When she was a young girl in the mountainous Brazilian city of Petropolis, Diana Currie often asked her father, a Scottish martial arts sensei, to teach her about the bushido or “warrior’s path.”
“My sister and I annoyed him until he let us do it,” Diana remembers. “When he finally accepted, he made us to commit to one whole year. We had to wake up at 6 a.m. when it was very cold in the mountains. After a while, I wanted to give up and run away—it was too hard! But that journey helped make me the person I am today.”
Diana’s mother, a psychologist, balanced the hard lessons of martial arts with softer virtues of love and care.
Outside of martial arts, Diana always loved to move her body. She was a star track-and-field athlete in her youth and as an adult she climbed Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan.
“I truly believe sport is life-changing,” Diana says. “It gives you determination not to be better than other people, but to be better than yourself. You get ownership of who you are. Sport makes you more self-aware.”
While her life’s purpose has always been to make a difference in society, Diana did not immediately forge her path into using sports for social change. In 2007, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. She later completed post-graduate diplomas in conflict resolution and project management, drawing her to Fight for Peace’s mission.
Prior to joining Fight for Peace in 2013, Diana worked as the senior conflict resolution training coordinator for Partners Global in Brazil. One day during a course for her management diploma she met with Juliana Tibau, project manager at Fight for Peace, to talk and was told they had a job opening. When she learned the job involved using martial arts to positively impact communities affected by violence nationwide, she decided to take it.
“Combat sports in these communities is attractive because people want to defend themselves from violence,” Diana says. “Sometimes children come to Fight for Peace because they want to avenge a death. A lot of children come from broken families and see their coaches as fathers and mothers. We want to change how these young people see themselves, relate to others, and see their futures.”
Diana’s role is to study the map of violence in cities like Salvador, Fortaleza, and Manaus and work with partner organizations to share the Fight for Peace methodology of personal development through boxing and martial arts, education, employability, social support, and youth leadership.
A significant majority of the victims of violence and conflict in Brazil are women. The country is currently ranked 85th in gender inequality by the World Economic Forum, influenced in large part by a machista culture that is especially strong in the favelas, where domestic violence and early pregnancy are widespread.
“We do gender workshops to show girls they have rights and what they can do to fight back,” Diana says. “I can see when these girls join martial arts how their body language changes. They stand up straighter. They become more confident.”
Recently the organization received news that United Nations Women, partnering with Women Win, has selected Fight for Peace for a training program. Diana wants to take advantage of the opportunity to provide training on women’s health, economic empowerment, and nonviolent communication, among other areas. Afterward, she would like to launch a national campaign on gender awareness.
Romina Bongiovanni, earned media director for Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, is the ideal mentor for Diana. For more than a decade, Romina has built and led campaigns on behalf of clients that include many of the world’s top brands, such as Pepsi, DirecTV, Starbucks, and Xbox. A former president of the Hispanic Public Relations Association (HPRA) and established Latina leader, her experience in the marketing, advertising, and business worlds will be vital for Diana as she maximizes the impact of Fight for Peace across Brazil. Romina will especially work to support Diana in developing key marketing and networking strategies to promote the organization’s empowering projects. Through their partnership, we are sure that Diana and Fight for Peace will continue to make their impact felt throughout the most vulnerable areas of Brazil.
It is hard to believe that Natalia Zbirnea’s career as a marathon runner began with a clever piece of bargaining from her longtime coach.
Born into a close-knit family in Chisinau, Moldova, Natalia loved to play sports as a child. She tried soccer, volleyball, and basketball, always searching to find her true passion. Then, when she was 13 years old, Anatoly—an athletics coach in the community—was recruiting young people for running programs and invited Natalia and her friends to practice. The offer was simple: “If you come and try athletics, then you can go swimming in our pool for free.”
“So we ran,” Natalia remembers, laughing. “But swimming was really the most important thing for us kids!”
Running became Natalia’s calling in life. She trained for five years, but stepped away from the sport after her father passed away. Natalia needed time for her mind, body, and spirit to heal. She wanted to be free from everything. After this running hiatus, she called Anatoly and asked, “Coach, I’m ready, can I come back?” He replied, “Of course!”
In the six years since her return to athletics, Natalia has raced in marathons around Moldova, Russia, and Romania. In July, she travelled to compete in France for two weeks.
“Running has mobilized me to be a better person every day,” Natalia says. “It has grown wonderful emotions and feelings in me. I am more powerful. My problems melt away when I run.”
Natalia balances her marathon career with a full-time job as a consultant for PARIS21, an organization launched in partnership with the United Nations aimed to better lives through improved global statistics. In 2014, she completed a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the Moldova Institute of International Relations to complement a bachelor’s degree in English language.
Outside of testing herself on the course, Natalia’s motivation also comes from a desire to tell her own story of overcoming tragedy in order to inspire and empower girls and women in Moldova. Through participating in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), she hopes to bring together women in her community to talk about the importance of physical activity, diet, and healthy living as well as create a new network of friendships and support for Moldovan women pursuing sports.
“I want to be fearless in front of other people when I tell my story,” Natalia says. “I want to connect women. I want to be able to share experiences together—to become a family.”
Another driving force for Natalia is a desire to alleviate the challenges facing marginalized Moldovan women as a result of poverty. Among Europe’s poorest nations, Natalia grew up in a lower income family herself, but was able to attend university and achieve success due in large part to her mother’s sacrifices. In worse circumstances, women seek work abroad and children are left to grow up without the presence of their mothers. Stemming from poverty, issues such as domestic violence, prostitution, and alcoholism also affect Moldovan women.
Guiding Natalia in her mission to create an empowered generation of women in her country is Veronica “Ronnie” Tucker, vice president of marketing and digital for New York Road Runners (NYRR). With more than 20 years as an expert in integrating marketing strategy, Ronnie will be able to provide Natalia with the tool she needs for success; specifically, finding sponsorships, promotions, developing as a leader, and storytelling. Honored as a Game Changer by Sports Business Journal, Ronnie and her team at NYRR will support Natalia to maximize her own potential as a change maker in Moldova, from the track to the conference room.
As a girl growing up in the capital city of Amman in Jordan, Nour Kayyal approached sport with passion and energy. From a young age, she followed the sports path of her older brother by becoming a competitive swimmer for the national swim team, competing inside and outside of Jordan. In addition to her successes in swimming, Nour earned a black belt in taekwondo before the age of 18. While very engaged in of these two sports, Nour found her way to basketball—what she considers her true love.
