TCBN Roundtable: Four female business leaders discuss pandemic, diversity and more

The future is female.

That phrase has been a popular one over the past several years, in reference to everything from politics to entertainment. It could also be accurately applied to Traverse City, where women are growing their presence in the local business community in exciting and dynamic ways.

For TCBN’s annual women in business issue, we met with four of the brightest stars in local business in a virtual roundtable that touched upon pandemic challenges and silver linings, diversity and equity, and more.

Our panel includes:

  • Dawn Olsen, spa director and director of recreation at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa
  • Stephanie Wiitala, co-owner of S2S Sugar 2 Salt, a restaurant in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons; and owner of S2S Sunrise 2 Sunset Events, which manages the Cathedral Barn at Historic Barns Park
  • Coco Champagne, chief operations officer at Hagerty
  • Katie Horvath, previously CEO of Naveego, a 13-person data management software startup based in Traverse City; now vice president of marketing and communications for Aunayltics, the 250-employee company that acquired Naveego in February

 

What has the last year looked like for each of you and your businesses? What was the biggest challenge you faced, and was there actually a silver lining?

Dawn Olsen

Olsen: The biggest hurdle was the uncertainty of how we were going to bring the Resort back from this. The Resort is a large business, so I think people sometimes think, ‘Oh, they’re fine, right?’ But the pandemic hit us just as hard as it hit everybody else: financially, emotionally, all of that.

Now that we’re about a year in, we see more of the light at the end of the tunnel, and the biggest highlight for us is how quickly our business turned back around. We had one of the best summers we could ask for – from a leisure standpoint – once we were able to reopen, and the Spa has been doing very well. We are a little limited … with capacity, but the wellness aspect of the spa, and what we offer to people, is huge right now. I think consumers see the value in that more than ever, with all the daily stresses we’re living through.

Wiitala: With regards to the events management side of my business, everything was shut down. When you’re overseeing a business where plans are sometimes set a year or two in advance, it created a lot of emotion and very difficult decisions for groups who either 1) just couldn’t have their event at all; 2) determined they didn’t want to have their event because of COVID and safety; or 3) were unsatisfied with the regulations that had to be followed when it came to masking and social distancing. (Those things) put me into a large amount of work in just the cancellation process.

In my restaurant business, when COVID hit a year ago, that took us completely by surprise. For us, it was a giant pivot into a business model that we never anticipated for our restaurant. (Our model had) largely featured a dining situation and an experience where people would come into the restaurant and enjoy the products and the services that we had to offer. Our pivot was to do what we were allowed to do, which meant taking a to-go program that never existed and putting it together in a very quick amount of time.

We’re a family business, and so the four of us – me, my partner, Jonathan, and my two older kids – ran the business almost all summer. That gave us a safety factor because we went to work together, and we went home together. We learned two things: 1) we can still operate our business, and 2) we’re the owners and can make the decisions that work for us. What that equated to was much, much less revenue. But even though the percentages went down, we still paid our bills and were still able to run a business.

Coco Champagne

Champagne: We were fortunate because we were able to transition 98 percent of our employees to a work-from-home circumstance. Initially, that was probably our largest challenge: to ensure that everybody had the tools and the connections that they needed in order to service our members from home. And then making sure that our employees felt like they were engaged with the company [was a challenge]. We’re a business of 1,500 employees in multiple locations, but we do have a very strong culture and strong team engagement. To make [the work-from-home] transition created some kind of vulnerability.

We doubled down on our communications and ensured that our employees knew what was going on in the business. We made sure we were staying true to one of the core things about our culture, which is listening to our employees. We created surveys to gauge their engagement, and we acted upon what we heard from our employees about what they needed from us.

The silver lining, to me, is that we are able to work in a dispersed environment. We brought in about 300 new employees during the pandemic, and were able to get them onboarded and trained and assimilated into the organization. We aren’t limited by looking at employees simply in this [geographic] market; we were able to expand out because people are working in a dispersed manner.

