One of the most wonderful times of the year for me is Howard University Homecoming. It’s a time to see old friends who’ve become family, take trips down memory lane and celebrate the legacy that is The Mecca. This year was particularly special because I was afforded the opportunity to talk to the women of Howard Athletics about the challenges and triumphs of life after college sports. Last year, espnW launched a program called Campus Conversations, a panel discussion series geared at helping female student-athletes navigate life during and after college sports. Having made stops at the University of Connecticut, Duke University and the University of Texas, espnW decided to kick-off this year’s tour at The Real HU. The panel, moderated by none other than ESPN’s Jemele Hill, was made up of successful women who have an impact in the sports world; many of whom were former Howard student-athletes.
From left to right: Khalilah Birdsong (Volleyball), Howard University c/o 2001, is the director of corporate relations and development at Tyler Perry Studios; Jemele Hill, Michigan State c/o 1997, is the a noted sports journalist and host of ESPN’s His & Hers; Cecelia Townes (Tennis), Howard University c/o 2006, is the owner of Beyond the Game LLC and the Editor-in-Chief of GladiatHers.com; Sereita Cobb, Howard University c/o 1991, is the Director of espnW; Stephanie Elam (Swimming), Howard University c/o 1995, is a correspondent for CNN in Los Angeles; Kerry D. Chandler, Lincoln University, is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Under Armour; Kara J. Smith (Basketball), Howard University c/o 2013, is a strategy and operations consultant at Deloitte in Washington, D.C.
As you can see from the line-up, it was truly an honor to be in the presence of such successful women. It’s even more special that these women filled the room with the specific purpose to help others succeed. And help others we did. In addition to the ladies from espnW offering help with positions at ESPN, the panelist dropped some major keys for Howard’s women to consider in their journey to finding success in life after sports. Since I’m all about sharing the wealth, I decided to share just some of the impactful advice that was given, so grab your pen and paper.
Don’t be an uptight networker.
Just about everyone on the panel echoed the sentiment that women need to be mindful in how we network. While often the end goal for networking is to make business connections, introductions don’t have be so direct, sterile and impersonal. The best business connections start with personal connections. Rather than the generic, “Hi, my name is _____. I am a _____. Let’s have coffee and discuss ______;” we should take cues from men who often network through discussions about sports, college and other personal interests.
Get mentors AND sponsors.
While mentors, people who help you navigate your personal and professional lives, are essential to your growth; don’t forget about the necessity of sponsors. Sponsors are individuals in your field who can and do help promote your brand and your position. They have witnessed (and usually benefitted) from your success and help you along by promoting you into higher positions and/or mentioning your name to other industry influencers. While forming bonds with mentors and sponsors is crucial, remember to let those relationships form organically.
Keep it simple and be yourself.
When presenting yourself to the world and to potential employers, it is so very important to keep it simple and to be yourself. Future employers and consumers can smell inauthenticity a mile away, so it is important to know exactly who you are, your perspective and the message you are trying to portray. The extras can be distracting from you, your expertise and your messaging.
Once you’ve gotten your foot in the door, don’t be afraid to volunteer and offer opinions. It is important to say ‘yes’ to new opportunities in your field even if you don’t feel you’re qualified. Volunteering says you’re confident, allows you to learn new things and meet new people; and the fear of being out of your league should light a fire under you to work extra hard. In the same vein, you have a unique perspective, share it and watch people respond favorably.
While having your hands in multiple activities is great, be sure to find balance. You can’t be everything to everyone at the same time, so pick a few things that you want to and can do well and work diligently in those. When you need breaks, take them because your mental and spiritual well-being are just as, if not more, important as making those deadlines and saving the world.
Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time or space to share all of what we discussed, but I sincerely hope that the tea that I did spill is helpful to you or someone you know who is trying to navigate the professional world. I’d like to thank espnW and Howard University for thinking of me and for putting together such a dynamic group of women. Be sure to check out espnW Campus Conversations online for more insight into women and sports in college. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions about navigating life after sports or would like me to come talk to your student-athletes.
Photos courtesy of Robby Klein.