When the Winter Olympics begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, later this week, Vania Grandi will be there, enjoying a fairly unique vantage point.
Ms. Grandi has seen it from every angle. The native of Trieste, Italy, moved to Banff at the age of five, where she grew up watching the Games on TV. She competed on the Canadian national ski team, then covered winter sports as a reporter for The Associated Press in Italy, and managed media relations for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.
But once the cauldron is lit at the Olympic Stadium on Friday, her interest in Canada's athletic peformance will be every bit as vested as those set to hurtle down the mountain, bobsleigh course or ski jump in a quest for gold.
Named president and chief executive officer of Alpine Canada on Jan. 1 – the first woman to lead the national organization that governs alpine, para-alpine and ski cross racing – the responsibility for Canada's success, or otherwise, will fall on her shoulders as squarely as those of any athlete.
Ms. Grandi graduated with an MBA from Westminster College in Salt Lake City in 2005 to transition from a career in journalism to senior positions in marketing and sales with mining giant Rio Tinto. Therefore, she feels well prepared for her new Olympic role, even though it will take some getting used to.
"While at Rio Tinto I was spoiled because I always had support on the finance side and the human resources and the marketing," she says. "Here I'll have to really bring it all together and make sure I'm using all of the skill sets that I learned from my MBA."
In a number of roles, from sustainable development advisor to general manager of commercial strategy, the three biggest takeaways that she got from her time at Westminster College were specific knowledge on how companies are run, confidence in her business acumen and lastly, the network of connections that she made, one that was largely responsible for her moving into the field of mining.
Embarking on her MBA program without a clear vision of what she wanted to do, Ms. Grandi picked the brains of other students. A few of her cohort were already employed by Rio Tinto, but her initial reaction to a career in the mining industry was somewhat muted. As someone who grew up in Banff surrounded by national parks, the idea of working for a mining giant seemed somewhat hypocritical.
But the more she asked questions, the more clear her path became.
"I talked to quite a few people there and realized I could make much more of a difference inside than outside and there were way more experts on water quality, on community relations, on marketing than many other [mining] companies that weren't under the spotlight so much," she says.
As a student in the executive MBA program, Ms. Grandi studied mostly evenings and weekends. While her colleagues in the program were busy juggling studies with their jobs at Rio Tinto and elsewhere, she used that time between jobs to start her family.
Looking back, with her two boys now 14 and 15, she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It was absolutely a formula that I would recommend for anyone in that situation because it took me three years instead of two, but I was able to enjoy my kids and do well at school and have something to really focus on, to keep the mind really busy," she says.
After wrapping up her skiing career in the late 80s, Ms. Grandi had decided that she wanted to build on the discipline and focus that she had exercised while competing on the slopes. In addition, she wanted to prove herself in the corporate world. Her time as a journalist, in addition to the four languages she speaks, helped tick off the box for communication skills, and honing her interview skills and speaking in public enabled her to overcome a self-confessed shyness.
However, she still didn't know how corporations worked, and undergoing her MBA helped to imbue her with both knowledge and a sense of assuredness. She says the breadth of the program helped her to gain a sense of all the different functions that are important in a business, how they all work together, as well as the terminology to go along with it.
"The MBA really helps give the confidence that, hey, I've studied lots of different companies," she says. "I've seen lots of different approaches, different strategies and I can do this, it's not rocket science."
Her years in the work force before enrolling in her MBA also gave her a decided advantage. Ms. Grandi says her preceding career with AP, particularly in Rome, where she covered the seemingly annual political elections as well as an earthquake in Assisi, gave her a framework for her professional life, and the decision to take an MBA helped to fill in some other parts of that puzzle.
"The timing is important," she says. "At the time I decided to get my MBA, I'd already been working for 10 years, so I knew a lot more about who I was, about my skill set in my 30s than in my 20s, so I was much more driven to learn specific things."
With her background as a member of one of Canada's foremost skiing families – her brother, Thomas, is a four-time Olympian, and her sister, Astrid, was also a member of the national ski team – the onus is now on Ms. Grandi to bring all that experience to bear with Alpine Canada.
While Canada's results in Pyeongchang, in both the Olympics and Paralympics, will give her a good measure of where the country stacks up on the global skiing stage, Ms. Grandi says Canada's shortcomings could well reflect some of her own early-career hiccups, namely communication and confidence.
Reflecting on her own ski-racing career, she says the athletes didn't always know what the executives at Alpine Canada did, and what support was available for the athletes, so she says she will endeavour to improve the connection and feedback.
And though competing in a sport dominated by the European heavyweights, such as Austria and Switzerland, can appear daunting, Ms. Grandi says there is no reason Canada cannot be equal to those powerhouses. It all comes down to the mental aspect.
"If you're the best in Canada, you can be the best in Europe, you can be the best in Asia," she says. "So I think it's really about getting confidence."