Authentic relationships, growth are hallmarks of Mentoring Challenge
Participants in the CSM Mentoring Challenge program will sip drinks and exchange pleasantries during a reception at CSM’s Manhattan office the night before the 2019 Game Changers conference, some of them pushing through awkward moments as they meet for the first time.
The women’s ages and professional experience will differ greatly. Their importance in making the sports business industry a more inclusive and diverse environment won’t.
Dan Mannix launched the LeadDog Mentoring Challenge in 2016, in the months before CSM Sport & Entertainment acquired LeadDog Marketing Group. The idea grew out of LeadDog’s own commitment to maintaining a diverse staff and an inclusive environment. The Mentoring Challenge sought to give up-and-coming women opportunities and guidance so that they can make meaningful professional impacts.
Mannix partnered with Sports Business Journal on the Mentoring Challenge and in its first year paired 10 seasoned female sports business executives with 10 mentees early in their professional careers (see pairings lists below). The program grew to 15 pairs the following year. Now, Mannix regularly fields calls from folks pitching their up-and-comers for increasingly coveted mentee positions.
“So, you know when something has turned the corner,” said Mannix, CEO of CSM North America. But, he added, “even though it’s going in the right direction, we’re just scratching the surface.”
The number of mentors showing interest in participating also is increasing. Mentors must have previously been named Game Changers.
“To have women who have already demonstrated their success and commitment to the industry by being recognized as Game Changers to then put themselves out there and say, ‘You know, there is a reason I’ve been recognized as a Game Changer, I need to spread the wealth here and give the opportunity to that next generation,’ is so meaningful,” said Caroline Ponsi, the Mentoring Challenge program director.
The organizers try to pair women based on their geography (not always easy to do), the property they work for (brand, league, team or organization), and what field they work in (sponsorships, marketing or communications, for example). Mentees’ answers to one of the three questions on their application (where they see themselves in 10 years) is another criterion. The point of the program is to make it easier for women to climb the sports business ranks; to turn those 10-year dreams into realities.
“I never had a female mentor at work,” said mentor Jody Bennett, the vice president of marketing at LiveSafe. “I thought it’d be great to provide that opportunity. I had my struggles and trials and tribulations, and I didn’t want someone else to have to go through that.”
Jody Bennett and Gabrielle Gray
When Bennett had an office at FedEx Field 20 years ago, there was one other woman who worked there, and she answered the phones. Roughly 120 people were employed at Redskins Park at that time.
Bennett, who was named to the 2016 Game Changers class when she was with the Charge agency, participated in the CSM Mentoring Challenge program’s second edition in 2017. She was paired with Gabrielle Gray, an account manager at Genesco Sports Enterprises.
“When you can find someone that is in a place where you see yourself, especially a woman in a male-dominated industry, it’s just important to see, first, that it’s possible for someone like you,” Gray said. “And the second thing is to be able to learn. So, the yearlong program, or if you can extend that even longer, it’s so important.”
Gray and Bennett’s relationship easily transcended the initial one-year duration. Two years after meeting, they still speak every other Monday at 1 p.m. Early on, “I challenged her a ton,” Bennett said.
“Yes,” Gray confirmed with a laugh.
“I wish I had that when I was her age,” Bennett said.
Like all of the mentors, Bennett wouldn’t have continued beyond the first year had it not been worth her time. Gray was always prepared with a list of questions and discussion topics for each phone call.
“I love the fact that she respects my time,” Bennett said. “And because she respects me, I show her the same respect. I feel like I owe it to her because of the time and effort she’s put into this program.”
Mentor-mentee relationships that grow organically are precious, but also less common. Bennett and Gray are both grateful that they were paired together by the program.
“It’s crazy,” Bennett said. “If we sat next to each other on a plane we probably wouldn’t even talk, and now we’re so close. I see a lot of her in me.”
Sharon Byers and Arin Segal
Arranged mentor relationships can be awkward if they’re set up too formally or there isn’t chemistry between the participants. Sharon Byers and Arin Segal didn’t have that problem.
“It was love at first sight,” joked Byers, and their conversations “just flowed,” according to Segal, who is a solutions consultant for Conviva. Almost three years after they were part of the initial class in 2016, Segal and Byers, who is the American Cancer Society’s chief marketing, communications and development/sales officer, still speak regularly on the phone.
“The chemistry is really, really important, because that’s the only way it’s really going to evolve into what Arin and I have, which has kind of morphed into a peer-to-peer friendship, discussion, career, personal life, which is great, right?” said Byers, a member of the 2012 class of Game Changers when she was with Coca-Cola. “She knew where she wanted to take her career. So, she and I became fast friends.”
Fresh out of college in 2016, Segal knew she wanted a mentor, but didn’t know where to look. Her mother was a career woman, but Segal wanted more objective advice.
“I could say whatever to appease my mom. I’m not going to tell Sharon a lie just to make her feel happy, I’m going to tell her the truth,” Segal said. “That was invaluable to me.”
After their initial meeting at the Mentoring Challenge reception, the duo spoke almost weekly during the first year. That was especially helpful for Segal, who was at Prodigy Sports and wasn’t sure she was committed to the career she had chosen. She kept Byers’ different bits of advice in the back of her mind as she evaluated her next step, which eventually led her to Conviva.
It’s been a valuable, symbiotic relationship for both, including the mentor. Byers has gleaned new insights on hiring from Segal, who was a recruiter in a previous job. And Segal gives Byers one more friend to whom she can send photos of her beloved 72-pound bulldog, Bruce.