I think the hardest thing for me is to recognize the challenge [faced by] my fellow working moms. People lost their childcare, they lost access to their [extended] family. They had a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity as it related to taking care of their kids, or school. It put a lot of pressure on the people that are caregivers. That, to me, was the biggest challenge, because there wasn’t a clear solution. I was just trying to extend grace and understanding for people in those circumstances.

Katie Horvath

Horvath: Coco, you reminded me of the challenge of engaging employees remotely, especially when you’re onboarding new ones. For me, one of the things that I liked is that we turned on our video cameras. For years, we had this video technology, and we’d go into meetings and nobody would turn on their cameras. I felt that, in some ways – not only with our team, but also our customers and our vendors – we were getting to know each other on a more personal level because you’d see somebody’s home office and you got to know a little bit more about them.

At the same time, it is challenging to make people feel welcome and part of a culture if they haven’t really seen it in person. For us, it’s interesting because our entire business is a cloud-based product. Our technology makes it so that people can have their data and trust that the data is accurate; that they’re getting answers to their important business questions out of our analytics; and that they can do that from anywhere. We’re a cloud product, so what that meant for me, just by kind of setting the example, was we shut down our operations to 100% work-from-home on March 10 of last year. And we still are.

The uncertainty, though, was that data analytics can move from a need-to-have to a nice-to-have, particularly in an economy where everything’s up in the air. Everybody put the brakes on initially, and we weren’t sure what was going to happen with our customers and revenue. At the same time, there was increased digital adoption for ways of doing business, and for people realizing that work functions that had been done in person could be done remotely. So they needed more remote tools [like ours].

Over the year, we were able to find growth with Naveego, and we were able to move up the time frame for acquisition with Aunalytics, which had been a strategic investor in Naveego. We collaborated early on in the pandemic, and we realized it made the most sense for everybody involved for us to come together sooner than planned.

It was really important for me to find that partner, as CEO of Naveego. [An acquisition] was always our five-year plan. But to find the right partner – somebody who wanted to community build, and cared about promoting diversity and inclusion and creating high paying jobs in a community – that mattered, too. I definitely didn’t want us to be acquired by some big company that would dismantle and take the jobs and move them elsewhere. And that was the opposite of Aunalytics. So my silver lining is that we found a partner who is invested in Traverse City. Already we’re hiring again to grow the team here, because they want to continue to support our community with jobs.

When it comes to offering a place opportunity for anyone – regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation – how do you think northern Michigan stacks up? Have we gained ground in recent years or are we stagnant?

Olsen: I think we’ve gained ground. I think everybody can agree to that. I see Traverse City growing in leaps and bounds. Even with the pandemic, I see so many more job opportunities for everyone, whether it be race, gender, whatever it may be. There is a lot more job opportunity than I remember even five years ago.

I see that growth happening within the Resort as well. Unfortunately, it’s been one of those years where we haven’t been able to onboard a lot of new people. But I do see our hiring bouncing back within the next six to eight months, and I know diversity is going to be something that we have at the forefront of our minds.

Stephanie Wiitala

Wiitala: I like the word ‘diversity,’ and I’m going use it in a sense that is maybe a little different than you mean. This year we’ve hardly hired at all; we went from 20 employees down to four [during the shutdown].

But what I’ve found, as we’ve hired people back or looked to hire new people, is that we look for people who are comfortable using a diversity of skills. Instead of just coming in and being a server, [our employees] know how to work each portion of the business. It gives them more opportunity to have more hours. We really found that out when restaurants shut down again in November. I had a few employees who didn’t want to stop working and didn’t want to go back on unemployment. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a serving job for you. But we’re doing these to-go dinner packages; do you want to come back in the kitchen and help us put those together? And it was a resounding, ‘Yes. whatever we can do, we just want to be a part of this place.’

