The NFL’s highest-ranking security official was a 23-year-old single mother when she applied to join the Washington, D.C., police force. It’s not that she aspired to be in law enforcement, but the job advertisement she found in the Washington Post offered tuition reimbursement, and the ninth-grade dropout wanted to go to college.
Until then, Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s chief security officer, was working as a secretary and waitress so that she could afford to send her child to a Catholic school in the nation’s capital. Lanier didn’t just make her way onto the D.C. Metro Police force, she eventually rose to become chief of police before the NFL recruited her out of public service.
“I took every promotional test that came along and worked my way up through the ranks,” Lanier said.
Lanier’s journey from teenage runaway to the NFL was one of several inspirational stories shared by some of the top executives in sports business last week at SBJ’s sixth annual Game Changers conference in New York.
Jo Ann Ross, the top ad sales executive at CBS, explained how she rose from a secretarial position in 1980 with no typing or shorthand skills to become the network’s president and chief advertising revenue officer who now is selling her sixth Super Bowl.
Claude Silver from VaynerMedia described the spiritual trip that led her to drop out of college, turn to Outward Bound (an outdoor leadership program), and evolve into one of the top executives at VaynerMedia. She’s now a coveted speaker on developing culture in the corporate world.
Each tale offered a unique message interspersed with hot-button industry issues ranging from legalized gambling to the changing media landscape.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber offered his perspective on how and why the league made diversity a priority. Veteran Coca-Cola executive Bea Perez went deep on Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick, and a panel of experts examined the role of real-time data on gambling.
It’s in that way that the Game Changers conference has distinguished itself in its half-dozen years. It was founded as a way to highlight the work being done by some of the most influential women in sports business, which still is the core of the program. Thirty-five women were selected to be in this year’s Game Changers class.
But the forum also provides an avenue for women to talk to other women about the path they took in sports business — often in a more personal way.
Lanier’s story stopped the nearly 400 attendees in their tracks. This ninth-grade dropout, with the help of the D.C. Metro’s tuition reimbursement, graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University and a second master’s from the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
The audience responded with a spirited standing ovation to show its respect.
“Poverty is a great motivator,” she said.
The true motivation, however, was her son, who was born a month after Lanier’s 15th birthday.
“The maternal instinct is an amazing thing,” she said. “Once you realize that his whole life depended on me, every decision I made from that day forward was to provide for him.”