ESPNW Women + Sports Summit Photos, Recap, And 5 Questions With VP & Founder Laura Gentile

Athletes, Executives, and  Influencers Come Together To Brainstorm & Elevate The Women’s Sports Platform

ESPNW gathered 275 of women’s sports most influential executives and athletes to participate in its fourth annual Women + Sports Summit, held for the first time in Southern California, at Dana Point’s St. Regis Monarch Beach hotel and resort.

The three-day event played host to many elite women in mainstream athletics as well as action sports, including Donna Carpenter, co-founder and owner of Burton Snowboards, who sat on a panel addressing women’s buying power and how brands can connect with the active woman. Athletes such as Elena Hight, Jamie Anderson, Amy Purdy, and Lakey Peterson also took the stage to discuss issues ranging from women in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to a look into the future of women’s sports.

“There are so many women at the summit who get on stage here and have such incredible stories,” says Laura Gentile, VP and founder of ESPNW and the Women + Sports Summit. “It’s just really connecting with these athletes and telling more about them besides their stat line for the night and how many MVPs they’ve won – you know, the top line facts. It’s telling who really is Kelly Clark, and how has she been able to continually excel. I think it’s spending a little more time digging up these stories because they are spectacular and typically we hear about them every four years during the Olympics, but those can be told year round. That’s what W is trying to do – that’s our mission.”

Read a full interview with Gentile on the next page. 

Here’s a look back on the last week at the ESPNW Women’s Sports Summit in Dana Point:

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The general theme of this year’s conference was “Women Matter,” and the buying power panel spoke to the executives in the room who were looking to further drive that point home with their brands at retail.

“Women are deciding whether their families are going to Disney Land for vacation, or whether they are going to Vail or Stowe to go snowboarding,” says Carpenter. “You have to know who you are talking to and who that active woman is. I think she is very multi-dimensional; she is not all about one sport. Guys can compartmentalize; they have Car and Driver, they have Bike magazines, they have snowboard magazines. But women were never interested in being pigeonholed into that. We’ve got to reach her on a more broader basis in terms of her interests and lifestyle.”

The panel took a look at some of the main mistakes companies today are making when trying to speak to the active woman, including the classic “pinking and shrinking” tactic.

“I’ve really come to believe that who’s at the table making decisions around product, marketing, and sales really matters,” says Carpenter. “There’s a connection between having women internally help drive your business, be innovative, and give that perspective, and be the champion for it. We’ve got to have women within our organizations who are really going to champion it and really make the connection that way.”

Carpenter went on to point out that within the action sports industry, the participation rate, number of women executives, and sales numbers are all at 35%. Driving participation and overall women involvement is the key to moving the needle on these numbers, she says.  Giant Bicycle GM Elysa Walk weighed in that the biggest mistake she’s seen in reaching the female demographic, is  that many companies within the bike market aren’t thinking in terms of women buyers at all.

“It is a male dominated industry. Primarily they are a little more mature in age and they have always done things a certain way, and it’s worked for them,” says Walk. “They are continuing to do that, but are missing this huge opportunity of a new generation of women that are coming up. Women have a buying power like they never have before. Women are leading countries. Women are leading Fortune 500’s. There is something like 32 women billionaires in the world today. So women are coming of age just like a new generation is coming of age, and things are changing.”

One resounding message that came through from all three panelists was the need to create a community around women athletes, fans, and participants. Burton Girls, a women’s specific digital platform created by the brand three years ago, has been key in telling female athlete’s stories, and the Girls Learn To Ride program has also been instrumental in developing Burton as a trusted leader in the eyes of women customers, says Carpenter.

On the athlete side, professional snowboarders Elena Hight and Jamie Anderson took the stage with fellow professional skier Grete Eliassen, and WNBA paralympic women’s basketball player Alana Nichols, to discuss the road to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Some of the hot topics addressed were balancing personal life and a professional career, and how women athletes in the Olympics today can continue to inspire youth to get involved in sports at any level.

 Follow the jump to read ESPNW VP and Founder Laura Gentile’s thoughts on giving women athletes and executives an even bigger voice within their respective industries.

Laura Gentile, ESPNW VP And Founder

Laura Gentile, ESPNW VP And Founder

Catching Up With: ESPNW VP and Founder Laura Gentile

How did ESPNW get its start and what challenges did you come up against?

When we were conceiving this I was working for our [former] President George Bodenheimer at the time, so I had a good outlook on where things were headed, and it was very clear to me that women were a big opportunity. We’ve served women for years, and being an athlete and having a lot of women in my circle being athletes, it’s clear that women love sports. Our thinking was, there’s gotta be a way for ESPN, being the worldwide leader in sports, to serve all our fans better. Women were one constituency that seemed very clear to us that we could serve even more deeply. 

