Two BC alumnae, Laura Gentile, CGSOM ’96, and Jennifer Welter, BC ’00 opened a discussion on their experiences as women in the male-dominated industry of athletics. The two also discussed the people who influenced them, their BC experiences that shaped them, and leadership advice for college students. The panel was an event hosted by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics along with Own It titled “Leading Women: Breaking the Barriers in Athletics” on Mar. 15 and was moderated by business professor Amy Lacombe.
Laura Gentile is the founder and senior vice president of ESPNW, a women’s sports subsite of ESPN. She received her MBA in marketing and organizational behavior from BC after spending four years on Duke University’s field hockey team. ESPNW is the premier women’s sports web site.
“It all started by being a tomboy who liked to get dirty,” Gentile said.
Gentile said that she simply played sports for the fun of the game. She gives her parents credit for always supporting her amid a culture which did not embrace women’s sports.
“Everything in my life ultimately led to working at ESPNW,” she said.
Before launching the web site, Gentile worked as the chief of staff to the president of ESPN, George Bodenheimer. Gentile was inspired by his ability to openly listen to others and ultimately make the right decisions, she said. Working with him gave her the confidence to speak her mind and make good decisions.
“He was a wonderful mentor,” Gentile said.
Gentile’s idea to create a sports website that would cater to women was almost unheard of at the time, as men had classically been the core target audience for ESPN. Although ESPN was servicing women, it was not specifically thinking about how to target a female audience.
“No one ever thought a girl could be in the NFL. It was passion that drove me all the way through it. What gave me the courage was the women I shared the fight with.”
– Jennifer Welter, BC ’00
Gentile saw this as a business opportunity in an unchartered area. She spearheaded the project and presented her ideas to several important executives in the company. She then gathered a group of both men and women to create a plan to directly service an audience of women.
Welter is the first woman to coach in the NFL. She attended BC for her undergraduate education and then received her master’s degree in sport psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology from Capella University. Welter worked as an intern coaching linebackers for the Arizona Cardinals and a special teams coach for the Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution. After signing with the Revolution, she became the first woman to play running back in a men’s professional football season.
“I never once dreamt I would have the opportunity to coach in the NFL,” Welter said.
As a woman extremely passionate about sports, Welter often felt like an outsider and had to face discouraging remarks from people close to her, she said. From a young age, she dreamed of being a tennis player. When her coach told her she was too small and did not have the build to play tennis, Welter promised herself she would disprove her coach and put even more energy and effort into her athletics. She ultimately ended up playing professional football instead of tennis.
“No one ever thought a girl could be in the NFL,” she said. “It was passion that drove me all the way through it. What gave me the courage was the women I shared the fight with.”
Both women credit their experiences at BC for shaping their outlook as leaders in their respective fields. For Gentile, the opportunity to study at BC and focus on business was crucial. The graduate program provided her with a stimulating environment that shaped herself and her career path.
Welter appreciated the sense of community she felt playing on the sports teams at BC. She learned the importance of having a family of athletic women who supported each other. She found a family in the women’s rugby team when she felt like an outsider. Welter said that all aspects of her experience at BC helped her prepare for the opposition she would face later in life as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
When asked for leadership advice, Welter stressed being independent in your leadership.
“Own the talents that are completely yours,” she said. “Be authentic to yourself.”
Gentile stressed the importance of speaking your mind without worrying about what others will think.
“Leadership is a practice,” Gentile said. “You get better at it with repetition and experience. Everybody has within them the ability to speak their minds. You have to have the courage to speak up.”
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Staff