Babson Helps Fuel Dreams of Women Sports Pioneers

Chisom Mbonu-Ezeoke speaking during a bootcamp session

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

Ilina Arsova is the first woman from North Macedonia to reach the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest, and the first to scale 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 pioneering women were among 41 alumni of the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), who gathered last month on Babson College’s campus for a women’s entrepreneurship bootcamp. In all, the women hailed from 25 countries, and they represented a wide range of organizations and ventures seeking to make an impact in communities around the world.

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

‘Room Filled with Inspiration’

The GSMP, an international leadership development program executed by the prestigious Center for Sport, Peace, and Society at the University of Tennessee, has been helping women increase their impact on humanity since its launch in 2012 by the U.S. Department of State in partnership with espnW.

Portrait of Chisom Mbonu-Ezeoke
Chisom Mbonu-Ezeoke
(Photo: U.S. Dept. of State in cooperation with University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, & Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

One of the GSMP’s two pillars is focused on advancing gender equity through its Empowering Women Through Sports program. To mark the 10th anniversary, GSMP brought back alumni for a special reunion, including a week with Babson’s world-class entrepreneurial faculty. After Babson, the GSMP participants traveled to Washington, D.C., to help mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX. The group met both First Lady Jill Biden and women’s sports icon Billie Jean King.

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

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

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

Other sessions were conducted by professors Leslie Garbarino, Kristen Getchell, Richard Hanna, Mike McGuirk, and Vini Onyemah, as well as Cheryl Kiser, executive director of the Institute for Social Innovation, and Cheryl Heller, senior fellow in social innovation. The final day concluded with a traditional Babson Rocket Pitch showcase.

Mbonu-Ezeoke was so motivated and energized by the Babson experience that she insists she will return for an advanced degree. “Babson is definitely different and hopefully I get to come back again,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

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

‘Perfect Storm’

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

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

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

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

“I refer to it as the perfect storm. When you put these kinds of forces of nature together, something really marvelous happens,” Nancy Major Romanzi said. “It was fantastic to just sit there and observe the women from all over the world coming together and problem solving.”

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

Collaboration over Competition

Entrepreneurship was on full display with GSMP’s pioneering women. Besides being a professional mountain climber, Arsova also is the developer of IKAR Hut, a center that offers art workshops, cultural tours, and outdoor adventures for young people in North Macedonia. She says her experience with the GSMP has given her a new outlook, even beyond the world’s tallest summits she has reached.

Portrait of Ilina Arsova
Ilina Arsova
(Photo: U.S. Dept. of State in cooperation with University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, & 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 do 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 that bringing determined, like-minded women together to collaborate and overcome those challenges was one of the benefits of the Babson bootcamp.

“The energy is so powerful,” Arsova said. “It’s so nice when you have this connection with people who have compassion and people who can share and be happy for other people’s success. This is what we need in this world. We need to give each other a hand; we need to lift each other up.”

Beitelspacher was particularly struck by the special bond of collaboration among the women, who refer to each other as “sisters.”

“So many of them were in the Olympics and competitive athletes, and they have this competitive nature, but they are not competitive with each other,” Beitelspacher said. “Instead, they are focused on collaboration and lifting each other up. Rather than focusing on the scarcity of resources, they are trying to build communities of abundance.”

Participants pose for a group photo with their certificates
The Global Sports Mentoring Program participants display their certificates for completing Babson’s women’s entrepreneurship bootcamp. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of State in cooperation with University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, & Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

Facilitating Critical Conversations

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

“It’s been really nice to be part of a new learning experience and something that’s 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 Kurdas
(Photo: U.S. Dept. of State in cooperation with University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, & Society. Photographer: Jaron Johns)

Kurdas has spent her career increasing opportunities for women in sports. After 10 years with AFL Victoria, spearheading the first women’s professional competition in her country, she served as the female engagement senior manager with Golf Australia. She now is the inclusion and diversity manager with the Australian Red Cross.

“There’s gender inequality in every single country and it impacts women in pretty much the same way,” Kurdas said. “It means that women don’t become who they could be. And, that means their countries don’t benefit from the richness and amazingness that women can bring when they’re given spaces they can thrive in.”

Beitelspacher says it was an honor to help the women tackle those issues and reframe or rethink their projects and goals to improve their communities even more.

“Babson is facilitating these conversations and helping these women continue and grow their incredible work,” Beitelspacher said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of awesome things, but this is one of the favorite things I’ve ever done professionally.”

Posted in Community, Entrepreneurial Leadership

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