Fascinated by the fast-pace and caliber of basketball, Nour would order DVDs of Michael Jordan through her cousin living in the United States so that she could imitate his skills and playing style. The passion and practice paid off. By 1997, Nour was the youngest player to play for Jordan’s under-18 women’s national basketball team. By 2002, she was among the best female players in Jordan earning a full scholarship to play at Al-Ahliyya Amman University, where she would later complete a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Shortly after finishing university, Nour ended her competitive career in all sports so as to focus on her professional development. Since 2006, she has worked at Jordan Kuwait Bank, where she rose in the ranks to become a senior relationship officer in the private banking unit. Recognizing her ongoing love for basketball, however, she began coaching young players in Amman. She has since been called on to serve as assistant coach for women’s teams at the Arab Games in Doha (2011), Arab Tournament in Tunisia (2013), and FIBA Asia Under-16 Championships in Sri Lanka (2013).
“I love to coach under-16 players because that is the age you can see changes,” Nour says. “Older players have their habits and know how to play. I want to be a role model for my little girls because I can see the changes in their lives. I like that they look up to me.”
With sports-based empowerment for girls and women lacking, Nour feels many Jordanians are left without vital leadership skills sport teaches. She recognizes that in addition to the health and wellness benefits of basketball, the sport develops and improves an individual’s self-confidence, tolerance, and ability to collaborate with others on and off of the court.
“If you want to be a successful basketball player, you have to learn respect for your teammates, your coach, and your opponents,” Nour says. “If you do that, you can gain the love of the whole world because basketball happens worldwide. When we play, we create international friendships.”
Within the past decade, Jordanian women have been able to engage more fully in society. The push for increased equality in education and the workplace has created change—but opportunities for girls and women to take part in sports are still lagging. Women’s sports programs often lack funding, adequate facilities, and teams for girls and women. In order to secure a safe place for her team to practice, Nour must rent courts from private basketball clubs, of which there are only two in Amman. With such limitations, she finds it difficult to organize tournaments for girls. Based on logistical challenges alone, many coaches end up quitting or allowing their coaching license to lapse.
Nour refuses to be disheartened in the face of lacking support and challenges. She looks forward to creating basketball-based projects to empower different segments of Jordanian society, from women in her bank to orphans and refugees. She even has a previous relationship with U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program alumna Dima Alardah, a leader within the Norwegian Refugee Council, with whom she completed the National Coaching Certificate program in 2012.
“I always tell my girls, ‘I need your heart on the court. That’s how we will win,’” Nour says. “If you play basketball by the book, it will be very boring—just like life. You have to think outside the box, trust me. ‘Hearts win,’ that’s my motto!”
In order for Nour to take her basketball vision to the next level, Nour will be mentored by Hilary Shaev, vice president of people experience and innovation for the National Basketball Association (NBA). A marketing and promotions veteran with extensive experience in both the music business and sports world, Hilary was instrumental in rebranding the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and developing the WNBA Pride platform. She understands the challenges that women’s sports face. With the support of her NBA and WNBA colleagues, Hilary will be able to provide Nour with “insider” insights in the areas of marketing, project implementation, and fundraising as they related to basketball. Their partnership has the potential to build international bridges through basketball and empower generations of girls in Jordan.
Sports can run in a person’s blood. But, as in the case of Martina Bartolucci, it can also run in a name.
Named after Czech tennis icon Martina Navratilova, Martina played every sport she could as a child growing up in the Argentinian seaside city of Mar del Plata. But, she never settled for the tennis racquet. Instead, it was the field hockey stick that really caught her attention.
Martina grew up watching Argentina’s golden generation of field hockey players. The national team catapulted the sport’s popularity, winning medals in every Olympic Games since 2000 and ranked consistently among the best in the world. For Martina, she looked to follow in the footsteps of national hero Luciana Aymar, considered the best field hockey player of all time.
At the age of 18, Martina moved away to Buenos Aires, where she attended the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations. It was intimidating to move from a quiet resort city to a capital city of more than three million people. During this time, Martina found solace on the field hockey team, which she captained for three years. In 2010, she achieved the capstone of her career, named Sportswoman of the Year by the university.
“Hockey gave me values that will be with my entire life: solidarity with my teammates, respect for my opponents, obeying the rules,” Martina says. “It taught me the importance of teamwork. It’s one of my strongest qualities as a leader – wanting the team to grow together and not to run ahead of them for my own success.”
After graduation, Martina worked in a number of positions within the Ministry of Education. In 2014, she earned diplomas in politics and sports management from the National University of General San Martin. Afterward, she became an advisor for Carlos Mac Allister, a former professional soccer player who was serving as an Argentinian congressman in La Pampa. When Mac Allister was named secretary of sport, he brought Martina along as his chief of staff.
“I consider myself flexible, proactive, and willing to make a change – qualities every leader needs,” Martina says. “I always want to go further. I want to work for social change and I know I can be the one to do it.”
Martina now coordinates activities between the government, sports clubs, and national sports federations. She was recently responsible for organizing the farewell to Argentina’s Olympic athletes as they traveled for the Rio 2016 Games. On any given day, it is hard to know whether she’ll be at her desk or out in the field, because Martina is always on the move.
“I’m like the secretary’s right-hand woman,” Martina says. “Coordinating a team of older men with more experience, it is an everyday challenge and I always need to prove myself. But I am not afraid of challenges.”
With the exception of previous president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, few women are at the decision-making table in Argentina. Of 20 government ministers, only three are women; of 24 provincial governors, only five are women. Instead, women are pushed to pursue traditional careers in secretarial work, housecleaning, and nursing.
As a female leader in government, Martina feels responsible for changing expectations of women. She hopes to increase the number of Argentinean public schools that offer a range of sports options for girls. Martina envisions organizing leadership programs with athletes like Aymar leading courses and sharing their experiences as women in sports.
“We all have certain responsibilities toward society,” Martina says. “Working in government gives me even more, because we’re there to help people. Like my mother was my example, the best way to lead other women is to be an example. Participating in this program is the first step to empowering myself and making a difference.”
Guiding Martina on this journey is one of the United States’ most prominent female sports leaders: Val Ackerman, commissioner for the Big East Conference. With a desire to learn more about how she can influence decision-makers to invest in women’s sport, Martina will benefit from Val’s leadership experience working with major sports organizations like the NCAA, USA Basketball, and NBA/WNBA. Ann Wells Crandall, chief marketing officer for the Big East, complements the mentorship team and will be able to help Martina market her message and improve her communication skills as she negotiates with prominent leaders. Martina’s dreams for girls and women in Argentina can become a reality with the support that she’ll receive from proven mentors like Val and Ann.
In 1988, the Seoul Summer Olympics and Paralympics brought two of the world’s biggest sporting events to South Korea for the first time. The memories are still vivid in Meeran Kim’s mind and have led her to dedicate more than a decade of her life to bringing the Olympics back to her country.