I’m very excited, as Dawn said, to see over the next six to eight months the opportunity to grow ourselves back to a place that offers even more opportunity for us to hire. I work in a business where I work with people who are just joining the workforce, whether they’re still in high school or just people who are looking for part-time positions to fill their need to connect with people. Maybe there’s a mom who just wants to get out of the house a couple days a week, and be around people, and work in a place that they can be a part of a team. We’ve always been very inclusive.

Champagne: [At Hagerty], thinking about diversity and inclusion (D&I) is something that we’ve always done. But we have made a commitment and put additional resources behind that to help us make sure that we’re actually doing what we say we’re going to do. We recently hired a D&I director, who will be reporting up through my organization to ensure that we’ve got the right kind of goals or kind of programming, and the right kind of employment groups to help nourish that.

Having a strong D&I presence is very important for attracting the right kind of talent. Top talent is looking to see where an employer stands on many social issues, and D&I is an important one. We have done things in the past to ensure that we’re on the right track. Every 18 months, we do a compensation audit to ensure that our pay equity between genders is fair and that there are no discrepancies.

We’re also seeking a gender balance. While a portion of our business is about insurance – what could typically be more of a male dominated field – we’re about 50/50, men to women, within the organization and in our leadership roles. Once we get to the vice president level, we’re 60/40. The good news is our talent pipeline is full of really smart women.

I believe we need to do more from a racial diversity perspective, and I’m really hopeful that our ability to attract talent from a more dispersed location [because of remote work] will allow us to bring that diverse thought.

Horvath: I grew up in Traverse City and my daughter is mixed race. When I was making a decision whether or not to come back to the area, that was a factor. Would she have enough of a support group, and people who look like her to look to as mentors? We decided to come back, and I will say, I was pleased – and I continue to be pleased – that we are doing better all the time on racial diversity. Our Traverse City team of my company [is] over 50 percent diverse, and that includes many different races and ethnic origins. And even women are considered diverse in technology, where only about 20 percent of jobs are held by women.

We recruit nationally and one of the side benefits of having great talent applying from all across the country and world is that those who are rising to the top come from so many different backgrounds. We’ve been fortunate to be able to create jobs and move new people to Traverse City, and I’ve been really happy that people are willing to take the chance on our town, coming in knowing that they don’t necessarily have a community of people who come from their similar background. They’re willing to be one of the first in the area. I think we need to get that critical core going, so that people feel comfortable and can see themselves on our downtown sidewalks.

What advice would you give to a young woman just graduating high school or college and coming into the business world, or even boomeranging back to northern Michigan?

Olsen: I personally think that they should be willing to start at any level. Fresh out of college doesn’t mean that you’re starting at a high-level management position. I think it’s important to learn the business from working your way up because it gives you the ability to know each and every role. For me, in my position, it gives a lot of respect when my staff knows that I can do everything that they do. I didn’t just step into the role that I’m currently in; I worked my way up.

Wiitala: We get people who graduate culinary school and think they’re going to be a restaurant owner, or that they’re going to run the kitchen right away. But there’s a component of experience that I think Dawn was hitting upon that you can only gain from work. I have a daughter in college, and one thing her and I talk about often is to pay attention to what you’re interested in, to what you love. It’s about finding a way to build a career for yourself that allows you to exercise the things that you love, even if it originally starts out as maybe not your dream job. How can you take parts of the job that you’re doing currently and use it as a way to grow and learn? It’s all part of a journey.

Champagne: I believe strongly in creating a sense of independence, especially for women. Every woman should be able to, if they choose, have the career that they want to have, and to have a career where they’re making their own money and making their own decisions. I think that that’s very helpful for our economy and I believe it’s very helpful for women in general. Build a job, build a career, save some money and be independent. Because at the end of the day, it’s up to you for carving your own path. Demonstrate that you’ve got some curiosity, demonstrate that you’ve got some willingness to do the work that’s tough, to do the work that maybe other people don’t want to do and keep making yourself better.

