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The Solopreneur Journey to Award-Winning Success (w/ Heather Odendaal, Founder & CEO - WNORTH)

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:00:00]:

The business world is always changing, but the past few years have thrown some major curveballs. Teams have been getting smaller and smaller. The remote work revolution has brought about a new era of solopreneurship and intrapreneurship. For women, these changes provide more opportunities for us to step into leadership positions or at least they should. In 2015, Heather Odendaal Founded the WNORTH conference after her search for women based leadership communities came up empty. The aim of WNorth is simple, create more pathways for women to become business leaders through networking and collaboration. For the first 8 years, Heather worked as a solopreneur. Today, WNorth has a small team of just 4 full time employees, but they've punched far above their weight class.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:00:51]:

WNorth has spread to 7 chapter cities and launched a membership program with 1300 leaders from companies like Google, Lululemon, Aritzia, and Cisco. The conference has also won a half dozen awards and been held at swanky venues like the Four Seasons. As you could imagine, building WNorth was a massive undertaking for Heather. As an event planner, her time off had to be scheduled well in advance making it tough for her to step away. Starting the conference as a side hustle also meant that she was doing everything herself. And when COVID hit, she faced a whole new set of challenges. This week, I sat down with Heather to learn how she built WNorth into what it is today. We cover crucial topics for business leaders, like how to effectively motivate your team, build time off into your packed schedule, and adapt to unforeseen challenges through constant reflection and course correction.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:01:46]:

I'm Katherin Vasilopoulos, and this is And So, She Left, the podcast about incredible women entrepreneurs and the wisdom they gained beyond the corporate world. After graduating from university in 2004, Heather found herself working at a ski resort in Whistler, British Columbia. It was meant to be a temporary gig to pay off the bills. Then in 2010, as she was getting her 1st event planning business off the ground, her side hustle ended up pushing her into corporate.

Heather Odendaal [00:02:33]:

I picked up a sort of a side hustle or a side gig of a couple days a week being a wine rep. So I moved into beverage alcohol industry for a few years and, then sort of that role grew. And that's sort of the basis of my experience as a corporate remote employee, that kind of lay the foundations for me founding WNorth. And I was experiencing this proximity bias where I was, you know, obviously not in the head offices. This is back when remote work was kind of still a rarity.

And, I was trying to move myself up the corporate ladder and I noticed that In my particular organization and a few other organizations, there was very little support for women in kind of mid management positions to help them to get to the next level of leadership, and I actually had an experience where I would went looking for a conference that I wanted to attend that would connect me with other ambitious women in business that were kind of in that same position, and I couldn't find what I was looking for. So at that time, my husband kind of asked me. He said, well, you have an event planning background.

Heather Odendaal [00:03:49]:

You have an event planning company. Why don't you start something? And we know that Whistler is a destination that people love to come to. And you know that this demographic of women, and I did know that these women need to be taken almost out of their environment to really disconnect and really nurture relationships. So we knew the destination conference would be a great tool for these women. So I started the first WNorth conference, back in 2015.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:04:20]:

Do you remember what it was like when you first started?

Heather Odendaal [00:04:22]:

Yes. So when I got started, I actually one of the things I like to share because I think it's really important to acknowledge is that I didn't just quit my job and then start a business. Mhmm. WNorth was a side hustle for a couple of years, and I didn't actually quote unquote quit my day job until my side hustle could pay me what my day job did.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:04:49]:


Heather Odendaal [00:04:49]:

So I didn't have kids yet, so I was working 7 days a week. But that for me, there was a difficult transition, but it was needed. I wasn't in a position where I could just cold turkey decide, okay, I'm gonna start a business because I've been around enough entrepreneurs to know that it takes time. So I was solopreneur for about 8 years before I started onboarding and having, you know, full time employees, which I do now.

The hardest part of this journey is running a business by yourself, you know, being, the 1 person that does it all the financials as well as doing the social media as well as, you know, there are so many layers to running a business. And I've also had moments where It has gone back down to being in a solepreneur position, and then, in between some shifts in our staff. We have 4 full time employees, so we're a small team. You know, that's still really an important part of my day to day is empowering those for people because when you're a team of that small, they still have to be very entrepreneurial.

Heather Odendaal [00:05:56]:

They have to be very open to coloring outside the lines of their job description. And I think that's a really key part of growing your team is motivating your team members to, embrace entrepreneurship.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:06:10]:

Right. The motivation piece is huge, I think, in business, because when you start, there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but then you need to be able to sustain that, and the motivation may or may not be there at some point. How do you manage that?