“Those Games brought the people of our country together as one and helped promote Korea to the world,” Meeran says. “I took my job at the PyeongChang Organizing Committee because I believed in the movement and I wanted to see it at home again.”
When it hosts the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, South Korea will become one of few countries in the world to have hosted the Olympics (summer and winter) and FIFA World Cup. Meeran, the head of the Olympic Family Hotel and Secretariat Team, has been a part of the organizing committee since 2011. Prior to this role, Meeran served for three years as the international relations coordinator for the bid committee.
Born in the capital city of Seoul, Meeran comes from a large family. She is the youngest of six daughters, followed by a younger brother. With few female role models in the sports world during her childhood in Korea, she looked to her mother as an example of a strong woman and leader. She even laughs as she tells the only reason her family is so big is because her parents kept pushing for a son. But on their sixth successful attempt they came out with a determined little girl: Meeran.
“So now we have a joke in my family,” she laughs, “‘if Meeran was not born how could mom live without her?’”
Meeran earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Sogang University and added a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages) from the University of Texas-Arlington in 2004. She believes strongly in the power of cross-cultural interactions to foster change and the role that mega sporting events play in this process. While the Olympics, Paralympics, and World Cup boosted South Korea’s global power in sports , these large-scale events also opened a two-way street between the country and new perspectives, approaches, and people.
“When there are many people from different cultures speaking together, it allows us to exchange different ideas and look for solutions together,” Meeran says. “When we are all represented, then we can truly work for a better, more equal world.”
At the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, Meeran is one of the voices speaking up for more female representation. While the committee tries to foster gender equality and stimulate women’s involvement in sports, there are few women in sports leadership positions. Although many female South Korean athletes have become household names, like figure skater Kim Yuna and table tennis player Lee SooYeon, few women are among the top leaders in the sports sector.
“There is an obvious gap and I believe that step-by-step we can do a better job,” Meeran says. “There are very famous Korean women athletes, but many of us cannot even name one female leader in a sports organization or governing body. As women, we work very hard. We are not weaker or less capable—we are the same as men.”
Meeran aspires to create a women’s sports commission in South Korea to develop and empower another generation of women like herself. She also wants to find ways to use the country’s platform as the next Olympics and Paralympics host to involve and celebrate more women as they break through the glass ceiling.
For guidance to accomplish these goals, Meeran will be mentored by Kerry Ruggieri, senior vice president, and Sofia-Lombardo Ramos, vice president, at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment. As leaders in an organization with more than 20 years of experience in the sports entertainment industry, Kerry and Sofia possess the creative storytelling and marketing tools to support Meeran on her mission, as well as her work with the PyeongChang Committee. With Ketchum offices in South Korea and an extensive background in marketing around the Games, these mentors can tie Meeran into new networks. Together, this trio of strong women will craft a positive narrative for South Korean women in sports—one that can be spotlighted on the global stage in 2018.
When Maíra Liguori was a girl, she would spend hours playing games with her friends in the streets of Atibaia, a rural town one hour from the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. It didn’t matter if it was volleyball, basketball, or just running around, she embraced the freedom of the outdoors with all of her heart.
As Maíra became older, however, she lost interest in sport. She moved back to the city to attend the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and began her professional career in communications. At the age of 27, she moved overseas to Barcelona, where she continued her education by earning master’s degrees in anthropology and business communications.
It was in Spain that Maíra regained her interest in physical activity by hopping on a bicycle for the first time in years.
“I had a lot of image and body issues and I missed being active,” Maíra says. “When I began cycling, it was very powerful. To feel the wind in my face, it brought me back to my childhood. I would laugh and people must’ve thought I was crazy. Cycling became a part of me and I couldn’t live without it.”
By 2009, Maíra returned to Brazil, where she worked in strategic planning and consulting for marketing agencies. In 2014, she became the innovation director at Think Olga, an NGO with a focus on women’s empowerment. After some time, Maíra presented the idea of integrating sport into the organization’s work. As a result, in 2016 Think Olga launched its own sports club with cycling, soccer, and surfing programs.
“Many girls don’t understand how powerful they are,” Maíra says. “This is what we want to show them through Think Olga and Olga Esporte Clube: that their perceptions of who they can be aren’t big enough. When you’re conscious of your own power it can push the agenda of change for women. I want to show women that sports can be a big part of their lives, not just a way to get fit or healthy. It can bring personal growth and autonomy.”
With Think Olga, Maíra is currently working on launching an online platform that works like a matching application so that girls and young women can get together to play sports. Using this digital tool, women who feel uncomfortable or unsafe exercising on their own or in public can meet and socialize while engaging in physical activity. As a long-time communications professional, she is also passionate about using social media and video to promote women’s empowerment campaigns in communities throughout Sao Paulo.
A committed and creative leader, Maíra wants Brazilian girls to feel strong and self-confident; to experience the beauty, freedom, and peace that she feels every time she gets on her bicycle. She believes that expanding and amplifying the reach of Think Olga and Olga Esporte Clube can help realize these goals.
The woman to help Maíra with the marketing, project development, and implementation needs she has entering the program is none other than Julie Eddleman, who has been involved with the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program since its inception in 2012. As a global client partner with Google, Julie is one of the leading American women in the field of marketing and promotions, and has previously mentored three Brazilians as part of the GSMP—Cassia Damiani (2012), Daniela Castro (2013), and Paula Korsakas (2014). Together, Maíra and Julie will continue to build on the legacy of empowerment started four years ago and bring it to new levels and new communities in Sao Paulo and beyond.
For Olga Aksyonova, the power of sport was exemplified in one moment from the 1994 Winter Olympics. It was the first time Ukraine participated independently in the Games after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Olga was a12-year-old girl then, watching excitedly as Oksana Baiul won the gold medal in women’s figure skating.
“At the time, many people still only knew Ukraine because of the Chernobyl disaster or some other not great things,” Olga says. “But when Oksana and she stood there crying it was such a powerful moment. It gave Ukrainians something to be proud of. The ceremony was 30 minutes late because they couldn’t find the national anthem—no one expected Oksana to win!”
Born in Kyiv, Olga lived with her grandparents in Moscow until the age of 5, when she moved back home to begin schooling. It was around that time she found ballet, one of her life’s greatest passions. Even as a married woman with two daughters and a demanding job as the head of development for the Ukraine Athletics Federation, she still makes time to take adult classes at the her daughters’ studio.
Although she was a top ballerina, Olga faced the difficult decision as a teenager to choose between dropping out of regular school to pursue ballet or attend traditional university. Following the advice of her parents—her biggest role models—she chose the second option.
