As seen in APeeling in Summer 2020 by Ashli Komaryk
My late father’s banking career kept our family on the move. In fact, every few years we were transferred to a new place and by the age of 8 I’d lived in Red Dear, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Then in an interesting twist: a five-year move to Freeport in the Bahamas before repatriating to Vancouver in 1982.
The incredible resilience of kids is a beautiful thing. They just keep going. Adapting, adjusting, and onward they go. And I kept going. Getting used to another new school, new friends, a new phone number and address to remember in case I got lost (which I actually did once!) and on to the next destination.
Our Bahamian experience of the late 1970’s-early 1980’s proved to be profoundly formative for me. My sister and I attended a British-style private school with uniforms and our peers were the children of international bank executives, casino entertainers and croupiers, oil executives from the US, Great Britain and the Middle East, American commercial pilots, various and sundry entrepreneurial types as well as local children too.
My third grade class resembled the United Nations General Assembly (in miniature) and our weekends were mostly spent gathering with friends who happened to be from around the world. We had big picnics on a powdery white beach or at one family’s beach cottage with the other expat families, cooking, eating, playing games and adventuring without excessive parental supervision – it was the 80’s and there were some serious shenanigans.
One sharable episode that comes to mind was the time, at age eleven, when I flipped the ATV 4-wheeler and we were forced to get the parents involved to get me to the hospital for patching up. Turned out the nearest open medical facility on a Sunday was the US naval base. Even with my Dad there with me, it was more than a little intimidating to be escorted through security to the infirmary. I was very relieved when a friendly young medic came to take care of me. I’ll always remember how his smile and warmth put me at ease and instantly made me feel better. Even at the tender age of eleven, I knew a handsome man in uniform when I saw one. With all that friendly care, it turned out my injuries weren’t that serious and I even got a hug from the nice officer.
Our family’s return to suburban Vancouver called upon me to deploy my skills of adaptation once more. I was an athletic kid so I dove with gusto into all the sports possible and my rigorous schooling in Freeport allowed me to easily adapt on the academic side. But socially, it was tougher. By eighth grade, there were well-established groups of friends that had been together since pre-school (a concept I could scarcely imagine!) and I missed having friends from all around the world with different accents, ideas and customs.
In retrospect, our Island life felt like a microcosm of the world, immensely open and completely diverse, full of discovery and possibility, without limits or particular rules of engagement. There was an almost imperceptible yet deep intellectual and emotional stimulation I was receiving from such a richly diverse environment that I didn’t notice at the time or know how to articulate. It was simply what had become ordinary for us, just our “normal”.
Seeking acceptance and inclusion, I adapted. But it was more difficult this time. My light wasn’t shining at its brightest. In order to adapt and be accepted, I felt I needed to dim those elements of my light that others didn’t seem to understand or welcome because they were foreign, different.
Perhaps not surprisingly, after graduation, I enrolled in an exchange program and found myself living for a year with a family in delicious and beautiful Parma, Italy, a small city of about 200,000 souls at the time. The world opened up for me once more and I adored living in Europe. I liked it so much, that I stayed for 14 years!
I married a charming Italian, became an Italian citizen, earned my levels I and II certificates from the Italian Sommelier Association, graduated with a degree in art history from the University of Parma (my Everest… a dramatic story for another time perhaps). This was now my new “ordinary” and once again I was a fish out water. In the early 1990s’ in Parma, there weren’t very many anglophones and I was known as “La canadese” (the Canadian – but, interestingly also slang for a tent). Nonetheless, a moniker I wore quite proudly indeed.
Amidst all the romantic “Under the Tuscan Sun” stereotypes you may be imagining right now, there were also many less-than-romantic challenges involved in adapting to a new country, language, education system, and let’s not even talk about the bureaucracy, especially concerning citizenship application! In addition, almost no one could make sense of my name! Ashli is not a biblical name, and the letters just don’t work well with Italian phonetics. Fortunately, there was a character called Ashley on a popular American soap on Italian TV at the time, so that helped.
