3 minute read 23 Sep 2020
Woman keeping warm with thermal foil blankets after race

Five strategies winning female entrepreneurs developed as athletes

Authors
Lisa Schiffman

Director, Brand, Marketing and Communications, Ernst & Young LLP; EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ Program Founder

Strategic marketing and communications leader. Passionate advocate for entrepreneurs and gender parity.

Kristy Ingram

EY Global Lead, Athlete Programs

Passionate about bringing the unique skill sets of elite athletes to the business world. Inspired to drive the discussion around supporting athletes journeys off the field.

3 minute read 23 Sep 2020

Women’s success in sport has a positive impact on their own success and on society, setting an example for younger generations.

In brief
  • Though many female entrepreneurs have reached stunning heights, women are still less likely than men to fully scale their companies.
  • Women in the workforce can learn from athletes who have raced from the playing field to the founder’s chair.
  • Sport participation can help women break the glass ceiling and move up the executive ranks.

Despite the incredible success of many female entrepreneurs — whether that’s Arianna Huffington or Weili Dai, Oprah Winfrey or Diane von Furstenberg — women are still less likely than men to scale their companies to their full potential. Remarkably, only 2% of women-founded companies in the US, for example, reach or exceed at least US$1m in revenue.

As with achieving gender parity more broadly, women face a number of disadvantages in taking their companies to scale. These include fewer role models, lack of access to seasoned advisors and less private start-up capital flowing in their direction. While these barriers remain, women founders should ask how adopting a certain mindset or set of strategies can help them to succeed.

Our research explores whether playing sport — or learning key behaviors from those who play at the highest levels — can help. 

We already know, for example, that participation in sport can help women break the glass ceiling and find a seat in the executive ranks. A majority of C-suite leaders,  94%, report having played a sport, with 74% of senior female executives agreeing that sports help them move forward in their careers. 

A background for success

94%

of women in the C-suite played a sport.

Furthermore, women’s success in sport has a positive social impact, overturning gender-based assumptions and inspiring the younger generations. “Sports is a universal language,” explains Laura Gentile, Senior Vice President of espnW, who also played field hockey at the university level. “And the more you see women playing and competing and succeeding, the more it changes the conversation.”

So, is there something about sport that primes women for the high-stakes world of entrepreneurship? What are the transferable attitudes and behaviors that competitive sport instills? And, more broadly, what can women in the workforce at all levels learn from women who have leapt from the field of play to the founder’s chair?

Sezen Sungur Saral, a professional volleyball player and founder of a consumer electronics company, said female athletes already have the skills required to start their businesses, including resilience and positive mindset. “The feeling of winning is incomparable with anything else,” she said.

The feeling of winning is incomparable with anything else.
Sezen Sungur Saral
Professional Volleyball, Turkey

Our discussions with 22 entrepreneurs identified five winning strategies they developed as athletes that give them an edge in launching and scaling their own enterprises:  

1. Confidence — in their abilities

Almost all the athlete entrepreneurs we spoke to highlighted the importance of confidence and self-conviction. In many ways, these attributes are the ticket to becoming an entrepreneur — and sport may be the best way for girls and young women to acquire them. As Claire Shipman and Katty Kay note in their best-selling book, The Confidence Code, confidence requires a shift: less worrying about people-pleasing and perfection; more action, risk-taking and fast failure.

Confidence isn’t just an internal state of mind; having an outward appearance of confidence can transform the way clients, investors and colleagues see us. 

2. Single-mindedness — an unwavering focus on challenges ahead 

It is vital for an entrepreneur to possess the unwavering focus that enables her to see a project through to completion — and take others along with her. 

Many of our athlete entrepreneurs say they developed this concentration and tenacity in sport. Our sportswomen also say that mental focus gives them the ability to transform difficult emotions such as fear and anger from barriers into motivators. 

3. Passion — the determination to succeed in everything they do 

The athlete entrepreneurs’ determination, and their passion for their sports and their companies, shines through. One of the many reasons why entrepreneurs are driven to succeed is a competitive fire in their bellies — an appetite for victory and a love of winning. For our former athletes, these are qualities that were fostered in sport but are now proving invaluable in business. 

Accelerating a woman’s career

74%

of senior female executives agreed that sport helped them advance.

4. Leadership — the ability to inspire a team of likeminded individuals 

The athlete entrepreneurs explain that playing sport has given them a strong grounding in what it means to be on a team — on both practical and emotional levels. And they are using that sports mindset to establish the high-performing teams required to grow their companies.

Many of the athlete entrepreneurs say that sport has taught them the value of learning from a great coach, encouraging them to seek advisors who can offer perspective, suggest new strategic plays and bolster their resilience. 

5. Resilience — the ability to take failure as “feedback” that will only make them stronger 

Learning how to handle failure and come back fighting is an essential skill for entrepreneurs — and our sportswomen have had a head start.

Today’s entrepreneurs are expected to take their lead from the startup culture of Silicon Valley and to get comfortable with “failing fast.” They must be able to recover rapidly before speeding off in another direction — the sort of emotional and physical agility that is part and parcel of competitive sport.

Many of our sportswomen say that playing competitive sport helped them to develop resilience, often at a young age, and that this quality has sustained them throughout the difficulties of running a business. 

Read more in this report (pdf), in which we explore each of these attributes and suggest how they can be translated into behaviors that women can adopt to help them start, lead and grow their own companies. 

The EY Athlete Programs

EY recognizes the value of athletes and the unique skillset they bring to our teams and clients, and is committed to supporting this diverse talent pool.

Learn more

Summary

Women who have played sport at a high level are using the traits developed as athletes – confidence, single-mindedness, passion, leadership skills and resilience – to become a global success in the world of entrepreneurship. 

About this article

Authors
Lisa Schiffman

Director, Brand, Marketing and Communications, Ernst & Young LLP; EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ Program Founder

Strategic marketing and communications leader. Passionate advocate for entrepreneurs and gender parity.

Kristy Ingram

EY Global Lead, Athlete Programs

Passionate about bringing the unique skill sets of elite athletes to the business world. Inspired to drive the discussion around supporting athletes journeys off the field.