Marilou McFarlane: Welcoming women into sport business gives companies a competitive edge

With diversity at the top of the agenda, the co-founder of Women in Sports Tech spoke to DAZN about the industry’s struggle to get more women into leadership roles and how start-ups with women are 50% more likely to make the right decisions.

What are some of the most interesting developments in Sports Tech and what do you see as the next big focus? 

“For starters, E-Sports is an extraordinary phenomenon that is here to stay. Colleges and universities are already looking at scholarships for E-Sports athletes. I feel that there are multiple ways to be competitive, whether or not you are a traditional athlete.
The next frontier is going to be when you can take all that disparate data and apply machine learning, so that the information is accurate and actionable consistently. How can you predict when someone is about to have an injury? And more importantly, will coaches heed this information?

Your recent career has focused on the opportunities for women in sports tech. What sort of barriers are women facing?

“There is a podcast I listened to recently by Kara Swisher (Recode Decode) with Joanne Lipman, formerly managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and editor in chief of USA Today, sharing insights about her book ‘That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know and Women Need to Tell Them.’ She highlighted what I think has been a big part of the problem, especially in tech and in sports, and you could throw Hollywood into that of course, too.
Joanne said it is very important to build a diverse hiring funnel. There are some who may disagree that this is a challenge, but the men that I have spoken to who would like to hire more women in this business, genuinely don’t have the women in their network or know how or where to add them into their pipeline. We will soon be launching our WiST Jobs portal in partnership with SportTechie to help alleviate this problem.
But it is more than just having a diverse slate of candidates, it is important to have a diverse slate of interviewers as well. Until we can get to that point, we will struggle to have women in leadership roles in many businesses, especially the traditionally male-dominated sports and tech worlds.

What would you say to those that question the benefits of diversity?

“The key is bringing data to the core leadership team to show them that diversity breeds innovation. When you have a diverse team, you are going to get a broader variety of new ideas and have different life experiences coming to the table.
Research shows that start-ups that have one female founder are 50% more likely to make the right decisions. Joe DeSimone, the CEO of Carbon, a revolutionary Silicon Valley 3D manufacturing company, said he doesn’t want everyone at his company to just agree with him or have the same life experiences. Joe said the women on his team bring their unique background and their own creativity to any discussion. Women solve problems differently.”

What companies are leading the way in this area?

“The Sports Innovation Lab in Boston is doing an amazing job. Their CEO Angela Ruggiero, 4-time Olympian, gold medalist and IOC member, is one of the strongest pioneers out there for diversity and inclusion and is now on our Women in Sports Tech advisory board.
There are start-ups like Volt Athletics in Seattle that are absolutely embracing our mission at WiST, and they were one of our earliest champions along with IBM Sports. Silicon Valley finally appears to be embracing female founders with their investments and whom they bring into their own portfolios, including all female VC’s like AllRaise and the Female Founders Fund. I wish they had been there for me when I did my first start-up in 2009. Little did I know the daunting odds for female founders at the time.”

How did Women in Sports Tech come to be?

“The idea came to me when I was running, soon after the Women’s March in San Francisco which had totally fired me up. I had this growing sense of awareness and frustration that having been in sports tech for much of the last 10 years, I could go weeks on end being the only woman at the table. Certainly as I raised money, the meetings were always with male VC’s.
I was inspired to take action – and make an impact in my own world – so I started this community of committed and diverse women AND men to create initiatives that will change the ratio.
Last summer I researched, wrote a white paper and floated it with a few people that I respected in the business. It felt like I had nothing to lose. We have been so well-received; we’ve built quite an illustrious board, brought on corporate partners, and I’m proud to say recently awarded three incredible young women ‘WiST Fellowships’, which are $5,000 grants to put towards a summer internship at the sports tech business of their choice. Our role model/mentorship initiative will launch soon as well, since we know you “have to see it to be it.”

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