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Shauna Hardy Mishaw - Creating a new business paradigm in Whistler

"Whistler has become my sanctuary. It brings me so much joy to live here..." - Shauna Hardy Mishaw She's bold and confident and rarely takes no for an answer. She can be unrelenting too. Even abrasive when she feels she has to be.

"Whistler has become my sanctuary. It brings me so much joy to live here..."

- Shauna Hardy Mishaw


She's bold and confident and rarely takes no for an answer. She can be unrelenting too. Even abrasive when she feels she has to be. But make no mistake, when it comes to celebrating the values of her adopted hometown, Alberta-born Shauna Hardy Mishaw is all in.

"I feel so fortunate to make my home here," says the executive director of the Whistler Film Festival Society and grand-poobah at this week's cinema shindig. "I grew up in a family of very keen skiers and so we spent a lot of time in the mountains. I loved growing up in Alberta. It's a special place. But Whistler felt right from the moment I moved here."

She laughs, a growly/happy sound that comes from deep inside her. It's a trademark chortle, and one of her most endearing traits. You see, no matter how tough a businesswoman people may perceive her to be, Shauna has a heart the size of a barn. And enough of a sense of humour to realize it's both a strength and a weakness. She's not a big gal, far from it. I bet she barely nudges over the five-foot barrier. But her energy, her vision - her desire to make positive things happen around her - make her a giant among her peers. And for the Whistler community that's a very good thing.

Consider this week's film festival. Now celebrating its ninth year of existence - "it was such a little idea at first," says Hardy Mishaw - Whistler's very own movie party has morphed into one of the most exciting independent ventures to ever be launched in the Sea to Sky corridor. Why? Because it fulfils one of the region's most important needs: and that is developing diverse new ways to promote the resort's recreational offerings.

Remember diversification? Remember how important that concept was to our much-vaunted Whistler 2020 vision? Well, Hardy Mishaw is one local event promoter who gets it. "Not a lot of people in Whistler really understand what it is I do," says the red-headed dynamo and mom of two toddlers (as if she didn't have enough to keep her busy). "But I spend the better part of my year promoting Whistler to folks in the entertainment business. And you know what? Those people like coming here. They genuinely want to come to Whistler." She smiles. "So yeah, with the film festival we've created an important cultural event, but I think it's just as important to understand its potential for attracting new visitors too. I mean, do you know how big cultural tourism is these days?"

Indeed. And with most everyone in the valley suffering from Olympic tunnel vision in recent years, maybe it's time we acknowledge those who are looking beyond February 2010 for Whistler's future sustainability...

Which, in the end, is what the film festival story is all about. It's an against-all-odds kind of tale of how two young thirtysomethings, Shauna and friend Kasi Lubin, launched a non-profit society in 2001 with the crazy, inconceivable, totally unrealistic dream of bringing Canada's hard-working filmmaking community together at Whistler for a long-weekend of fun-seeking, movie-going, deal-making and network-building. The fact that the duo actually succeeded in their unlikely quest is what makes this story so compelling. Today, the film festival contributes more than $10 million annually to Whistler's economy. More importantly, it is getting increasingly serious attention from Canada's (and dare I say, North America's) glitterari. After all, over $50 million in film deals have been signed here during the festival's nine-year run.

"That's why I still feel so strongly about it," says Hardy Mishaw. Another heartfelt burst of laughter. "It's actually happening. We're actually getting traction with this thing..."

And, she adds, much of that traction couldn't have happened without local support. "We've had a lot of help over the years - and from all segments of the community," she says. "Even the big guys - the RMOW, Whistler Blackcomb and Tourism Whistler - were quick to step up and give us a hand. Frankly, we couldn't have gotten to this point without them."

But she admits it's been a long and trying nine years. "It feels sometimes like I have three children," she say, "two natural kids and the festival. I mean, really, with the festival it's been just like going through another birth process." She sighs. "And just about as painful." From a seat-of-the pants project being managed out of a closet office in 2001, she explains, the festival quickly grew in scope and responsibility. "It was total mayhem at first. We just made it up as we went along. I mean, in the beginning, we didn't even know if people would actually come..."

But come they did. And the great majority of them liked what they saw. "It's ironic in a way," she adds. "I come from a very entrepreneurial background. But here I am running a charitable organization." She pauses just enough to take a breath. Another gang of giggles escapes. "But you know, I still run it like a business."

No question about that. People say she has the determination of a pit bull and the focus of a cobra. This is a woman, friend and foe both understand, who refuses to suffer fools. But give her a project and a deadline, and she'll deliver the results on time and on budget. Or close. "I like being in charge," she says. "It's that simple. I've never felt attracted to being an employee. I've always been very passionate about running my own business." In other words, she's the captain of her ship. You either do it her way, or...

Tough business chick, right? All meeting, all work, all the time.

But not really. For the more I chat with her, the more another Hardy Mishaw is exposed. Know what I'm saying? The more I hear stories from her formative years the more I realize that the hard-charging event-producer I've come to know in recent years reveals only one dimension of this very complex person. I mean, who knew that she was such a well-travelled skier? Who knew she was a card-carrying, second-generation Snoweater?

A sudden burst of laughter. "It's true. My dad was mad about skiing. I got my start on a little toboggan hill in Edmonton at age two. Like a lot of Canadians, skiing was a big part of family life when I was growing up..."

But Shauna's dad had bigger plans for his kids than merely skiing down a local toboggan hill. "He'd always dreamed of spending a winter in Europe," she explains. "So when I turned five, he had a VW van shipped to Austria and moved the family to Lech for the season." Nestled in a high Arlberg valley, just up the road from St. Anton and Zurs (and just one valley over from the birthplace of alpine skiing) the little village of Lech is without a doubt one of the most scenic and beautiful mountain resorts in the world. For the Hardy family it was home for the better part of four winters.

"It was amazing," she says. "The mountain culture in Austria - skiing from village-to-village, the food, the après-ski, the bands playing live in the street, the people dancing and having a good time - those who haven't lived it just don't realize how rich the European skiing experience really is." Another long sigh. "It touched me in a deep way."

But it wasn't only the ski experience that touched her. For her parents made sure Shauna and her brother saw more than just the slopes of the Arlberg. "That was the cool part," she explains. "We travelled everywhere in that van - Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. I think I saw my first gun before I was six, on a guard in East Berlin! It was the kind of education you can only dream about..."

Alas, all good things must eventually come to an end. By the spring of 1978, it was over. "My brother was starting high school, and my parents thought it was time for us to settle down in Canada again." She stops talking. For just a moment a cloud passes over her features. Although she didn't know it at the time, that four-year idyll would come to loom large in her life story. "My dad passed away just a few years later when I was 12," she explains. "So you see, the first chapter of my life with him was very important. He loved to have fun. And I'm so glad I got to spend those four winters with him. I feel so blessed, you know - by the time I was nine I'd seen the world."

Maybe that's why Whistler spoke to her so powerfully on that November day in 1990 when she first set foot on its slopes. "I don't know exactly what it was," she says of her first impression of the place. "But it was definitely an 'Aha!' moment for me. The mountains, the snow, the people, the European feel of the village - I just knew there was magic here... and I wanted to be part of it."

And part of it is what she became. "Now my hope is that Whistlerites really embrace the festival," she says. "This has got to be the year we finally get over the hump." One last long sigh interrupts her flow of words. "It's been a lot of work so far. And I'm not sure how long we can keep going at this pace. But right now, I'm so proud of my team for what we've accomplished.  This is going to be the best festival ever!"