Heather Odendaal [00:06:24]:

A lot of it comes down to with my team specifically, we are all aligned on the mission. So our mission is to develop more women to senior leadership positions and positions of power within Canada and the US, and that's sort of a thread in everything that we do, and they it's a mission that they get behind. I wanna share, a story about, one of my team members and how she became a team member. So, you know, we had had a position that was posted a few years ago. We had hired for it, and that person had subsequently left, and we did have a hole in our team. I told some of my other team members, We aren't gonna hire for this position right away.

We're going to see how things go, and we'll maybe hire for it in the new year. And I remember getting an email from one of our members that had been a member for several years, and she reached out and she had very little experience in the relevant work experience of what we actually needed in that position, but it was all learnable.

Heather Odendaal [00:07:34]:

It was all something that with some training and some leadership she could be outstanding at. And she reached out because she said, you know, I'm making a career shift. I'm, you know, a mom. I've been doing this for so many years, and I am just so in aligned with the mission of your business that I wanna be part of your team. And you posted this job a few years ago, and I just really would like to join the team. And so we essentially built a role for her and trained her up. And, you know, I think it's one of the best hiring decisions that I've ever made because she came to us completely aligned with our mission, and she maybe didn't have the work experience or the, skill set, but we trained her, we developed her, And it's a very powerful dynamic and team that we have now. So I I'm very conscious when I'm building a team that it doesn't have to just be matching resumes.

Heather Odendaal [00:08:36]:

It needs to be, the whole fabric of the team.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:08:41]:

Along with the the theme of motivation, let's talk about longevity because that's the, I think, the next step. You know, you start off, you're you're motivated, you hire a few employees, but then how do you keep a business going after the 5 year mark or the 10 year mark even in your case?

Heather Odendaal [00:08:58]:

It's a great question and it's something I've been thinking a lot of. Last year I was traveling an enormous amount for work. From about January to June, I was away about a third of the time. I have 2 children. I was burnt out, kind of towards the end of June. I kind of was losing a bit of motivation because it felt like things were just not ticking. We were doing all the things. We were asking all the, what we thought were the right questions, and we were putting in a lot of time and things just were not converting for us.

Heather Odendaal [00:09:35]:

And I remember we had this trip planned that we've been planning for about 6 years. It was to go to Europe, to go to the Rugby World Cup. My husband is South African rugby fan. And so I almost cancelled the trip several times because, you know, things were challenging in the business, you know, that we had some things external things that were going on. And in the end, I I just said, you know what? I think I need this time with my family.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:10:04]:


Heather Odendaal [00:10:04]:

To connect with my kids, my children, to get pumped about my my role as a founder again. There are all sorts of reasons and I didn't see this until probably even in the last couple of months, how much clarity that, break gave me. So I took a month off and I had only the 1st time I had actually been taken a week off without checking email and doing any work was the year before in 2022. And so moving from a week off to a month off the next year was a big shift, and my team supported me so well in having that space, and it just set me on a different path or a different trajectory.

I've been a founder for 14 years at that point, and so I really needed a reset. I'm so happy that I went through with it, and I said yes. We're gonna do this because it was that reset and that motivation that I needed to keep going. And, it really set us up for success, and I I'll tell you that I don't know if it's just coincidence, but when we got back, you know, in the fall, things started to, you know, really tick along.

Heather Odendaal [00:11:20]:

We started to succeed at the things that we were striving for, and I I came to work with a lot more clarity and a lot more focus than I had before. I truly felt like I was starting a different stage of my life after I got back from that trip.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:11:39]:

And when you walk away from work for a while through vacation or retreat, it's true. You come back with clarity. You come you come back with a different energy, and your maybe your brain has given itself time to, disconnect and then see things a bit differently or run some processes in the background. It sounds like you also had people in the background to support and also processes and systems in place that allowed you to disconnect that way and spend time with your family. Am I correct?

Heather Odendaal [00:12:05]:

Definitely. And that's definitely a privilege that I recognize having an a few more employees. It's very hard as I was a solopreneur for 8 years. It is very hard to do the complete disconnect. There's not as many people to pass along, responsibilities to and it takes time, you know, to develop the processes, that will enable your business to continue to operate for you while you're away and I fully acknowledge that. And so it's something that I laugh at the sometimes when I explain to people as an event planner, you know, we plan events 12 to 18, sometimes 24 months in advance.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:12:47]:

Oh, wow.

Heather Odendaal [00:12:48]:

Okay. So, yes. And you don't wanna take some time off. It actually needs to be built in, you know, a year and a half in advance. That's right. Gonna take this much time off. So it wasn't just like overnight that we were like, yeah, let's just go. It was a few years in the making for sure.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:13:04]:

Right. When you started your business, though, did you have a 10 year plan, or were you looking that far ahead? Because in my case, I know I wasn't. I was just taking it year by year and whatever can happen. So what what was your process like?

