Woman to Watch: Laura Thurnheer

Thurnheer works to ensure Okanagan College is equipping students with the business skills they’ll need for a post-Information Age economy.

Laura Thurnheer

Before beginning her academic career, Okanagan School of Business chair Laura Thurnheer spent 20 years in the corporate world, applying her MBA and business skills in a variety of business settings on multiple continents. It wasn’t until she taught at the Okanagan College Penticton campus in 2000 that Thurnheer uncovered her passion for education.

“I taught one course in tourism while working full-time at Community Futures,” Thurnheer said.

“It was crazy because I had small children and a full-time job while also teaching. After a year, I realized I couldn’t do it all. So when UBC Okanagan opened in 2005, I moved there from Community Futures.”

Thurnheer worked at the university as an organizational development consultant for two years while pursuing her MBA. After finishing her degree, though, Thurnheer would find that the challenges were just beginning.

“I was offered a permanent full-time position at Okanagan College. Moving from business into education was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. And now I’m going on my 10th year (with Okanagan College).”

Thurnheer now works as the chair of the Business Administration Department — she’s an elected official who represents 55 faculty members. As chair, Thurnheer acts as a liaison between faculty and administration, and also mentors new hires. The Okanagan College business program is quite large, Thurnheer says, and for that reason, she’s been released from her teaching obligations so she can focus her full attention on her responsibilities as chair.

“I do a lot of work around curriculum development — new courses, new programs. If a faculty member has an idea for a course, it takes a full year to get it through the system before they can teach it. I help to steward new courses through that process.”

Beyond her work at Okanagan College, Thurnheer is an executive on four non-profit boards, including the B.C. Wine Authority and the HRMA board. She recently stepped away from her position on the United Way CSO board of directors in order to prevent a conflict with the other non-profits she directs.

“I’m a certified HR professional. The Wine Authority is interesting because it’s a small board — there’s only three of us — and the other two members don’t have much HR experience. But I’m learning a lot from them about governance.”

Thurnheer serves as the elected faculty representative on the Okanagan College Board of Governors, where she chairs the governance committee. And as a former president of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, she works hard to keep up with Chamber news and maintain close ties with the business community.

“Kelowna’s business community is in a good spot right now, but we need the infrastructure to support growth. I’m very concerned about the next labour shortage. We had one in 2007, and I think we’re headed for another. We have a lot of baby boomers in leadership positions, but there’s no succession planning.”

That’s why Thurnheer works to ensure that Okanagan College is equipping students with the business skills they’ll need for a post-Information Age economy.

Thurnheer coaches five Enactus business teams, which allows her to see firsthand how her students are applying their course curriculum.

Managing a business school isn’t easy, and Thurnheer says the experience has taught her a variety of skills and lessons that are helping in her role.

“You need patience,” she says. “Not everyone works at the same speed as you, and not everyone shares your goals. Over the years I’ve had to learn patience — I’ve had to learn to understand people’s perspectives. To motivate people. When I got out of university I worked very hard and did very well, but I didn’t have the patience that I needed. I had to be humbled a few times.”

Patience is a skill that became increasingly valuable when Thurnheer moved from the business world to the postsecondary world, as business and education move at very different speeds.

“Post-secondary moves in the right direction, but it doesn’t move quickly. That’s something I had to come to grips with, and it took a while.”

At Okanagan College, though, savvy business practices are proving valuable in light of recent legislative changes. Since 2013, the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education has cut funding to postsecondary institutions by $50 million while also expecting colleges and universities to produce income. But earlier this year, Okanagan College announced that it had passed its first $100 million budget without cuts to student services.

For Thurnheer, that’s good news. She says that Kelowna is seeing a widespread culture shift that is bringing industry — and young professionals — back to the valley, and fueling the coming demand for talent is a fulfilling job.

“I have the opportunity, on a daily basis, to work with some of the Valley’s brightest young people. I have an opportunity to help them become good business owners and good corporate citizens.

“That’s what I love about my work.”

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