 1981, there were only three women.
“I strive to lead by example and create a culture of inclusivity among the team, which means having patrollers of all genders and ages,” she said. “That said, I don’t hire based on gender; I hire based on who is best for the job. Women and men bring different strengths and skills to the table.”
Pilar Clark began working in the outdoor industry in college as a counselor at her childhood camp. This job gave her a passion for the outdoors and the tenacity that she carries into her job as a lift maintenance technician at Vail Mountain. In her 10 years with the company, mentorship and education have led her to where she is today.
“Vail has done a great job of hosting meetings with women from various mountain departments and roles where we talk about the obstacles we’ve faced and the triumphs we’ve achieved. This open discussion allows us to make connections, listen and learn from one another, which has been a very special dynamic,” Clark said.
And while support from top company leadership is great, having buy-in from colleagues is important to achieve true growth and success. “My momentum is driven by the growth of my team,” McCord said. “My team is really what has propelled by career and kept me in this job.”
This exemplifies one of the goal’s of POWDER: to bring together people from across the organization — and across genders — to have these discussions.
“It takes men and women at every level to look at our talent and grow it across our company, continually challenging the small barriers that have tangible effects on women,” Schifani said. “Like, why can’t I have a women’s version of the snowmaking pants? Because they don’t make them … yet.”
An industry reckoning
Vail Resorts represents one of the largest employers in the skiing industry. As such, these changes and programs have the power to spark discourse and change within other organizations and the industry as a whole.
“One of my favorite parts of working for Vail is that we are large enough to drive industry change in so many areas, and this is certainly one of them,” Schifani said. “Vail is big enough and audacious enough to expect the rest of the industry to keep up with us, so I expect the more Vail pushes for equality and diversity, the more other mountains will as well.”
And the industry has certainly begun to see a shift. In the past eight years, women-owned companies like Coalition Snow and Pallas Snowboard have begun to make waves creating equipment especially for females. The National Ski Patrol reported a 4 percent increase in the number of female patrollers from 2007 to 2021. In Feb. 2019, CEOs from 50 outdoor industry companies signed the CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge to make diversity and equality a visible priority. (Vail CEO Rob Katz did not sign this pledge, but has since signed a similar one, CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion.)
And like at Vail, more women have risen to boardrooms, corner offices and positions of leadership at companies across the industry.
“Showcasing women in traditionally male-dominated roles and industries is incredibly important — whether they’re in ‘leadership’ positions or not, having this visibility breaks down the mental and unconscious bias that are present in the work we do,” Clark said. “The more visibility the better, and not just for women, but for people who don’t view themselves as part of the outdoor culture.”
This industry change is just the beginning, as the next generation grows up there are new opportunities to get women engaged in the sport and the outdoors. As was the case with Clark, McCord and Schifani, getting girls engaged in the outdoors can spark an interest in the industry from a young age.
“Growth in this industry will only come from inclusion and accessibility. We need to make people, especially women and minorities, feel comfortable skiing and snowboarding, which comes in part from the continued visibility of these groups working at the mountain,” Clark said. “We also need to break down barriers to entry that relate to the affordability of the sport.”
Past gender diversity
As Vail Resorts continues to push for gender diversity across levels, the racial reckoning of Summer 2020 pushed the company to start pursuing racial diversity of well.
In June 2020, in an email to employees, Katz wrote that “we need to continue to be vigilant in creating a culture of acceptance and inclusion, expand access for communities that face barriers to enjoying the mountains, and contribute to groups that are on the front lines of standing up for basic human rights, especially for those who have historically been marginalized.”
In the email, Katz also noted that the next session of POWDER would focus on addressing issues of both gender and racial diversity.
Since then, the company has created a roadmap to address the industry’s lack of diversity, starting with fostering a more inclusive company culture. This roadmap includes a new leadership development program, called Leading Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, expanding youth access programs at its 34 North American resorts, donations to nonprofits serving communities of color and more.
In addition, Katz joined the Colorado Inclusive Economy, a collection of business leaders committed to rebuilding the state’s economy for all Coloradans. As part of this, Vail Resorts will be revamping how it hires, supports and advances employees of color.
“Change takes time. We’re seeing the results of 40 years of getting more and more women into this industry, both personally and professionally,” McCord said. “You can’t just talk about it once and check off your diversity box. You must continue the conversation and follow it up with action.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.