Ask Paula Shneer about the driving force behind her nearly 20-year leadership tenure with Toronto Film School and its predecessor, and she answers without hesitation – it is, and always has been, all about the students.
“For me, helping to support our students’ goals and solve their problems has always been, from the start, energizing and very rewarding,” said Shneer, Toronto Film School’s Vice President.
“We have great students, and I’m lucky to get the opportunity to talk to a lot of them. They’re smart, they’re articulate, and they really want to succeed.”
However, a career in education wasn’t always a given for Shneer. Initially starting in the pre-education program at university, she changed direction and pivoted out of the program into York University’s Sociology degree.
She then spent the first 20+ years of her career in the fashion industry with a focus on fashion merchandising, retailing and product development as a partner at a major wholesale sales agency in Toronto.
“It was always the business side of things. I enjoyed looking at fabrics and garments and creating products from a saleability perspective,” she said.
“I worked with designers, who are really creative and look at things from one perspective, then offered them the business perspective. I’d look at a garment and say, ‘That’s really great, but it’s not going to sell the way it is.’”
It was a role Shneer credits as “instrumental” to her future success as an educator – not only in that it helped arm her with the interpersonal and problem-solving tools she would need to help guide her future students, but it also opened up her first door to the higher education classroom.
In the late-90s, Shneer was approached by the then-coordinator of the Fashion Marketing & Merchandising program at Toronto Film School’s predecessor, the International Academy of Design, to teach a five-week course on salesmanship.
Although she admitted she had no time to lead that particular class, she agreed to the favour with one caveat – that she taught the class from her agency’s downtown showroom.
“I agreed to it just the once. I think it was important for the students to experience a professional industry environment,” she said.
“After the five weeks, I was not able to take on any additional responsibilities. I had my business, I had my family, and I was juggling. It just wasn’t the right timing to do it. I wasn’t at a stage in my life that I could put any more time into anything else.”
Fast-forward to 2003, though, and when Shneer was approached yet again by her colleague at the Academy – this time with an offer of a one-day-a-week gig as co-chair of the Fashion Marketing & Merchandising program – she agreed right away.
“My kids were older then, and while I still had my showroom, I was also just ready for something different. This time, the timing was perfect,” Shneer explained. “That’s when I started to realize I really loved higher education.”
Within six months, Shneer’s co-chair had stepped down and she was asked to completely take over the part-time role, and she agreed again – ultimately taking on the position full-time after successfully helping the Academy transition from its Bay and Wellesley headquarters into space in the CBC building.
“I was part of the big move into CBC, at which point they asked me to continue full time,” she said. “I was very ready to make that change and sort of say goodbye to (my wholesale business and) that career, and move onto the next stage.”
By then, Shneer had also started up her own consulting company – Mix Consulting – working closely with Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI) and its long-time Executive Director, Order of Canada recipient Susan Langdon.
“I worked directly with many designers. I did webcasts, webinars and a lot of cross-country promotion for TFI. So, I didn’t want my own business anymore, because I wanted more flexibility,” she said, noting that the job as chair of the Fashion Marketing & Merchandising at the International Academy of Design afforded her that adaptability.
In 2008, the Academy was acquired by RCC Institute of Technology and Shneer was asked to stay on – not only as the Fashion Marketing program chair at the newly established Toronto Film School but also as the Principal of its Davisville Campus and chair of the Fashion Design program. Three years later, her portfolio expanded to include the Graphic Design program.
“From there, I was promoted to Director of Education, overseeing all programs at our three campuses in Toronto, then to Senior Director of Education, then to Vice President of Instruction, and now as the Vice President of Toronto Film School,” Shneer said of her career trajectory since 2011.
Throughout her time at Toronto Film School, Shneer said she was motivated by the challenge of constantly learning.
“There was always a new challenge – and I still enjoy it, because I’m still learning. Every day, I’m learning.”
Now working closer than ever alongside Toronto Film School’s Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning President, Andrew Barnsley, Shneer said the pair have adapted a great new rhythm to their collaborative working efforts.
“I knew Andrew was a great person to work with before, because he started as our Executive Producer in Residence in 2017. But whereas before it was us talking about initiatives he could participate in, now, it’s talking about the strategy and mission of Toronto Film School and what that looks like,” she said of the pair’s weekly one-on-ones.
“We’re constantly talking about how we can achieve our goals, how we can move the school forward, and how we can improve both the quality of the education and add value to the student experience.”
For his part, Barnsley said he’s “delighted” to have seen Shneer’s role at Toronto Film School evolve to reflect her expertise, commitment and vision for the school and its community.
“I have had the privilege of working with Paula for many years and have always been impressed with her dedication to students, staff and faculty; her determination to ensure that TFS remains a destination school for students; and her ability to identify opportunities for responsible and industry-oriented growth at TFS,” he said.
“I am proud and excited that I get to work with Paula in her new role.”
Moving forward, Shneer said she’s perhaps most looking forward to getting more and more students and faculty back to campus – post COVID-19 restrictions – so that all can enjoy the camaraderie that comes with creative collaboration once again.
“We had an all-day meeting in December, and it was the first time all the program directors were together in one room in almost two years, and it was fantastic,” she said.
“The energy in that room was phenomenal. We caught up, we talked about our mission, and we forged our plans going forward – it was very exciting.”
Being in that room, she said, reminded her of how much she’s benefited from the knowledge of the many directors, editors, actors, writers and producers she’s lucky enough to call her colleagues.
“I have been so fortunate with all the opportunities I’ve had to meet and work with such interesting and varied people from a variety of industries – from film production and acting to writing and video production, to video game and graphic design,” she said.
“I continue to gain knowledge about each industry every day. Life is never boring at TFS.”