Babson helps ignite the dreams of female sports pioneers

Chisom Mbonu-Ezeoke travels the world covering international sporting events as the only female anchor for SuperSport Nigeria.

Ilina Arsova is the first woman from North Macedonia to climb the world’s highest peak, Everest, and the first to climb each of the Seven Summits.

Chyloe Kurdas, a former elite Australian rules football player, helped build Australia’s first national women’s professional sports competition.

These three female pioneers were among 41 graduates of the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP) who gathered last month on the Babson College campus for a women’s entrepreneurship boot camp. In total, the women come from 25 countries and represent a wide range of organizations and endeavors that seek to make an impact in communities around the world.

“We’re all here, each one with a different accent and we’re all chasing the same goal,” Mbonu-Ezeoke said. “We are all chasing the same dream of making life better for underserved girls in our communities.”

“A room full of inspiration”

GSMP, an international leadership development program run by the University of Tennessee’s prestigious Center for Sport, Peace and Society, has been helping women increase their impact on humanity since it was launched in 2012 by the US State Department in partnership with espnW.

Chisom Mbonu-Ezeoke
(Photo: US Department of State in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace and Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

One of the GSMP’s two pillars is aimed at promoting gender equality through the Women’s Empowerment through Sport programme. To mark the 10th anniversary, GSMP brought back alumni for a special reunion, including a week with Babson’s world-class entrepreneurship faculty. After Babson, GSMP participants traveled to Washington, D.C. to help mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. The group met with both First Lady Jill Biden and women’s sports icon Billie Jean King.

Mbonu-Ezeoke, the sports commentator, was initially drawn to the GSMP in 2017 because her burgeoning sports career needed “more gas, more motivation, more inspiration”. A year before that, she founded Akoni TV, an online storytelling platform that empowers and teaches women how to produce, edit and script their own sports stories.

Mbonu-Ezeoke said the week at Babson provided even more motivation. “It’s a little bit like getting the MBA experience,” she said. “If you’re ever looking for a room filled with inspiration, this is the room to be in.”

Professor Richard Bliss’ sessions on “Entrepreneurial Finance and Thinking Big” and “Sustainable Finance” struck a special chord. “For the first time in my life, I was in a finance class and I wasn’t bored,” said Mbonu-Ezeoke, “because they’re not just learning numbers, they’re using real-life experiences to teach me.”

Other sessions were led by Professors Leslie Garbarino, Kristen Getchell, Richard Hanna, Mike McGuirk, and Vinny Onyema, as well as Cheryl Kiser, Executive Director of the Institute for Social Innovation, and Cheryl Heller, Senior Research Fellow for Social Innovation. The final day concluded with a traditional Babson Rocket Pitch performance.

Mbonu-Ezeoke was so motivated and energized by the Babson experience that she insists she will return for a graduate degree. “Babson is definitely different and I hope to come back again,” she said. “It was an amazing experience.”

Sarah Hiller, Lauren Beitelspacher and Nancy Major pose for a photo
From left: Sarah Hiller, Lauren Beitelspacher and Nancy Major Romanzi, who worked together to bring the Global Sports Mentoring Program to Babson. (Photo: US Department of State in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace and Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

‘Perfect Storm’

A key player in bringing GSMP to campus was Lauren Beitelspacher, professor and chair of the marketing department, who also led a session focused on understanding the customer.

“Our mission is to drive economic and social value everywhere, and this was putting it into action,” she said. “These women have all the tools and skills for leadership and executive presence. But I think being able to give them the actual business tools and give them the courage to apply that entrepreneurial mindset and really teach them some tactical things about scaling is an important part of their journey.”

Beitelspacher’s involvement in GSMP began with an important introduction. Appointed the Ken and Nancy Major Romanzi Term Chair last fall, she first met Ken Romanzi ’82, a member of Babson’s Board of Trustees, and Nancy Major Romanzi last October.

Nancy Major Romanzi, who serves on GSMP’s advisory board, immediately put Beitelspacher in touch with the woman who runs the program, Sarah Hiller, director of the Center for Sport, Peace and Society. Beitelspacher and Hiller met the next day, discovered their common goals, and eight months later, with the help of Babson’s Institute for Social Innovation, more than three dozen extraordinary GSMP women were learning entrepreneurial skills at Babson.

“I call it the perfect storm. When you put these kinds of natural forces together, something truly amazing happens,” said Nancy Major Romanzi. “It was fantastic just to sit there and watch women from all over the world come together and solve problems.”

“We talk about entrepreneurship being the answer to all problems,” said Ken Romanzi. “This is where it all fits in.”

Cooperation over competition

Entrepreneurship was on display with GSMP’s women pioneers. As well as being a professional climber, Arsova is also the creator of IKAR Hut, a center that offers art workshops, cultural tours and outdoor adventures for young people in North Macedonia. She says her GSMP experience has given her a new perspective, even beyond the world’s highest peaks she has reached.

Portrait of Ilina Arsova
Ilina Arsova
(Photo: US Department of State in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace and Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

“If I could climb to the top of the world, of course I feel unstoppable and I feel like I can handle any challenge,” Arsova said. All of the women have reached great heights in their careers, but their empowering achievements have led to new opportunities and new obstacles. Arsova said bringing together determined, like-minded women to collaborate and overcome these challenges is one of the benefits of Babson boot camp.

“The energy is so powerful,” Arsova said. “It’s very nice when you have that connection with people who have compassion and people who can share and enjoy the success of others. This is what we need in this world. We need to lend a hand; we have to lift each other up.”

Beitelspacher was particularly struck by the special bond of cooperation between the women, who called each other “sisters.”

“So many of them have been Olympic Games and competitive athletes, and they have that competitive nature, but they’re not competitive with each other,” Beitelspacher said. “Instead, they are focused on cooperation and mutual upliftment. Instead of focusing on the scarcity of resources, they try to build communities of abundance.

Participants pose for a group photo with their certificates
Global Sports Mentoring Program participants display their certificates of completion at Babson’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Boot Camp. (Photo: US Department of State in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace and Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

Facilitating critical conversations

Kurdas, the Australian rules football pioneer, was part of the GSMP’s first cohort in 2012 and says the program “absolutely changed my life”. Returning to Babson’s women’s entrepreneurship boot camp program could have a similar effect.

“It was really nice to be a part of a new learning experience and something that is really tangible like working with an institution like Babson,” Kurdas said. “I think it really complements the experiences we’ve had in our previous times.”

Portrait of Chyloe Kurdas
Chyloe Kurdish
(Photo: US Department of State in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace and Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

Kurdas has spent her career expanding opportunities for women in sports. After 10 years with AFL Victoria, spearheading her country’s first women’s professional competition, she serves as Senior Manager of Women’s Engagement at Golf Australia. She is now the Inclusion and Diversity Manager at the Australian Red Cross.

“There is gender inequality in every single country, and it affects women in almost the same way,” Kurdas said. “It means that women are not becoming what they could be. And that means their countries aren’t taking advantage of the richness and awesomeness that women can bring when they’re given spaces in which to thrive.”

Beitelspacher says it has been an honor to help women address these issues and reframe or rethink their projects and goals to further improve their communities.

“Babson facilitates these conversations and helps these women continue and develop their incredible work,” Beitelspacher said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of great things, but this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done professionally.”

Posted in Campus & Community, Entrepreneurship of All Kinds

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