At 16, Olga enrolled at Kyiv National University, where she completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international law. In 2003, she added another master’s degree in Ukrainian law. For a long time, Olga wanted to become a lawyer. After graduation, however, she chose a different path, working for eight years on gender projects for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Then, by chance, she made her way into the sports world.
“I wanted to try something new after spending so many years with the UNDP, so I went to a headhunting agency and the day after got a call from Ukraine Athletics,” Olga says. “The day of my first interview they offered me the job. I didn’t think it would happen so fast!”
Olga’s transition into sports was sparked by a desire to help people. Throughout her life, she knew she didn’t want to work for a “paycheck at the end of the month,” but to actually make the world a healthier, unprejudiced, and more equal place.
In Olga’s view, Ukraine does not have the blatant gender inequality seen in more traditional patriarchal societies. In top positions, salaries are comparable for men and women. However, the great majority of these positions are held by men. As of 2014, women made up only 12 percent of parliament. Two years ago, in the Global Gender Gap Report, Ukraine was ranked 105th of 142 countries in women’s political empowerment.
Olga compares the situation for women like herself to having a glass ceiling above their heads.
“When you look up you think you can see everything and climb every step up the ladder,” Olga says. “But then as you climb you hit your head against the glass and you realize there’s nowhere else to go.”
Although she doesn’t see the same disparity within athletics, where four of five department heads are women, she is concerned for the transition of female athletes into post-athletic careers. On top of helping female athletes adapt, Olga wants to run a national campaign promoting women at top-level positions in sport.
Throughout her career, Olga has proven more than capable of pushing for gender equality and social change. Now she needs the tools to continue this work in sports. To help her accomplish these goals, she will be mentored by America East executives Amy Huchthausen and Shonna Brown—two women with the wisdom and experience that will greatly benefit Olga. A member of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA) Board of Directors, Amy is in her fifth year as commissioner at America East, where she has consistently grown the conference’s exposure on television and as one of the leaders in respect and diversity in college sports, as well as student-athlete development. Shonna, executive associate commissioner for the conference, oversees America East’s business practices and has a long, successful career in sports administration.
The mentors will play a key role in assisting Olga with her biggest needs—communications and public speaking skills and strategy, fundraising, and sponsorship—and there is no doubt this trio will come up with a dynamic plan to increase female representation in sports in Ukraine.
“The podium only lasts for a few seconds, what matters is the journey…”
This phrase describes the philosophy of Jordanian jiu-jitsu player and human development worker Rima Yacoub. Born in Jordan’s capital city of Amman, Rima excelled in traditional sports like gymnastics, track & field, and badminton before finding her way to combat sports. But, it was never the medals that motivated her. Instead, it was what sport taught her about herself, and what she hopes to share with other girls in her country: “We are strong, we are fearless, we can make our dreams into realities.”
A natural athlete throughout most of her youth, Rima was selected for Jordan’s national badminton team in 1999. It should’ve been the start of a career. However, in 2004, she transitioned out of the sport as she finished her bachelor’s degree in English and literature at the University of Jordan (Rima also completed an MBA at German Jordanian University in 2014). After years of weightlifting, Rima started jiu-jitsu.
When Rima began martial arts, she didn’t plan to compete. Sport was a way for her to feel strong and healthy. But, then she made the choice almost two years ago to compete in her first major tournament.
Entering her first match at the recent World Championships at Abu Dhabi, Rima felt a combination of nervousness and excitement.
“After two minutes my opponent was smashing me,” Rima recalls. “I was suffocating and I was about to tap. But, then I told myself, ‘No Rima, you’re not going out of this tournament in your first match!’
Rima was able to turn the tide and win the match and eventually the gold medal in her division. When she caught sight of her coach, he was jumping up and down cheering for her. She said he later told her, “I’ve never felt more proud of you in my life.”
With the support of her family along the way, Rima is fortunate to be able to pursue a sport uncommon for women in many parts of Jordan. Even in the eastern section of Amman, she says many women are expected to “cover up” and follow in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers: husbands, children, and family life. In west Amman, where Rima lives, families are more open to women playing sports, but combat sports are still discouraged.
For much of her career, Rima has been the only girl in her jiu-jitsu club. It has not been an easy ride, but she has always persevered.
“Jiu-jitsu can be awkward and intimidating environment for many girls” Rima says. “There are still certain people that will ask me, ‘Why do you do this to yourself? You should’ve gotten married and live a normal life.’ But that’s something that I’ve gotten over. I ignore it.”
After working as project coordinator for the Rasheed Coalition for Integrity and Transparency, Rima accepted a job as the partnerships and communications officer at Ruwwad (the Arabic word for “entrepreneurship”), a local NGO that focuses on child, youth, and community development. Rima vets volunteers and checks their lesson plans to ensure they represent the organization’s values. She sees her volunteers and trainers as mentors who have the potential to change the course of a girl’s life.
Before starting with Ruwwad, Rima always thought about launching a small organization to help professional female athletes secure sponsorships for competitions outside Jordan. She realized, though, more meaningful work can be done with the local community.
“Ruwwad is located in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Amman and every day I see girls who have rebelled and chosen their own path,” Rima says. “These are girls who will go all the way to hell to get what they want. And I don’t want to lose them.”
Rima hopes to create a solid, sustainable sports program for Ruwwad, less reliant on volunteers. In order to achieve this goal, she will be mentored by Jill Hotchkiss, vice president of marketing and creative for Disney XD. An award-winning expert in youth and global marketing strategy, Jill serves as the branding lens for all marketing, overseeing strategic planning, creative development and implementation of all on-air and off-air creative content. With her creative vision and experience, she and her Disney team will be able to provide Rima with the tools to develop, market, and fund a program that allows more and more Jordanian girls to get involved with any sport they desire.
Throughout her childhood, Pamela Akplogan found sport as a source of strength and comfort. Raised in rural Benin, she and her family were met with great sorrow when her father passed away at a young age. With few financial resources at her disposal, Pamela’s mother tried her best to support the young family. Then, shortly after his passing, one of her colleagues coaching basketball in the area invited Pamela to come train with him. It was a moment of discovery for her as a young woman.
“Basketball taught me how to express myself and help others understand me even it is difficult to find words,” Pamela says. “It allowed me to become an actor of change. Through basketball, I’ve become a very strong woman.”
Pamela won her first basketball medal at 14 years old. She continued playing as she began her bachelor’s degree in business law at Université d’Abomey-Calavi and eventually joined Benin’s national team. During her time at the university, another coach saw her playing on the court and thought she might also be a strong fit for judo. He asked if she would train for one month in judo to see whether he was right.