Horvath: I think about how we’re stronger together. Women used to feel really competitive for the ‘female spot’ on the executive team. I’m so glad we’re beyond that, because we are much stronger when we are collaborating and working together.

I also think about resilience, adaptability and being ready to evolve in your career. You never know what’s going to happen in your personal life, or when you’ll have a global pandemic thrown at you that’s going to change the game and what you need to have in your skill set. So my advice is: Always be willing to learn new things.

COVID-19 has negatively impacted so many aspects of our lives, but it’s created some changes in business that are positives, too. What’s one change you’d like to see linger after the pandemic subsides?

Olsen: The pandemic has brought our teams at the Resort – not only our executive team, but also just our interdepartmental teams within the Resort as a whole – so much closer. We’ve been through this huge, insurmountable thing together, and I’ve noticed that we’re all just that much closer now. We work better as a team, and we’re much more lenient on each other. [The pandemic] has created this workplace where we’re all here for each other.

For the Spa specifically, we are in very close proximity to people. We’re in treatment rooms with them, we’re in closed spaces. And I think making our staff feel very safe was probably the number one priority for us. How do we get our staff to come back, and do their job, and feel comfortable and safe doing it? Because if they don’t, the guest service is going to suffer. That was huge for us, and we crossed that bridge, and I think our staff feels very safe here. They feel good coming in and it’s brought everybody together, so I hope that continues.

Wiitala: I hope the attention to health and safety continues at the level that it is. I work in a business where that’s always been at the top of our minds. Any time you’re feeding people, that’s a privilege, and people trust you to be following the right protocols and all the safety procedures that are put in place to make that transaction healthy. I’m happy to see that there’s a much higher level of attention to those kinds of things, and I don’t want to see it go away. It certainly makes my staff feel safer about what’s going on. They feel more supported right now than ever, that people are being respectful of that.

I’m also thankful to see that we are accessing more of the outdoors, and that we are seeing that we can create programs like to-go options for people who don’t really feel comfortable going out. People have new options now, to access businesses and try their products in a way they wouldn’t have been able to before.

Champagne: For us, it’s an effort around how we can stay connected through using technology. Just the fact that we can have employees that work all over, and we can access and connect with them through Zoom, that’s amazing technology that we have, and I hope that we continue to do that. I’m in many meetings where we’re able to gather 350 people all on one zoom call, and it can make communication easier.

Our return-to-office approach will be thoughtful and intentional about the kind of work that people are actually doing. How do we bring people back in a better way? When we’re together, it’s about making sure that it’s very meaningful; making sure it’s around knowledge transfer; making sure it’s around times when we really need to collaborate, or team build, or work on extensive amounts of training or understanding of our brand. But then when you need to do heads-down work, it’s making sure that you have the availability to do that in your home office.

At the same time, I’m hopeful that we can move quickly on [returning to the office], because I do think it makes a difference in our local economy. Nine hundred of our employees are in the Grand Traverse area and I think it’s helpful when they are coming in and out of the Hagerty building, because then they’re swinging in and buying something from local retailers, or they’re going out to lunch and dinner. I think it’s a vital part of our community for downtown to have the economic growth of more people down there.

Horvath: I’ve really liked the flexibility that has come out of this, with work situations and working from home. Back around 2000, I was managing teams of remote employees when I was living and working in Silicon Valley and up in Redmond, Washington. That was just normal on the West Coast; coming back to Traverse City, I don’t think it was.

Some of the realizations that have come out of being forced to stay home are, ‘Hey, we actually can do this job from home,’ or ‘Hey, we can trust that our employees are going to be productive and engaged and get the job done.’ I hope we don’t lose that flexibility, because I think it’s helpful to lower stress. If somebody knows on their break that, instead of hanging around the water cooler and telling jokes, they can throw in a little laundry or get the Crock Pot going for dinner, for some parents that is just such a relief.

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