It’s an interesting subconscious phenomenon that subtly touches your identity and sense of self when almost no one around you can pronounce your name. Through it all, there were trying times and downright dejection but the good definitely outweighed the challenges and that was also thanks to the amazing family and friends I was blessed with there.
As I was preparing to defend my thesis (yes, the Italians required a thesis for an undergrad degree), I reflected on what new professional opportunities I might pursue afterward. In Italy I had worked as a freelance translator/interpreter, voice actor for English language promotional corporate videos, and also in admin roles for a couple of companies that exported goods or services abroad.
My English language skills were useful but I hadn’t truly found my groove, my purpose, that special something that I felt I could sink my teeth into, be amazing at and make a real impact doing. It was then that we received a visit from a dear friend from Vancouver who was traveling with her new husband and their infant daughter visiting their Italian relatives. A serendipitous conversation around the kitchen table (the kitchen table is reliably great for those) resulted in me successfully applying to become the Cultural Director at the Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver.
So back to Canada it was. I would be able to spend more time with my own family again and experience that Canadian work-life my friends back in Canada were telling me about – things like conferences, promotions, work events, career trajectory... none which I had experienced yet as an adult. By then I was curious about all of it and craving it too.
While I loved being back in Canada where I felt my career could now take off and everything was possible, I still didn’t feel like I fit in. After 14 years, I felt very European and I quickly understood that I had become more Italian than I realized over those formative years of my young adulthood. I was technically an Italian citizen, spoke the language at a sophisticated level thanks to my Italian university education (and to my obsession for words and language) and yet, in my public-facing leadership role at the Italian Cultural Centre, I wasn’t entirely accepted by everyone in the community as being really Italian. After all, what Italian mother would call her daughter Ashli? Nope. They weren’t buying it. Mamma mia!
Despite that detail, I happily remained there for almost nine extremely fun, fulfilling, empowering and educational years of creating new programs, building the organization’s public profile and celebrating the Italian culture in the community in every way I could think of! I had definitely found my groove. I got to speak Italian every day, I was channelling my intense passion for the Italian culture and my love for public speaking. I experienced that “flow” you feel when you are expressing the best of your talents!
After six years in my role at the Italian Cultural Centre, an esteemed colleague suggested that I needed an MBA. The seed was planted and after scaling that new Everest I decided I needed to flex those new business-y muscles and get a more serious job that wasn’t as much fun. (Surely, you’re not supposed to have that much fun at work, I mistakenly believed).
And that’s when things took a different turn. Working under various different leadership styles was a real awakening.
Some of those leaders were uplifting and inspiring and others decidedly not. This new negative reality shook me deeply, and made me feel naïve – was this the real world and I had no idea how things really worked? How could people leading others not understand the impact they were having on their subordinates with their demoralizing or unkind words and behaviours? Or maybe they did realize it and they just didn’t care?
Had anyone taught them compassion? Didn’t they want to motivate those following them to perform to their highest potential? I learned how difficult it is to perform well when trust is absent and your psychological and emotional well-being feels like it’s under attack.
You can’t find your “flow” and your “groove” is nowhere in sight!
I had more lessons coming to me because in rapid succession my step-father suddenly passed away, a month later my mother suffered a life-altering stroke during cancer surgery and then later that same year my father passed away one month after a cancer diagnosis.
At a certain point, it was too much, and I gave myself a “time-out” from life.
I retreated to the Caribbean for a few months to digest it all and get my feet back under me. I guess the Universe decided I needed another signal because one afternoon while I was sitting on a chaise at the beach, focusing on breathing in and breathing out, the wind blew the umbrella next to me up out of its base and the metal shaft wacked me in the head sending me to the ER with a concussion.
Such a random “accident” can’t have been a coincidence, can it?