“I told him I didn’t like to fight or watch people fighting,” Pamela says. “I didn’t think I could do it. And he asked me just to try. I was very afraid, but I made my decision and I went.”
Pamela excelled in judo and won a bronze medal at the Benin National Judo Championship in 2015.
Pamela did not initially plan to mix her passion for sports with her profession. While at university, she accepted a journalism internship at a local radio station. After her colleagues learned of her basketball experience, she was invited to join the sports coverage team. She is now a sports journalist for Radio Tokpa, in addition to serving as a leader within the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM), for which she was named the chairperson of the Africa Scout Youth Forum through 2018. Pamela leads talks on leadership and entrepreneurship throughout Africa and uses her public role to launch service projects and regularly engage with her community through sports and other activities.
“I have a lot of duties and responsibilities to promote sport and grow its platform in my society,” Pamela says. “People view sport as just a game. They don’t realize you can strengthen the community and spread positive messages—it can be used for development and to help people blossom. This is about human beings, not just boys and girls. This is about human rights.”
Pamela, who also recently earned a master’s degree in social science and education, sees a need for promoting women’s sports in rural, disadvantaged areas. She wants to use her platform to create a program where girls from underserved communities can train at sports clubs in Porto-Novo, Benin’s capital city. Pamela would follow the girls over the course of six months and then organize a big competition that would be aired on television.
“Since I started basketball, I’ve never seen anyone promoting sports only for girls and young women,” Pamela says. “My program would put a focus on the girls who need it most. I want to go back to places like my hometown, Kouti, and show people there is hope and light in the world. Yes, there are challenges, but as judo taught me, if we stay focused and calm through the challenges then we can find solutions.”
Although Pamela has the support of strong women like her mother in Benin, she has not found career women who can serve as sources of experienced guidance. In an effort to achieve her goals, she hopes to expand her skills as a leader and influencer, as well as add news tools in business and sports marketing. Deborah Stroman, the director of the Center for Sport Business at the University of North Carolina, is a strong fit to guide Pamela on her journey. A former college basketball player and assistant coach, Deborah has more than three decades of business, entrepreneurship, and athletic industry experience. She has a dynamic set of skills and lessons that she will impart to Pamela to direct her own goals. Together, these two strong women will find just the solutions needed to bring hope to the girls and women who most need it throughout Benin.
When Paola Kuri describes her upbringing, it brings up the image of the large and lively family in the famous film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“Growing up, if we traveled or went to a restaurant it would always be like an army of us,” Paola laughs. “When we walked in we’d ask, ‘Table for 30, please.’”
Born and raised in Mexico City, Paola began playing sports at 3 years old with mixed enthusiasm from her family. Although her father was a golfer, she says her mother and the other women in her family had little interest in sport. They encouraged Paola to try other activities in her free time.
“As a kid, I would go into my garden and take the fallen leaves and imagine they were soccer players and I’d have to get the ball and try to pass them,” Paola recalls. “I imagined I was in this huge stadium playing. Once I went with my friends to play in the park and there was this huge group of boys and I turned my cap backwards to seem a little tougher and get them to let me play. I always had to prove myself.”
Paola’s gravitation to sports reached its peak one holiday season when she was still young. She had dropped hints to her family about wanting new soccer equipment as a gift. Paola’s mother obliged. But she also used it as a chance to deliver a special message to her tomboyish daughter.
“I specifically asked Santa Claus for goalkeeper gloves, a soccer ball, and cleats,” Paola recalls. “I was afraid I was doing something wrong for wanting boys toys. When I walked over to the Christmas tree there they were – but they were pink!”
Paola continued her soccer career through college. In 2012, she earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ibero-American University while playing for the university’s women’s soccer team. It was the first time in Paola’s life that she played on an all-female team. In addition to her passion for sport, Paola has always been drawn into art and culture. Channeling this passion, she completed a master’s degree in fine arts from Florence University of the Arts.
Although it has been her lifelong pursuit, Paola senses a general apathy in Mexican society when it comes to women’s sport. In comparison to sports programs for boys and men, few opportunities exist for girls and women. Paola sees sport as a tool that can positively touch the lives of underserved girls in marginalized areas—giving them hope and providing opportunities in professional and non-elite sports.
“Sport cures you in a lot ways. I’ve been to places where girls have been abused and they use soccer to help them forget and to move forward,” Paola says. “It is about playing the sport we love, but it’s also about creating better people. The soccer field is a magical place. I’d go out with just my ball and it would change everything. If girls can play, they can become great people and great leaders for our country.”
In 2015, Paola turned her passion into a career into when she launched #FutSinGénero (Soccer Without Gender), an initiative which provides equipment, life skills training, and soccer clinics for girls in communities that lack access to sport. The initiative has been so successful that Paola regularly receives invitations from men’s clubs to lead training. She is usually unable to accept these items, however, because a lack of funding and time. Her main source of income comes through Ethos Arte, an art exhibition that Paola runs with her brother in Mexico City.
“I am constantly inspired, but I lack structure and clear objectives,” Paola says. “With the GSMP, I can enrich my capabilities. Though I’m starting in Mexico, I want it to grow from here. I need someone to help me understand how to make it happen right.”
Supporting Paola to fulfill her mission for Mexican girls is Joan Coraggio, group director of sponsorship and experiential marketing for Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles. With more than two decades of experience in planning and executing event sponsorships and experiential marketing programs, Joan and her team have promoted events such as the Lollapalooza music festival, Supercross motorcycle racing, triathlons, and Oprah’s The Life You Want Tour. In 2014, her team managed over 300 events across 1,000 event days.
Joan’s experience in the marketing, promotions, and business worlds will be vital for Paola as she grows #FutSinGénero to impact the lives of more girls in Mexico. During her time with Joan, Paola will develop key skills to make her gender equality projects even more successful and far-reaching. Together, these two strong, creative will make a dynamic team.
Silvija Mitevska has always been unique—the kind of person who thinks and acts outside the box. She recognized her natural inclinations as a girl coming from a small family in Skopje, Macedonia. This inclination led her to start paragliding at the age of 15, a sport in which she eventually rose to become one of the top female practitioners in the Balkan region. But when Silvija began competing and winning places on the podium, the rewards were not what she had expected for her years of hard work and sacrifice.
“I was always given dresses and flowers,” Silvija recalls. “That was nice. But I didn’t want a dress. I wanted a trophy like the men!”
Eventually, Silvija did receive a trophy in Bulgaria and proudly showed it to her friends and family. Many more trophies and accomplishments followed, including Paragliding World Cup victories in Slovenia and Italy in the early ‘2000s. More recently, Silvija had the honor of becoming the first female tandem pilot in Macedonia. Over the course of her career in paragliding, she met her husband, who has become an avid support of her when she competes inside and outside of the country. Silvija even introduced her 5-year-old son to paragliding.
