She said that experience hasn’t been personally problematic, per se, but the realization was striking and the homogeny outdated. Wanting to empower more women to seek out sports tech as a career path, McFarlane, currently an adviser to Shotzoom and performance tech consultant to NCAA teams, has teamed with Deborah Stroman, the director of the Center of Sport Business at the University of North Carolina, to co-found a new nonprofit, Women in Sports Tech.
“If you just looked at your most prominent tech companies, whether in sport or not, and you looked at the leadership — and that’s where you want to judge, not necessarily the workforce — how many women do we have in those spots?” Stroman said. “That’s what we want to help fix. That’s what we want to grow. As the research shows, diversity makes for a better company and for better outcomes.”
Women in Sports Tech, or WiST, seeks to empower women at every stage of their careers, from recruiting, training, retaining and mentoring. Its website bears the slogan, “Change the Ratio,” for women endeavoring to work in a field existing at the overlap of two male-dominated sectors. As Women 2.0 noted, women comprise only 19 percent of management positions in sports and only 17 percent of all tech startup founders; extrapolating with basic probability means only 3 percent of leaders in sports tech are women.
WiST, which formally launches at a kickoff event for corporate partners on Feb. 1 at Silicon Foundry in San Francisco, has already received financial backing from Adidas, Carbon 3D,GSVlabs, IBM and Silicon Valley Bank and announced its first initiative: the WiST Fellowship, funding up to $5,000 for a summer internship at a sports technology company. The program has begun accepting applications and is open to female undergraduate and graduate students.
McFarlane credited an early internship at Turner Broadcasting as a helpful springboard into her career, which has included stops at CBS Radio, iHeartMedia and SportsBoard as well as founding and leadership roles at Vivo Girls Sports and at Edufii. She hopes more young women can have similar immersive experiences.
“I just think internships are the entry to finding out what it’s like to be in a professional setting in a field that’s very interesting and that you may not have known had even existed,” McFarlane said, “and then to find a career in this business which is really exploding.”
Early word of WiST has resonated in many quarters, such as with Asensei CEO and co-founder Steven Webster, who reached out to McFarlane with a simple message: “How can I help?” Webster, who has joined the nonprofit’s board of directors, said he is passionate about STEAM education — STEM with an art/design component — for all young people and found that, while hiring a team of 40 for a previous job leading a design, engineering and innovation group within Microsoft, he received a dearth of qualified applications from a wide range of demographics.
“I completely agree that a diverse team is better than a team of lookalikes, but the challenge I found was the top of the funnel,” Webster said.
“I don’t want to use that as an excuse and say, ‘That’s not my problem, it’s the top of the funnel, and I’m not getting enough résumés.’ But it really got me thinking at Microsoft, what can we do to help bring more, for example, female candidates in front of the team? When I saw Women in Sports Tech, I thought, ‘OK, this is a good opportunity for me in the industry I’m now a part of to help solve that top-of-the-funnel problem.’”
As the sports industry grows exponentially, with one estimate of a $73 billion market share by 2019, McFarlane and Stroman realized there has been no accounting for the numbers and roles of women involved in sports tech. They were introduced by a mutual acquaintance last spring through a connection in Chapel Hill. Not only did McFarlane get her degree from UNC (where she ran cross country), but so too did her daughters, Kelly and Darcy, who played for the Tar Heels’ storied women’s soccer program.
Stroman starred on the women’s basketball team at Virginia before receiving a master’s from UNC (and, subsequently, a Ph.D. from Capella University) and returned as a professor of business leadership in 2007. She owned a sport marketing and event planning company, founded LASER (Life After Sports With Effective Results) and served as director of Prudential Financial Services for a decade, among other stops.
“I just feel like a lot of our sensibilities are very similar that way, except that we come about the sport business from different angles,” McFarlane said of Stroman. “She’s coming about it from an academic and from a teacher point of view, and I’ve been immersed in it in a start-up situation. We have many things that bond us, but one of them for sure is our commitment to young people and having them have more opportunity and greater exposure to all the different opportunities that are out there than either one of us had when we were younger.”
Stroman said the early goal is to build the WiST community into a destination for sports tech companies seeking to identify and retain talent. “The idea is,” she said, “we’re here to serve.”
One path to opportunity, Webster has observed, is that many of those residing in the sports tech space reached the field through an engineering or tech background rather than a sports one. He said that in most applications of tech, hiring managers need not draw outside from the same engineering talent pool, as many products’ subject matter was still very technical.
In sports tech, however, there is need for expertise in such areas as biomechanics, NCAA recruiting, coaching psychology or athlete performance, Webster said. The athletic opportunities offered women at American universities, in particular, has greatly increased the sporting acumen of women in this country.
“Now you’re looking for polymaths — people who are exceptional in engineering and people who are exceptional in sport,” he said. “This doesn’t make women distinct, but I think it does create a leveler against the huge number of engineers who don’t play sport or don’t have that sporting background. If you’re sitting in university and you have a deep understanding of college sport, I would almost rather hire you than another iOS developer.
“That kind of sporting domain expertise is deeply valuable to me. That’s one of the distinctive opportunities — it may not be unique, but it’s distinct to sport tech — is that if you really have the sport angle, you can learn the tech part.”
Webster’s own company has a great example: British rower Helen Glover, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, serves as an adviser to Asensei, an as-yet unlaunched start-up that provides connected coaching through motion capture in an athlete’s apparel.
About the only woman that McFarlane would see regularly in her sports tech travels was a former coworker, Edufii COO Laura Zavelson, who later interviewed McFarlane for her personal website. That was around the first time McFarlane had the first inkling of interest in starting an organization like WiST.
“I think woman-to-woman professional relationships are really important,” McFarlane said. “Women mentors have taught me so much. And I give back as a mentor to other young women whenever I can. These are all relationships I cherish. I also think we have to raise our daughters and our sons to believe that girls are just as capable as boys. It’s so important that boys believe it too, and that will make a difference in opportunities for our daughters.”