“It is really a partnership,” Byers said. “Forget about the mentor-mentee, because every conversation both parties are going to walk out either learning more about themselves, or learning something new that they hadn’t thought about in their career. It’s just a wonderful way to build relationships, and I adore Arin and have a lot of respect for her.”
Molly Mazzolini and Leah Jenk
As Leah Jenk posed for a photo next to her Mentoring Challenge mentor, Molly Mazzolini, at the 2019 College Football Playoff championship game, she surely felt that her involvement in the program was already paying off.
Not long after they were paired by the Mentoring Challenge, Mazzolini, who is partner and brand integration director at Infinite Scale in Salt Lake City, reached out to Jenk, a college partnerships specialist for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, to see if she was interested in coming to San Jose to meet up for the game.
Heck yes, Jenk was interested.
Mazzolini, a member of the 2016 class of Game Changers, arranged a Levi’s Stadium tour, the pair attended professional development events and a few networking opportunities, and Jenk met dozens of important people working in her field.
“The amount of connections that Molly has in the industry and introduced me to is awesome, and it was so worth the trip,” Jenk said. “An awesome experience I never would have had without Molly.”
Mazzolini and Jenk’s similarities — they live on either side of the Rocky Mountains and they both work with oversized events and college sports — helped them connect quickly. Mazzolini remembers attending conferences where fewer than 10% of the attendees were women, which motivated her to make the most of Jenk’s Mentoring Challenge experience.
“I think it would be amazing for all of us to continue this kind of very niche group of women in the sports industry that have gone through this program, and continue to know that we’re here for one another,” Mazzolini said. “That would be a fantastic legacy.”
Susan Cohig and Katie Carew
Some of the mentor-mentee duos are geographically far flung, but Susan Cohig and Katie Carew are both based in New York. That’s made grabbing a cup of coffee to talk about their careers an achievable goal.
Those in-person chats are hugely beneficial for Carew, because Cohig, the NHL’s executive vice president of club business affairs, has participated all four years of the Mentoring Challenge program. She’s not only a savvy business executive, but a practiced mentor.
“In terms of Game Changers, it was a natural extension to really make the program and the conference more meaningful for participants,” said Cohig, who was a member of the 2013 Game Changers class. “Game Changers as a conference is kind of a one-and-done. It’s one time a year but being able to have the Mentoring Challenge provide a more extended involvement, to have more engagement, is just really important.”
Fostering relationships between mentees is another way to grow the network of women that the Mentoring Challenge ultimately seeks to build. Carew, who is sales director at GumGum, said that connecting with women of similar age and experience has been invaluable as they try to learn, grow and advance together.
To that end, Mentoring Challenge organizers put together a visit to an escape room for mentees. After drinks and food at a pub, eight mentees were locked in a faux bomb shelter and given an hour to solve the puzzle and escape the room. They were so close to finishing when the hour lapsed that the group was given another minute to escape, which they did.
“Hopefully these will be connections that continue to grow,” Carew said.
Cohig didn’t break out of the escape room with the mentees. But her continued involvement with the Mentoring Challenge is evidence of the industry’s widespread belief in the program’s mission, one that’s gathering momentum.
“The more this program grows, the more the network grows for women, and that’s essential for making our industry better,” Cohig said.
2016-17 LeadDog Mentoring Challenge
Michelle Berg, Team Epic Casey Inguagiato, Philadelphia 76ers
Sharon Byers, American Cancer Society Arin Segal, Prodigy Sports
Laura Chittick, JP Morgan Kelly Ann Higgins, New York Mets
Susan Cohig, NHL Claire Miller, Los Angeles Dodgers
Gail Hunter, Golden State Warriors Lana Ramirez, BBVA Compass
Ilana Kloss, Mylan World TeamTennis Ricki Dean, NBPA
Bernadette McGlade, Atlantic 10 Conference Armani Rice, College of the Holy Cross
Kimberly Meesters, Sprint Philicia Douglas, Miami Dolphins
Jaymee Messler, The Players’ Tribune Talia Retelny, Bleacher Report
Vicky Picca, Fanatics Sydney Schneider, NFL
2017-18 LeadDog Mentoring Challenge
Ronnie Tucker, New York Road Runners Brielle Buckler, NBA
Susan Cohig, NHL Ashley Daniel, NFL
Dawn Aponte, NFL Bailey Weigel, Manhattan Sports Business Academy
Beth Paretta, Grace Autosport Belicia Montgomery, Minor League Baseball
Jody Bennett, Andretti Autosport Gabrielle Gray, IMG College
Karen Ashnault, LeadDog Marketing Group Grace Kaminer, The Madison Square Garden Co.
Diane Pelkey, Under Armour Jamie Grant, NFLPA
Pam Batalis, Learfield Katherine Brown, ESPN
Lucia McKelvey, Top Rank Boxing Rachel Steinberg, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment
Mary Scott, United Entertainment Group Shira Averbuch, Major League Soccer
Sallie Sargent, Houston Super Bowl Host Committee Brittany Philip, GMR Marketing
Michele Carr, NFL Caroline Acosta, New York Mets
Xan Young, Populous Lauren Li, Scout Sports & Entertainment
Kathy Milthorpe, LPGA Melissa Lewis, PGA Tour
Shauna Griffiths, LeadDog Marketing Group Suzanne Grassel, Major League Soccer