“My son has flown tandem with me twice and after he landed the first time he was crying, ‘It was too short, I want to go again!’” Silvija laughs. “He knows all the members at the club and he even gives instructions to people about how to take off! He’s so proud that he brought a picture of me to kindergarten to share his experiences with his friends.”
Paragliding opened up Silvija’s world and gave her a thrill for life, as well as a drive in human rights advocacy. In 2004, she completed a master’s degree in physical education and sport management from The Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje, where she is now completing a second master’s degree in human rights. Silvija believes the sport has the power to create a stronger, more independent, and determined generation of Macedonian women. Silvija is president and co-founder of Together Advancing Common Trust (TAKT), an NGO based in Macedonia that aims to bridge cultural divides and promote social and gender inequalities through sports and cultural activities. She has also worked for Doctors without Borders as a liaison officer and field agent, serving Syrian refugees entering Macedonia.
Despite Silvija’s success as a paraglider, women still make up only a small minority of extreme sports participants in the Balkan region. For the past 15 years, she has encouraged women to follow in her footsteps, but she still rarely sees another female on the mountain when she glides. Silvija attributed this to Macedonian women generally not receiving support from their families to pursue competitive sport. And with gender inequities in the workplace, women in the country find it difficult to take part as sport as a hobby.
“I feel really strongly that it is my responsibility to be a role model,” Silvija says. “With Ilina Arsova [a colleague and U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program alumna from 2012] we’ve gone to high schools to advocate, talking to educators and parents and telling communities that girls deserve the chance to play sports. I want to show girls that even in a society like Macedonia that if you have the right support and make the right choices you can have the greatest job in the world.”
Through participating in the GSMP, Silvija hopes to learn new ways to develop creative advocacy and marketing strategies, as well as stronger partnerships with the government and private sectors. These efforts will help TAKT expand its impact in advocating for women’s sport from a local to a national level.
Susan Cohig, senior VP of business affairs and integrated marketing at the National Hockey League (NHL), is a strong match to support Silvija on her mission. As a three-time GSMP mentor, Susan has spearheaded efforts to elevate and support women’s hockey in the United States as well as promote equality for women in the sports sector worldwide. With her extensive experience across various marketing platforms—including film, television, and digital content— as well as her integral role in NHL business activities from the grassroots to the professional level, Susan is an invaluable source for Silvija. We are very excited for the potential of this dynamic partnership to bring new waves of empowerment to women in Macedonia and beyond.
Camila Pirelli was born to be an athlete.
Raised in the town of Ayolas, Paraguay, near the border with Argentina, her father was a former basketball player and her mother a pentathlon champion. With a passion and affinity for sport in her blood, Camila became a champion figure skater and swimmer by the time she was a teenager. But, at the age of 16, she discovered her life’s true calling.
It was at that time that a track and field coach from Asuncion found Camila running and saw her potential as a future record-breaker. The coach reached out to Camila’s mother and told her, “I’m going to make your daughter a South American champion in 10 months.”
The prediction came true when Camila won her first gold medal in pentathlon at the South American Youth Championships in 2006. Since then, she has gone on to achieve several Paraguayan records in track and field, as well as to win gold medals in both the Bolivarian Games and South American Games.
In 2007, Camila was offered a sports scholarship to attend Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. As an international student, Camila excelled at balancing the demands of classes and a career in athletics. She set the university record in the indoor pentathlon and heptathlon as well as the javelin. In 2012, she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biology was named an Athlete of Excellence as the highest academic performer among student-athletes.
Despite her success in the classroom and on the track, Camila has regularly battled injuries and recently missed out on competing in the Rio Olympics after her 2014 season was interrupted by a severe shoulder injury. She chooses not to be discouraged, though, as she believes sport teaches how to cope with failure and still persevere.
“On the track, there are moments when your body or mind want you to stop and you have to fight against it” Camila says. “I always compare life to a hurdle race. When you get past one challenge, you are happy. But you have another one right in front of you. Sport teaches you to fight and embrace the journey ahead.”
In Paraguay, Camila recognizes that the culture of machismo puts women in the face of violence and discrimination, giving them a sense of disempowerment. In the outskirts of Asuncion, where marginalized communities live in shantytowns, high rates of domestic violence and criminality disproportionately affect women. And while prominent women have risen in the ranks of Paraguayan politics, women in the country still face the stereotypes that they are better suited for motherhood or domestic jobs.
“There aren’t conversations with girls about becoming professionals,” Camila says. “If you are 30 years old and don’t have a family you are considered a failure by society. Because of this mentality there is no hunger for change no dreams for girls to achieve greatness.”
Camila refuses to accept this limitation for herself and feels a passion for sharing this message with girls throughout Paraguay. The platform for this message is her own success as an athlete and female icon. She previously volunteered with the Paraguayan Minister of Sports and Serving Paraguay, an NGO that provides children with opportunities to train in track and field.
“There are so many kids with potential out there” Camila says. “They are 8 years old and they get on the track and want to race me! They ask to train with me and I love that. They are so innocent. If they have the proper education, they’re not going to be criminals—they’re going to be successes.”
Camila wants to leverage the power of track and field as a way to encourage girls and underserved youth in Paraguay to set goals and increase their confidence. While she has the support of the Ministry of Sports, Camila knows she needs to develop and refine skills in leadership development, organizational management, and storytelling to entice sponsors and the public as she develops her program.
Gwen Conley, vice president and group media director for Rubin Postear and Associates (RPA), will be able to work well with her on these goals. With more than 20 years of experience in the advertising industry, Gwen is a proven leader and expert in integrated marketing and communications. Having previously served as a U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program mentor, Gwen is a longtime supporter and committed contributor to the program. With Gwen’s support, Camila will be able to gain the knowledge and experience needed to develop a sports platform that inspires thousands of girls and women throughout her country.
Growing up a five-minute stroll from the Hutt River in New Zealand, Fran McEwen spent many of her childhood days swimming in the river, flying kites, and climbing trees. Born and raised in Upper Hutt, a small, outdoorsy city about 21 miles from Wellington, she lived what she calls “the quintessential 1980s New Zealand childhood.”
Sports seeped into Fran’s life through her father, a sports producer for national television. He would cover the rugby and soccer World Cups, Olympic Games, and other events around the globe, and sometimes he’d take her along with him to soak in the experience.
But, something changed in Fran during her teenage years. She stopped playing sports and moved out of the home. Eventually, she dropped out of school and felt disconnected from society.