Heather Odendaal [00:13:19]:

I would love to tell you that I had this, like, 10 year, 5 even the 5 year vision. I definitely had a vision. The membership has always been, you know, something that I wanted to build, the conference was selling out every year. And then, you know, I think as the world has its funny ways, I got hit with a new challenge, which was the pandemic, and we were primarily an in person events that based business. So that definitely threw off my 3 year plans that I had kind of loosely crafted. That I've been able to get back to this place of doing, you know, 3 to 5 year planning because it was so disruptive.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:14:08]:

Of course. Your industry, anything that was in person, anything that was considered a luxury, anything that was considered to bring people together had to stop. So in your case, you are lucky you survived it, and you're coming back to this stronger than ever.

Heather Odendaal [00:14:23]:

Yeah. And it totally it kind of, from a strategic planning perspective, took the wind out of our sails a little bit, but I'm happy to report moving into 2024, you know, all the trends that we're seeing with regards to, you know, what does 2024 look like, there's a real focus on In person connection, there's a real focus on belonging. There's a huge focus on ambition and harnessing your emission in moving into that next level, whatever that looks like for you, and these are all very positive ways forward for our organization.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:14:59]:

Why is it important for you to do this job?

Heather Odendaal [00:15:02]:

Because for a long time there was very little focus on women in the middle. We were talking about how, you know, how there's more Daves, the CEOs, than there are women. We were talking about all of the challenges of not having women in powerful positions. But nobody was talking about the fact that we weren't supporting women on their path to senior leadership. I mean, we are now very much talking about how 2% of venture capital funding goes to women, and we have, you know, a lot of organizations that are coming in to support getting female founders more money. There has been a shift. But again, when I started this, when I started WNorth in 2015, we were having very few conversations about women leaving the workforce.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:15:58]:

What kind of results do you see when you get those people together to to speak?

Heather Odendaal [00:16:03]:

So it's it's really interesting because the results of the conference, we had about a 78% retention rate of women coming back every year and which is super high and I guess it was in 2017 that women really put their hands up and said, you know, Heather, this is amazing coming here and and having these inspirational talks and workshops and connecting with these women, but I need it more than just once a year. And so it was in 2018 that we, decided to launch, membership. That was yeah. I guess we're coming on six years now with our membership, we now have almost 1300 members, mostly across Canada and the US.

And what that sort of model provided the opportunity for was other ways to grow and other ways to develop other than just that one time per year. In fact, we actually run we run a forum program, which is 6 women, an executive coach, who meet biweekly inside of the space of this membership, and that program has been one of the most effective programs. We did a survey, 58% of those who participated in the forum program Got a promotion within a year.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:17:26]:

Oh, wow.

Heather Odendaal [00:17:27]:

Yeah. So we have these programs that we've built inside the container of the membership that kind of allowed us to continue to focus on these women even when they're not at that conference setting.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:17:43]:

I wanted to also ask you about, any advice that you would have for someone who is getting started or someone who's been in it as long as you have. What are your main pearls of wisdom that you've acquired over the years?

Heather Odendaal [00:17:57]:

So I have two pieces of advice. The first would be work for another entrepreneur, work in a small business, work for a founder, be in an entrepreneurial environment before you go full tilt out on your own. Not to say that you may not like it or you may not have the grit, it's more about learning from those experiences and learning from another founder and having the ability to, you know, see some of those new business or small business mistakes that maybe not in your own in your own business. So that would be my one you know, my first piece of advice is work for another founder or entrepreneurial organization. And then the second would be consider starting it as a side hustle. Sometimes it takes years to really find the niche and to really find the correct focus through your business. I mean, that was my personal experience. I did start it as a side hustle and I was able to see whether it would...

Heather Odendaal [00:18:58]:

This thing's got legs. So those would be my two pieces of advice. I just also encourage people to Listen to more podcasts like this where you have founders sharing the shiny, bright, beautiful things about entrepreneurship, But also the challenges that you can face. It's definitely a roller coaster ride and so if you're ready, drop in and, you know, it is a it's an incredible roller coaster, but it does, you know, it's not for everybody and so I think just preparing yourself by doing a couple of things, you know, to kind of educate yourself on entrepreneurship would be great.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:19:39]:

And also, you know, you have to hear people's challenges in order to learn from that and say, oh, I see. I'm not alone in this. And that's what they went through, and they still survived it. And I find those stories more fascinating than anything. Yes. Yes. Let me ask you, though. What what advice did you receive along the way?

