#StandApart Career Profile – Kari Grist @UBC

KG9196web2When Kari Grist decided to leave her VP, Marketing role at Vancity – and the cushion of an exceedingly successful corporate brand – she put her definition of ‘who’ she was to the ultimate test.

“It all came down to two opportunities, one with a well-known brand and one with a bare-bones start-up,” said Grist. “I’d always defined myself as a builder, so I said: OK, now’s your chance to prove it.”

The rest is a history of Olympic proportion. Grist took fledgeling carbon startup, Offsetters, from obscurity to world stage at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, delivering the worlds’ first-ever carbon neutral games and boosting revenues by tenfold.

Today, Grist is making her mark at the University of British Columbia with the same wheels-up approach. In the newly created role of Managing Director,  Communications & Marketing, she’s launched a radical brand imperative (almost unheard of in higher education) to build a storytelling culture at UBC – one that’s bold, adventurous, global and one-of-a-kind. Luckily, that’s what Grist, who got her marketing wings in the aviation industry, does best. Here’s her #standapart career story:


Describe your current role in 140 characters or less…

Communications and marketing wrangler whose key focus is on elevating and liberating the UBC brand.

One word that best describes how you work.


What is your “Superpower”? (What is the one thing you do you do better than most?)

I’m a builder: teams, brands, businesses, processes, you name it. I have an all-in style with respect to everything I do and I can’t rest until the job’s complete.

Where does your motivation come from?  Does motivation come easy for you or is it work/discipline to sustain it?

My kids once gave me a magnet that reads, “I plan to be spontaneous tomorrow” – and it’s terribly true. I am a planner. So, whether I’m at work or home, I’m motivated to plan and choose options/roles/activities with a sense of purpose. My motivation comes from a desire of wanting  to make it all worth something.

I think when turning points present themselves it’s all about defining what you’re motivated by and where you can’t compromise

How has your motivation worked for you?  Has your motivation ever worked against you? Have you ever had to wrestle with your motivation?

My motivation has defined me. I’m innately curious and an opportunity seeker, so I’d say my biggest downfall/challenge is in filtering those opportunities and to not always be looking for the next thing. Being so future-oriented makes it a bit of a daily struggle to stay in the present.

Have you ever watched someone sabotage his or her own career? If so, how?

Great question! At first I thought no, but then…the examples started coming to me! Case studies aside, it all narrows down to one career-sabotaging move: working with a lack of integrity. Say what you’re gonna do, do it and tell people how it worked. Another career ‘gotcha’ is a lack of collaboration – that just won’t fly with todays’ co-generated mindset.

Can you point to any career/life turning points that either: a) Provided clarity  or

b) Served as a springboard/accelerator/ launching pad

There have been so many, but these two stand out. I think what ties them together is the idea of cultural fit and the ongoing challenge of figuring out what it takes to come to work as an authentic person everyday.

1. Surviving the Canadian Airlines and Wardair merger – I started my career at Wardair and I was fiercely loyal to their corporate brand (and this was before ‘culture’ was a catchphrase). In particular, I was super passionate about Ward’s service culture and I knew Canadian didn’t compare. When I was offered a new role at Canadian, I didn’t want it. But then I went to Africa (on complimentary passes…a perk of working in the industry) and I realized I wasn’t ready to give up the lifestyle, the travel and my intense passion for aviation, so I buckled in, took the role and made the best of it.

2. Surviving the Air Canada and Canadian Airlines merger – Another merger. This time the cultural fit was so not there that – lifestyle or not. I realized, by that stage in my career, I couldn’t compromise the values I’d come to believe in/define my career by. In the case of the merger into Canadian, the influx of Wardair employees actually changed and lifted the culture, but I knew in this case (and at this scale), such a change would not be possible.

I think when turning points present themselves it’s all about defining (1) what you’re motivated by and (2) where you can’t compromise. If you do that, the decisions at hand should be clear enough.

Why did you make the educational choices you did and what would you recommend for others on this front?

While this may be more than I should share but…having grown-up as an airline baby who loved all things travel, I was pretty set on my path: I was going to study aviation law. Then, I had a bit too much fun at university. Without the grades to pursue the combined Commerce/Law option, I had to re-centre myself on what the whole higher-education ‘journey’ had opened me up to – and quickly figure out what I could be passionate about within those experiences. For me, it was business, consumer behaviours and psychology. If I can say anything about the university experience, it’s this: you’ve got to find what lights you up.

When you look back over your career to date, what are you most proud of?

Building kick-ass teams and helping grow individuals. Playing a role in someone’s else’s “turning point” or having someone say “you taught me something” – you can’t help but get reward and satisfaction from that. I’d also have to count earning a kiss from my 20+ year corporate crush, Richard Branson.

I’m looking for a good dose of curiosity and the courage to back it up

We asked one of your team members,  Matt Warburton (Acting Manager, Design at UBC) what makes you #StandApart. Here’s what he said:

What I like about Kari is that she never pulls any punches. She calls a spade a spade, and speaks with candor. Kari trusts and respects our individual expertise and empowers us to push ourselves as far as we can. She also keeps us focused on the big picture and how the work we do affects the reputation of the university. As a result, the unit is a more cohesive and collaborative entity and, in this short year, our reputation has expanded immeasurably across campus, and also to other educational institutions across Canada. In her words, ‘we’re a “rock star” team doing “kick ass” work.’

You’re interviewing a candidate and there’s no doubt, they’ve got it. What ingredients were you looking for? When it comes to hiring, what does you/your organization consider the special sauce?

Marketers are change-agents, so I’m always looking for a good dose of curiosity and the courage to back it up. I also try to spot authenticity – people working from a place of truth and true insight. And I want to feel great energy, but most importantly I need to walk away understanding what it’s around.

Train for skills, hire for attitude. Agree or disagree?

Conventional wisdom says hire for attitude, but the skills gap can’t be too wide. That’s not helpful for anyone – great culture fit or not. That said, it’s easier to coach and teach skills than attitude.

What devices/apps/tools form part of your regular routine?

One of my final interview questions for the Offsetters role was “Are you a PC or Mac?” My answer: I’m a PC, but I so want to be a MAC.  So, am I a techy? No. But these days, I’m all Apple.

How “LinkedIn” are you? Do you use it?  What role has networking played in your career?

I’ve been on it since 2007. I’m a daily user and have over 600+ connections. I think it’s a great place to connect and share stories.

This question was passed on from our last #StandApart Marketer, Cameron Uganec, Director of Marketing at Hootsuite: What are your favourite Vancouver brands?

I loved Lululemon before it had the brand strength that it does today. Honest truth. They’re a great example of the kind of brand I admire most – they have  a quality product, they know who they are and they stay true to that in everything they do.  They are a disruptive brand that gets it. Another one that comes to mind is Vancouver’s Bella Gelateria. I was an early-adopter, before world-stage dominance and block long line-ups. The owner has such passion and love for his product and his unique process.  I think the fact that a little gelato store in Vancouver can win ‘the world’s best gelato’ title in Italy speaks to our ability to produce world class products that win on a global stage. Not unlike UBC.

If you could put one question on the list for our next #StandApart Marketer profile, what would it be? What do you want to know?

Vancouver is a relatively small marketing market vis a vis Toronto and even Calgary.  Given that, how do we provide up-and-coming marketing professionals with big market experience and skills without losing them?