How to Find Strong Women Leaders: EY’s Network of Athletes

July 22, 2013 7:43 pm

By Barbara Frankel

Beth Brooke, Donna de Varona, Michelle Marciniak

Brooke, de Varona, Marciniak

Donna de Varona was an Olympic gold medalist in swimming who “retired” at the ripe old age of 17. After a successful—and barrier-breaking career—as a broadcast journalist, she became a strong advocate for women’s equality in sports, founding The Women’s Sports Foundation with Billie Jean King. De Varona was a major player in the battle to pass and retain Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender in any educational institution receiving federal funding.

“In my day, we were told that women should just play, not compete. Title IX changed all that. We live in a competitive world and business is competitive,” she says.

Beth Brooke was in the first class of women allowed to play college sports because of Title IX. An athlete who excelled in four sports in high school—golf, tennis, basketball and softball—she was a basketball star at Purdue University. Brooke is now the Global Vice Chair – Public Policy of EY, No. 4 in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity.

“To just even say I played basketball for Purdue was a great credential in a very male-dominated world 32 years ago. Plus, I could hit the golf ball farther than any of them and they wanted me on their teams,” she recalls.

Michelle Marciniak lived to play basketball. It gave her the confidence to overcome a stuttering problem and succeed both on the court and, later, as co-founder of a successful company, SHEEX, which creates sheets and pillowcases inspired by athletic-apparel technology.

“Kids are brutal and someone always made fun of me because I couldn’t talk well. Being an athlete gave me a sense of self-confidence. My college coach [the legendary Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee] had zero tolerance for me not speaking, so when a microphone was in my face I had to do interviews. I give speeches now all the time. I got over it by doing it,” she says.

These three women of different generations all believe passionately in the ability of sports to give women the skills and confidence needed to succeed in business leadership. They are all key players in EY’s Women Athletes Global Leadership Network, which is working to harness the intellectual power and capabilities of elite women athletes around the world for business success as entrepreneurs and in corporate leadership roles.

Real Talent Development Opportunities

EY’s research shows a link between women’s success in sports and their probability of success in business. In May, the organization conducted a global online survey of 821 senior managers and executives, 40 percent of whom were women, representing a variety of industries. Ninety percent of the women had played sports in high school or college. Among women at the C-suite level (44 percent of women surveyed), 96 percent had played sports.

The sports affinity continued even after education was finished. Sixty-seven percent of the women surveyed at the C-suite level participated in sports as a working adult, compared with 55 percent of other female managers.

The respondents noted the positive impact of sports—72 percent of the women said sports taught them how to work effectively on teams, while 87 percent of the women executives said inclusive leadership is an effective way of improving team performance.

EY has launched the network, which is identifying elite female athletes around the world and starting to connect them with business leaders and entrepreneurs for mentoring and relationship opportunities.

The organization has been a leader in linking sports and top athletes to business goals, including the EY member firm in Brazil, Ernst & Young Terco, sponsoring the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Brooke sees the Women Athletes Global Leadership Network as a natural outgrowth of the firm’s commitment to the economic empowerment of women. “We are leading the global dialogue around women’s advancement and we’re thinking strategically about women as an emerging market and consumers of our services,” she says.

Throughout the year, as the network was being set up, the team has focused on women entrepreneurs and known female elite athletes. This includes coaching and training on how specifically to take the skills they learned in sports and translate them into business.

Success Stories

Marciniak, now 39, grew up in Allentown, Pa., where she was a gymnast until she was 8 and fell in love with basketball. An All-American point guard and NCAA champion at Tennessee, she went on to a pro career in the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association and became an assistant coach at the University of South Carolina. There she met her business partner, Susan Walvius, and the two co-founded SHEEX.

“As an athlete, you wake up and you have to do it every day. You are in charge of your performance and no one is going to do it for you. It’s similar for entrepreneurs. And for both, you can actually measure how well you are doing,” she says.

Brooke agrees that women athletes have already developed most of the skills necessary to become successful entrepreneurs. “They come into the workplace with the determination to prepare and overprepare. They also have great emotional maturity around failure, seeing it as just feedback you are going to use to learn and adjust. Women athletes come into the labor force with a much greater level of confidence than nonathletes. They know what it takes to succeed,” she says.

De Varona, who just received the Power of Sports award from the Association Internationale de la Press Sportive (International Sports Press Association), believes it is crucial to help athletes—male and female—understand how to use their skills in their next careers.

“When you retire, you feel disoriented. Athletes in transition don’t always identify that they have nurtured skills, including teamwork,” she says. She adds that the greatest challenge remains getting women into leadership positions, and cites recent EY research that shows the percentage of board seats filled by women at S&P 500 companies was only 17 percent in 2012, compared with 14 percent in 2006. By comparison, 25.4 percent of DiversityInc Top 50 company board members are women.

“Forty years ago, we didn’t have numbers, we had passion. Now we have numbers and they need to improve. We need to build the bridge between women athletes and women in business,” she says.