Well, as fate would have it, it was at that point, that it hit me, figuratively this time. My new-found purpose. I needed to become a leadership and communication trainer and coach so I could bring greater awareness of the huge impact that a leader can have, both on the people who follow them and on the bottom-line success of their organizations! I wanted to coach leaders to know themselves so they could better understand their team members and identify the motivational needs of each individual. I wanted to help teams communicate more effectively and work together more harmoniously and more productively.
I became a certified facilitator with DiSC and the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team tools and, newly invigorated, I got to work reaching out to organizations, associations and individuals who could use my help.
I found my groove again!
I loved working with teams who wanted to find strategies to work better together. I loved how my clients enjoyed the assessments and how much they engaged in the exploratory dialogue around interpersonal work dynamics and how to make them better.
I was working with teams from law firms, sports associations, financial advisors, non-profit teams and even the RCMP! It was interesting to see how human nature and the desire to understand one another transcend any industry sector and org-chart position. We all want to work better together.
I wondered if I could step up my flow even further by working more in a sector that represented a huge area of passion for me: the world of wine.
I began to research the wine industry here in British Columbia and also comparatively in other areas of the world too, including Napa. I wanted to understand what kind of training existed in the sector and what the guest experience was like between those wineries that invested in training for their front line and also their admin/leadership teams, and those that didn’t.
Consumers I interviewed reported inconsistent quality of their experience with a wide range of levels of satisfaction.
The majority of wineries I surveyed reported that they didn’t have a formal training program beyond covering local wine knowledge. Most wished their staff had better sales skills and most didn’t feel as though they were fully leveraging all opportunities for higher direct-to-consumer sales and wine club enrollment in their tasting rooms.
My mystery shopping observations confirmed that there was definitely an opportunity here to help our wineries.
I gratefully accepted an invitation to speak at the BC Wine Institute’s annual Conference on this topic in early March and then suddenly the pandemic shut everything down!
In the shift to all things virtual, I launched a new branch of my training and coaching business called “Beyond the Wine” because I saw that “Beyond the Wine” is where the magic happens! That’s where a winery can create its “secret sauce” and differentiate itself from its competition!
Training hospitality ambassadors how to establish an authentic, trusting rapport with their guests is incredibly fulfilling – after all, being hospitable means welcoming, accepting, hosting your guests with grace and care. All things that matter deeply to me!
If you can take your interactions with your winery visitors beyond simply your tasting room script, your guests will feel like they are a part of your winery and they’ll buy more wine, feel the need to stay connected by joining your wine club, and come back and visit often – and they’ll want to bring friends too!
I’m excited and so very grateful to be able to tap into the lessons I’ve learned along the way, at last recognizing the extraordinary nature of those experiences of mine that seemed ordinary at the time to create this unique offering to the wine and hospitality sectors. After having experienced isolation and quarantine, we may very well value that human connection now more than ever before!
Hospitality done right is caring, empathetic, comfortable, kind, attentive – and training others to achieve this, for me is a most wonderful purpose and my passion!
8 Lessons I Learned Along the Way
1. Don’t dim your light in order to fit in. Shine your very brightest and you’ll eventually find the place that is right for you.
2. A smile gives you super-powers.
3. If you’re having fun at your job – that’s a very very good thing. Cherish it and appreciate it – it’s rarer than you might think!
4. Relationships with family and friends (aka “chosen family”), and the support, comfort and joy found therein are immensely powerful – don’t forget to recognize and celebrate those relationships every day!
5. It’s helpful if you can see the challenging events or difficult people in your life as gifts sent to teach valuable lessons. Better to let gratitude in and resentment out!
6. Keep going. Even when life has dealt you blows that you can’t imagine recovering from, try to hold on to your trust that the Universe is a good place and that it has good things in store for you. As Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
7. Take time to think about what makes you happiest – then do it! Find your “flow”!
8. Ensure your beach umbrella is securely anchored.
Ashli Komaryk help wineries grow DTC (Direct to Consumer) sales by training their teams to develop sincere and authentic connections with customers