“It was like I was walking along the edge of a line,” Fran says. “Some people think that you have to have experienced a difficult upbringing in order to lose your way, but we all face challenges and I am evidence that it can happen to anyone.”
Eventually, Fran found herself again and, while working full-time, began to study. In 2002, she completed a diploma in information and library sciences from the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. This academic phase coincided with a decade-long career of working as a library advisor and specialist in the areas of children, youth, women, and communities. The difficult period in Fran’s life when she felt detached from herself served as a catalyst for her dedication empowering young women. In 2015, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from the Open Polytechnic to cement her commitment to making a difference in the lives of others.
“I made so many terrible mistakes as a young woman,” she says, “and I want to support other young women to make better choices.”
While completing her bachelor’s degree, Fran found her way to working in sport. The Upper Hutt City Council needed a manager for its sports and recreation team. Given Fran’s extensive background in community development and human-centered strategies, the council’s leadership identified Fran as a strong fit. Four years later, Fran now works as the health and wellbeing partnership leader at Wellington City Council. Knowing first-hand the important role sport can play in women’s lives, Fran recently founded Shift (“shift your body, shift your mind”), a community outreach program that uses sports to promote mindfulness.
“Sport builds social-connectedness and a sense of community, which is really important for women,” Fran says. “It creates self-esteem and body confidence; leadership skills and good health habits. I believe it is the vehicle to being the best version of yourself.”
Shift, focuses on getting young women—especially those who are inactive or from underserved communities—into sport through holistic activities that target both body and mind. Since March, approximately 500 young women between the ages of 12 to 20 have participated in the program.
The challenges faced by women in New Zealand are the same as in many Western countries: pay gaps, increased rates of diabetes and obesity, and mental health issues. The country has a high youth suicide rate, spurred by issues like cyber bullying and pressures from peers—also trends that discourage young women from excelling.
Fran wants to increase the reach and impact of Shift, especially with the growing numbers of migrant and refugee women entering New Zealand from the Middle East. In an effort to achieve these goals, Fran hopes to diversify funding streams, engage corporate sponsors, and better market to young women. Laura Dixon, executive director of corporate responsibility for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, will mentor Fran so that she can hone in on her vision. Leading the Spurs organization’s work in the San Antonio-area for the past seven years, Laura shares Fran’s passion for the health and wellbeing of her community and will complement Fran’s drive with successful strategies for engaging public and private entities. With the assistance of Laura and her dynamic team, Fran can grow the reach of Shift, while measuring its ability to empower young women in Wellington and other parts of New Zealand.
Melodie Robinson was destined to be a rugby player. Both her great-grandfather, a Maori All Black, and uncle, an All Black, had represented New Zealand in international competition. But, women were not encouraged to play the country’s most popular sport when Melodie was young. For a time, it looked like she might not be able to continue their legacies.
Instead of rugby, Melodie played volleyball and basketball until she reached university. But, with tryouts announced for a women’s rugby club, she and about 60 other young women decided to give it a shot. From the first whistle, she fell in love.
Fast forward a few years and Melodie was one of the more recognizable female faces in the world of New Zealand rugby. From 1996 until 2002, she won two World Cups with the Black Ferns, the women’s national rugby team.
“The bonds you make with someone on the rugby field are stronger than any other sport I’ve played,” Melodie says. “You’re using your strength and will to physically dominate another woman on the field—that is empowerment.”
Rugby gave Melodie a taste for success and a window into a new life. “Sport is a vehicle to reach your aspirations,” she says.
The ambition and drive from her rugby experiences helped Melodie transition into a successful career in journalism. After completing a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Otago, she returned to complete a post-grad certificate in journalism (Melodie is currently completing her MBA at Auckland University). By 2002, she was working 80 hours a week hosting a breakfast show and coaching rugby when she was given her first sports role with Sky Network Television.
Even though she is a respected voice in rugby—the only female journalist, presenter and commentator for Sky Sport and a former co-host of the World Rugby Awards—Melodie still deals with unfair criticism due to her gender.
“I remember my first game, I made an error and the whole conversation was about, ‘Why do we have a woman talking about rugby?’” Melodie says. “That taught me a lesson about preparing more than anybody else. It doesn’t matter if you’re a male and All Black and you do something wrong, but it does if you’re a woman.”
Although stereotypes and social inequity exists, New Zealand is a notably egalitarian society. In addition to strong female role models, New Zealand was the first in the world to give women the right to vote, and has had two female prime ministers. Despite these accomplishments, many people still hold traditional views of women’s roles, which do not include sports.
Melodie wants to push for an exclusively women’s sports show on Sky Sport geared to celebrating the country’s rising number of female athletes, similar to espnW’s online platform in the United States. She is a self-proclaimed “pain-in-the-butt for her bosses” and is constantly advocating for bigger and better coverage of women’s rugby competitions. Her prominent role covering women’s sports has led to an increase of “on air” features on women and a pathway for women to talk about sports. Current players tell her they would like to transition into journalism to follow her footsteps.
“I’ve lived my passion and you can’t really say working in rugby is a real job,” Melodie says. “I’ve been living my dream for 13 years.”
Working with Melodie to achieve her goals will be Julie Sobieski, vice president of league sports programming for ESPN. For years, Julie has been one of the company’s key programming executives, leading negotiations for the network’s 2014 extended agreement with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and overseeing strategic planning and management of the its relationships with the NBA, Major League Baseball (MLB), NASCAR, and more. Like Melodie, she has been a champion for women in sports media and was elected to lead ESPN Women, the company’s employee resource group charged with making the media outlet the premier organization for women in sports, media and business. With Julie’s support, Melodie will be able to develop the tools she needs to become a stronger communicator to stakeholders and influencer in her workplace and throughout New Zealand.
Jessica Wu has always stood firm in her hope for a brighter future in the Philippines and the role she can play in shaping it. “I want to create a society where feminism isn’t for women only,” Jessica says, “but that gender equality is a fight for women and men together.”
Born in Iligan City, Jessica spent her early years in Marawi City where Muslim insurgents and the government forces regularly clashed. When she was young, Jessica’s parents were forced to move their family to Iligan, a buffer zone between the conflict regions. It was there where she lost two of her siblings, who died before the age of two. Amidst these challenging transitions, Jessica struggled with a sense of inferiority to those around her because of her darker skin color.
Jessica sought out an escape through gymnastics—her first venture into sports. She admired the grace and poise of the gymnasts, who resembled princesses to her. She also explored taekwondo and soccer. While studying at Silliman University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications in 2009 and later a certificate in women’s studies, soccer was a constant comfort for her. A 12-hour bus ride away from her family and with no one else around to support her, the soccer team became a new family to her. Even though she wasn’t the most talented player, Jessica’s teammates and coaches helped her to believe in her own strength and potential.