Heather Odendaal [00:19:57]:

I think some of the best advice was focusing on the people and less about the resume, that is definitely something that has served me well in growing a core team. I would also say the giving yourself some space and shutting off, as an entrepreneur, like, it really took me a long time to actually acknowledge that I could and I needed that space. I I guess surrounding yourself with, yeah. Definitely other founders, but also other advisers or even a personal board of directors. You know, those people that have maybe their founders that have 10 years more experience than you, they're a little bit further down the road and, you know, really connecting with them to gain and I glean from some of their advice.

One of the things I always like to sort of share is I'm a pay it forward kind of gal. I like to form connections and, make introductions with other people so that hopefully one day, you know, down the road if I need an introduction from them, you know, there has been an effort, on my part to sort of facilitate and make connections for them. So that's something that I really encourage a lot of founders to do Is to make sure that they are always thinking about if they're in a networking event and they see 2 people that they think, you know, these 2 could really benefit from being connected form you know, walking over, creating that, introduction, and paying it forward.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:21:37]:

I wanna go back to something you said, though, before. We were talking about shutting off and, disconnecting. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on on what that meant for you, and, you know, describe the experience. Like, why was it so hard? Because I know many people don't take any time off when they're solopreneurs. They they just feel like they need to be glued to their computer 7 days a week and not be able to leave.

Heather Odendaal [00:22:02]:

I think one of the reasons it's so hard is because you are always constantly striving for success. I'll be honest, like, there's things that dipped for sure. Like, I wasn't doing any new business development during that time. I came back and definitely had to step in to high gear for some things and that will happen. But you know what? Sometimes the sales will actually be better if you deep dive in in October versus the 1st week of September. And so I think for me it was so rewriting the narrative around when I was doing things. And if I was emailing or I was trying to get a whole bunch of productivity done at the last week of August. No one was gonna get back to me anyway.

Heather Odendaal [00:22:47]:

So I think for me it was framing up what does the fall look like when I get back, how can I actually be very productive? And then as I knew I had a plan, I started to relax. I took my foot off the gas pedal and I gave myself the ability to just embrace where I was. Mhmm. We were also moving around a lot. We went to 9 different accommodations with 2 small children. I didn't have time to even look at my phone or answer emails, and so I think that helped as well.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:23:20]:

Did you ever wonder though if things were gonna fall apart the minute you left? And, you know, you absolutely have to stay there, and instead, you gave yourself that permission to go.

Heather Odendaal [00:23:30]:

For sure. You worry sometimes as well, like, what your team is gonna say. And that was, for me, a little bit of my worry was I have a very flexible policy with my team. They can work from anywhere in the world, but I don't give them a month off, you know, so I was a little worried about that being the founder and being present for them and it was actually my team that was like, we don't wanna hear from you, you know, like, they were like, we better not hear from you. You need this space, enjoy it, we've got this. And when you have a team that has says that to you, that was the probably what made me feel the most relaxed.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:24:10]:

It's a difficult place to be when you're a solopreneur, to wanna take time off, to wanna disconnect, and worrying that if you come back, the clients have gone elsewhere.

Heather Odendaal [00:24:20]:


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:24:21]:

And so what would you say to people who are in that position?

Heather Odendaal [00:24:25]:

If I'm honest, I think it's about intentionally picking the time when you are time off. If there are cycles in your business, which there are always cycles, finding the right balance of when to take that time off because there will I will be honest, if you do step away for, let's say, a month, you will miss opportunities, but there will be some opportunities that may come across your plate and they are gone by the time you come back. But I think it's a matter of putting the systems in place for when you get back to sort of grab all the opportunities as they come along. I also think it is okay to stay, you know, somewhat connected, have this idea that you're gonna go away for a month and you're just gonna work 5 hours a week. And this is your window. This is where you're gonna find the space, and that's okay. In fact, I know a lot of founders that operate that way, and they feel more relaxed in that setting because they're like, I did what I needed to do, and now I can enjoy the rest of the week. So I think it's about finding the balance of what works for you.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:25:31]:

Thank you so much to Heather Odendaal. You can learn more about WNorth through the link in the episode description. If you like the show, please rate, review, and subscribe to And So, She Left wherever you listen. Your feedback helps us to better serve current listeners and reach new ones. We also have a new website.

Head over to for full episodes, transcripts, an application form to be on the show, a list of upcoming guests, and more. And so she left is made by Cansulta and Ethan Lee. Cansulta connects entrepreneurs and leaders with a global roster of Over 150 pre-vetted consultants and experts like Ethan and I who can help organizations in any business area from HR to finance to sales and marketing and even business leadership.

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:26:16]:

We'll be back next Wednesday with a new episode. Our music is by Correspondence and Chris Zabriskie, edited for your enjoyment. You can find a list of all the songs you heard here in the episode notes. I'm Katherin Vasilopoulos, and thanks for listening.

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