The art of ‘yes’

The Sundance Institute’s managing director talks embracing new experiences and lifting up diverse voices

Editor’s note: The following story was originally published Jan. 19, 2022. The 2023 Sundance Film Festival begins this Thursday, Jan. 19.

Betsy Wallace learned to say “yes” early in her career as a businesswoman, which led her to executive positions at companies like Citigroup, American Skiing Co., DSW and PetSmart. But after taking a job abroad, she learned another important key to success: inviting others to the table, giving them a voice and — most importantly — hearing what they have to say.

Since then, Wallace has found a way to give more voices a place to share their stories: the Sundance Institute. As its managing director, she has succeeded in dovetailing her interest in business with her appetite for culture.

Here, she shares what she’s learned with Deseret. 

As told to Ethan Bauer

I have always been interested in business. I found it fascinating to understand how people came up with an idea and how they tried to develop it into something that somebody else may want to buy. How do you take that kernel of a thought and morph it into a business that has long-term stability? I found that question really interesting from the get-go. I had a lemonade stand when I was quite young and I thought it was great to earn 25 cents. So it all started there.

Fast-forward to the middle of my career. After a few years of working in executive roles, my husband and I came to this point where he wanted to move overseas. And we ended up spending close to seven and a half years in Singapore, both of us working there.

It was really a remarkable period of time for both of us. As an expat, you learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about your ability to interact with cultures that are very different from one another. You’re learning how to pivot and how to understand and appreciate the world. As an American, you tend to feel that others need to do something for you. But I quickly learned it’s quite the opposite. You want them to help you out, so how do you need to change? How do you quickly learn to read a room and hear what others have to say?

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I strongly recommend that, if you’ve never worked overseas, do it. It’s not always easy or fun, but you can come away from it understanding what it is to be part of true diversity, and what it is to be part of something bigger.

It changed me. When we moved back to the states, I made this giant pivot from being a CFO at a very large company to working at a start-up. I really wanted to get back to that kernel of thought from my childhood: “How do you develop it?”

That’s also what led me to Sundance.

The transition from for-profit to nonprofit business was a little bumpy, but personally I was ready. I enjoy the challenge of adapting my thought processes. It didn’t take me long to really invest in the Sundance Institute’s mission, which revolves around two aspects: the development of artists so that different voices can be heard and the development of audiences so that they can see the value of these different voices and why they are so special.

Independent films are not like the Marvel series. They’re not big blockbusters. But they’re as valuable to watch, if not more. The Sundance Film Festival is often the first time these films are seen — and the first time these voices are heard. And it’s all taking place in the state of Utah. Fabulous!

These voices are sometimes not the easiest to hear. But it allows for this dialogue, it allows for this discourse that you can participate in for a week, for a month, for a year or for years. My absolute joy is it starts here in Utah. I couldn’t be prouder.

Attending a film festival adds to your day. When you walk into a film, you automatically have your own little community with the people you’re sitting with. You become either entertained or engaged together, or you become a new advocate for something. And then you talk with the filmmakers, and they inspire you, too. When you walk out, you feel like your knowledge vessel — that bowl of knowledge that we all have — is just getting fuller and fuller and fuller. And the diversity within that knowledge is just wonderful. It makes you a better person. I always come out happier. It’s really a remark- able process, and it’s true of arts and culture in general. We just happen to do film.

I believe in helping people, and I want to help filmmakers around the world. It all circles back to what I learned while working in Singapore: the importance of empathy, and of making sure many different voices can be heard. 

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.