“I didn’t have many ball skills or technique,” Jessica recalls. “But my college coach gave me one-on-one training and I gained confidence in my abilities. For the first time in my entire life, I was appreciated. I realized sport could offer me support and could help anyone who suffered the same horrible things I did growing up.”
That wasn’t the end to Jessica’s challenges. Harassment and discrimination followed her into adulthood. But these experiences only convinced her to stand up and become a voice for women. In Mindanao’s patriarchal culture, where there is what she calls a “belief barrier” that affects efficient collaboration between communities of Muslims, Christians, and indigenous populations, she knows women’s voices are lost in the noise. And she refuses to let that trend continue.
“There is too much silence when it comes to women’s issues,” Jessica says. “That is why it is my mission to help oppressed women and children. This is empowerment for me—to go from being a victim to someone who could make a real difference in my society.”
Aside from working with her husband in women’s rights advocacy, Jessica is a football master trainer for the ASA Foundation/Asian Soccer Academy and the regional coordinator for Let’s Do It! Philippines, an organization that mobilizes volunteers to clean up illegal dumping sites. Her climate change work extends to other roles with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Asia-Pacific, Dakila’s Climate Revolution, and the Climate Reality Project of former United States Vice President Al Gore.
Through participating in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, (GSMP), Jessica’s dreams of creating a center that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration for victims of sexual assault in Iligan City. She envisions an open facility for women and children all over Mindanao, along with an inclusive program for persons with disabilities. At this center, she plans to use sport-based education and life skills training to bring together women in a safe space where they can heal and find empowerment together.
Jessica will work to achieve this goal with the help of mentors Laura Burton and Jennifer McGarry at the University of Connecticut. Laura, an associate professor of sport management, has focused much of her career on studying gender issues and organizational leadership development. She is co-editor of one of the first textbooks focusing on leadership in sport, Sport Leadership in the 21st Century. Jennifer, head of the Department for Educational Leadership and executive director of Husky Sport, is an expert on barriers and supports for women from marginalized ethnic and socio-economic groups. With the support of her mentors, Jessica will gain the vital networks, development, and sustainable planning skills she needs if her center is to become a reality. Their partnership has the potential not only to achieve Jessica’s plans, but to also create a safer and more equal society for thousands of women in the Philippines.
From the time she was a girl in Lahore, Pakistan, Rabia Qadir tried her hand at every sport within reach: athletics, volleyball, handball, and eventually field hockey. It was field hockey that really impacted her life. Despite how uncommon it was to see girls outside playing sports, Rabia was relentless and begged her parents to participate.
“My family told me, ‘As long as you’re good in your studies, you can play field hockey. Otherwise, there are no sports for you,’” Rabia says. “That was my only rule. I followed it very strictly!”
Without the support of her parents, Rabia believes it would have been impossible for her to achieve one of the greatest moments of her life when she was called on to play for Pakistan’s national women’s field hockey team in 2003. More than 10 years later, Rabia has won upwards of a dozen gold medals with her various teams and was even invited to coach the country’s under-18 women’s team. In 2012, she was named the country’s best female player by the Pakistan Hockey Federation. She continues to play competitively for both the national team and WAPDA (Water and Power Development Authority).
“I want to become a role model to girls in my society,” Rabia says. “I want teach them how to have confidence and self-respect; to show them that the voices that say they are incapable of playing sports are wrong—they can do anything and they shouldn’t be afraid to try.”
Rabia, who holds master’s degrees in mass communications and sports sciences from the University of the Punjab, balances her field hockey commitments with a job as a sports anchor for WAQT and NEO News. Rabia’s sports anchor positions also allow her fund her work with Galaxy Sports Academy, which she founded in 2011. At the academy, she and two other female coaches train 25 girls from Lahore in field hockey, soccer, and athletics.
Working specifically with girls from disadvantaged backgrounds around the city, Rabia provides uniforms, equipment, food, and pays traveling expenses—all with the hope that the girls will stick with sports and learn the valuable lessons that she gained from field hockey. But, the process has not been easy. Once Rabia even received a threatening letter from members of the local community about the academy.
After suspending practice for three days, Rabia chose to stand strong and continued her work uninterrupted by the naysayers.
“I will change my place of practice,” she says, “but I won’t change the purpose of my life.”
The need for financial resources, equipment, and sports facilities are among the challenges facing Rabia in her efforts with the academy. In a culture that generally holds traditional views of women’s roles, many parents may not recognize the value of allowing their girls to leave the house to play sports.
Through her participation in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), Rabia dreams of expanding on the Galaxy Sports Academy to include a sports school that combines athletic training and education. She wants to use her platforms on television and radio as a way for girls who benefit from her programs to share their experiences and describe why sport is positively impacting their lives.
“I want them to share what sports puts in their hearts,” Rabia says. “To speak freely and to know that no one can harm them or stop them because they have the strength inside them to push ahead.”
In order to accomplish her goals, Rabia can turn to a mentor who can help her to develop and market her program. Diane Lamb, vice president of communications for ESPN, is an ideal mentor for Rabia. Rising through the ranks since she was hired at the company in 1984, Diane has managed communications for Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and ESPN’s corporate citizenship initiatives. She currently oversees a diverse portfolio including day-to-day Disney Investor and Public Relations communications, media relations, executive messaging, and all aspects of ESPN Audio’s growing business. With her considerable experience in the sports world, Diana will be able to provide Rabia with the tools she needs to make a lasting impact in Lahore and throughout Pakistan.
Global Client Partner, Google
Group Director - Sponsorship & Experiential Marketing, Saatchi & Saatchi LA
Group Director of Earned Media and Public Relations, Saatchi & Saatchi LA
Head of External Relations, Spurs Sports & Entertainment
Vice President of Marketing & Digital, New York Road Runners
Vice President of League Sports Programming, ESPN
Vice President of Communications, ESPN
Senior Vice President, Ketchum Sports & Entertainment
Vice President, Ketchum Sports & Entertainment
Vice President and Group Media Director, Rubin Postaer and Associates (RPA)
Senior Vice President - Business Affairs & Integrated Marketing, NHL
Professor of Sport Business & Entrepreneurship, University of North Carolina
Commissioner, Big East Conference
Chief Marketing Officer, Big East Conference
Vice President of People Experience & Innovation, NBA
Commissioner, America East Conference
Executive Associate Commissioner, America East Conference
Vice President of Marketing & Creative, Disney XD
Associate Professor of Sport Management, University of Connecticut
Department Head for Educational Leadership, University of Connecticut