The whole thinking behind the business is that women can be super served. Maybe we are serving them, but we can really do more. We can understand who they are, understand how they are different, and that women sports needs a platform to shine, and be elevated  and really be given the respect it deserves. We’ve televised women’s sports for decades. Collegiate sports have been on ESPN since we started, and the WNBA has been a great partner, the WTA has been a great partner. But it was really elevating all of that to say women are now the focal point on this platform, and that women sports are really going to be the focal point. That’s really where it started and it was more about how are we going to build it. Calling it ESPNW – how are we going to make this brand special, how are we going to make it dynamic and relatable, so women actually look at this brand and think “this is about me, it’s cool. It’s not derivative of ESPN, but something built just for me.’ And that’s what we’ve tried to do. .We have a great team who understand women, care about women sports, and have a lot of insight – like Donna [Carpenter] said – you need women to have the insights about women. Our company has been really supportive of that. We have a great diverse team, but it’s largely lead by women. We have really good instincts about what we want. Whether it’s photography, social media, or throwing an event like this [ESPNW Women + Sports Summit], which is a thing as a company we’d never done before, or mentoring programs in the state department which we’ve never done before as a company. There are ways that we are attacking this business that are different.

Editors Note: To take a look at all the coverage from this year’s ESPNW Women + Sports Summit, please follow the link to our recap and photo gallery.

It was really amazing to hear what the ladies on the last panel had to say, especially Donna’s point about putting women in decision making roles. What were your favorite takeaways?

Elysa [Walk] was amazing when she said women shouldn’t be just a segment. It’s the year 2013, and people’s eyes are now starting to open to that fact. You still have to convince people that women matter and women love sports, but it’s plain as day to me. We are not a niche. Half the population is not a niche. It’s how you serve them as sports fans and athletes that’s really insightful.

What are specific action items you see that would be able to level the playing field as far as the amount of women overall that are participating in sports and serving in the decision making roles at sports companies?

I think mentoring is really important. Looking at the younger generation coming up and the younger executives. Christine [Driessen] is a perfect example. She’s our CFO and she’s an EVP at the company and has been with ESPN for 28 years. When we proposed this business, yes I had a lot of support from various executives, but Christine has really been in our corner. She is somebody I can talk to when times get tough. I can talk to her about business strategy and I can talk to her about our financial outlook. W is something that doesn’t happen unless you have a very senior woman like that. Yes, we have power and a great team, but Christine is someone who has really helped pave the way.

I think it’s just a matter of time, frankly. There’s really more women loving sports, participating in sports, and wanting careers in sports. It’s hard to be patient sometimes, but it’s only a matter of time. If you look at ESPN, there are so many amazing women at the director, senior director, and VP level, that it’s just a matter of time before we are SVPs and EVPs and having an even bigger voice. Having Christine has made a huge difference for us and I think it’s important to have senior level women as champions for these kinds of issues, like Donna is at Burton, but it’s only a matter of time before women’s voices are going to be heard more and more.

On the endemic level, how do you see media influencing and giving voices to these women athletes specifically? 

I think it’s telling the stories. It’s not being lazy and telling the same old stories over and over again, and focusing on the same male athletes. But actually looking for the new interesting story and the new angle. There are so many women at the summit who get on stage here and have such incredible stories. It’s just really connecting with these athletes and telling more about them besides their stat line for the night and how many MVPs they’ve won – you know, the topline facts. It’s telling who really is Kelly Clark,  how has she been able to continually excel? It’s really taking the time to dig up those stories and spend a little more time. To your question, what can media do: I think it’s spending a little more time digging up these stories because they are spectacular. Typically we hear about them every four years during the Olympics, but those can be told year round. That’s what W is trying to do – that’s our mission.

How do you hope to grow this summit?

We are always looking to grow. This particular event, I don’t aspire for it to be 5,000 people because what makes it special is that people really start to get to know each other, and there’s a sense of camaraderie and a sense of coming together. To me it’s not going to be more successful if it’s 500 people. Right now its 275 of the right people. Maybe it will get a little bigger. I think what we really want to do is introduce slightly different models, like one day events in different cities so we can touch more people and get even more people involved, and also make the cost more reasonable so we can get different levels of executives and athletes involved. This is pretty dialed in as far as our premium event as well, but we are looking at other expressions of this. Bigger is not always better.

If you look at the last four years, the first years we had Gretchen Bleiler and Jennie Finch, Mia Hamm has been here, as well as Lisa Leslie. Every year we just bring in a different mix but it’s that same caliber of girl athlete, executive, and influencer.