Your Authenticity Is Your Superpower, and More Insights From HERE Presents: Breakthrough Women in Sports

Asani Swann is the vice president of business strategy at Melo Enterprises, the multi-million-dollar organization of NBA All-Star athlete Carmelo Anthony. She’s also a woman of color.

Swann entered the male-dominated sports management industry armed with a bevy of professional experience in branding, contract negotiation and business partnership from her previous career at Macy’s. She had her MBA. And for the first time in her life, she lost her voice.

“There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me,” said Swann, speaking to nearly 250 Viacom employees and guests at HERE Presents: Breakthrough Women in Sports, a panel discussion sponsored by our employee resource group for women (HERE).

“When I walked into a room, people would ask me if I had gone to college,” said Swann. Other times, they’d ask if she was somebody’s girlfriend.

But Swann didn’t stay silent for long. She learned to alchemize negative energy into personal empowerment. Her career thrived, and so did her soul.

“Authenticity,” said Swann, “is my superpower.”

HERE Presents: Breakthrough Women In Sports panelists share wisdom from their success in a male-dominated industry. From L-R: Lisa Borders, Jaymee Messler, Stephanie McMahon, Pam Kaufman, Constance Schwartz-Morini and Asani Swann. Photo by Matthew Levinson for Nickelodeon.

Girl power and go-getters

Pam Kaufman, Nickelodeon’s chief marketing officer and president of consumer products, moderated the conversation.

Among the panelists: WNBA President, Lisa Borders,  WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon, The Players’ Tribune President, Jaymee Messler, SMAC Entertainment President Constance Schwartz-Morini, and Swann.

After introducing Schwartz-Morini, Kaufman complimented her colorful platform boots. With that small aside, the moderator set the tone for the evening: femininity and fierce business acumen are not mutually exclusive.

Stephanie McMahon takes a selfie with a fan at Viacom’s panel, HERE Presents: Breakthrough Women In Sports. Photo by Matthew Levinson for Nickelodeon.

Women should feel comfortable presenting themselves honestly, whether that means hanging a Knicks poster by their desk or using the drawers to store six different pairs of heels. For me, it’s the latter. Viacom is a place where personal expression is encouraged, but sometimes I’m stifled by my own insecurities. I am an introvert who works in communications. Covering events like this are part of my job, and Breakthrough Women in Sports gave me something in return, wisdom I didn’t know I needed.

“There are two international languages: music and sports,” said Borders. “You don’t have to speak a word of any language to enjoy a beautiful piece of music, or enjoy a wonderful sporting event.”

You didn’t have to be a woman or sports fan to enjoy this event, either.

Sexism and sisterhood: finding their place in a landscape dominated by men

Despite the rise of select high-profile athletes over the decades, such as Serena and Venus Williams in tennis, big-time American sports have remained dominated by men. Each of these women has nonetheless established themselves as indispensable members of this multibillion-dollar ecosystem, through smarts, talent, persistence and determination.

“I grew up playing sports,” said Messler. “How do I turn something I’m passionate about into a career?”

It’s a relatable query. For many rising professionals, the notion of finding a job that aligns with our passion is the ultimate goal, yet often seems like a Utopian fantasy. Messler made it happen by forging her own trail—as a manager, not an athlete. She discovered a “new landscape of sports” by helping others navigate their career.

Ultimately, she crossed paths with New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter, and co-founded The Players Tribune, a media outlet to inspire collaboration and an open dialogue between athletes, teams and the press.

Swann was born into sports: her uncle was a professional football player. Still, she was never exposed to what you could do in sports beyond playing them. She eventually realized that the skills she learned in business school getting her MBA and in retail could be applicable in many fields, including sports management.

This intuitive thinking led Swann to her high-level role at Melo Enterprises.

Schwartz-Morini didn’t immediately gravitate toward a career in sports. After graduating from college, her goal was to work in advertising. One obstacle? “I couldn’t type,” said Schwartz-Morini. “On a typewriter.”

This handicap actually helped her professionally—just not in advertising. Instead, she found a job as an NFL assistant, where typing under pressure wasn’t required.

Now, she’s the president and co-founder (alongside NFL star Michael Strahan) of SMAC Entertainment, a talent management, music and production company.

Her talent? Weaving sports through other areas of entertainment, as she did in co-founding Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Sports Awards.

For McMahon, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (the WWE) was simply the family business. “My mom was the CEO,” said McMahon. “It never occurred to me that women couldn’t be the CEO or didn’t belong there. To me, that’s where they did belong.”

Borders came of age in the 1970s. Though this was an epoch of women’s liberation, she believes that society still has a long way to go until men and women are equal.

“There’s a social mindset that women are an adjunct to something rather than an asset,” said Borders. She combats this mindset by delivering results.

“I walk forward with the notion that people just haven’t been exposed to the notion that women can do phenomenal things,” said Borders.

The power of having (and listening to) female fans

McMahon likens the wrestling industry to great storytelling. “You go to suspend your disbelief and have a great time,” said McMahon. “The characters are relatable; you cheer to see them win and boo to see them lose.”

McMahon and her family helped make these characters even more relatable. Growing up, she watched the business evolve from lighthearted entertainment to provocative performance. “We went very edgy to be competitive in the marketplace,” said McMahon, describing how the network warned their TV-14 audience about the impending change with a marketing campaign. The WWE succeeded in re-branding, and kept an honest reputation among fans.

And those changes included elevating the status of their women competitors. In 2007, the WWE  “wanted to raise the bar of our programming,” said McMahon, to broaden its audience. In response to fan demands delivered via social media, the organization expanded the women’s segments at tentpole events from 30-second “Diva’s Division” bits to much more elaborate showdowns.

FEAR equals “False Evidence Appearing Real”; how strong women deal with workplace sexism

Schwartz-Morini flips the sexism she has experienced throughout her career into a learning opportunity. “It taught me to be a better leader,” she said.

Kaufman echoed this sentiment. “Learn from the people that don’t treat you so well.”

That group of people does not only include men.

“I’ve worked with some female employees who did not look out for women,” said Schwartz-Morini. “Don’t do that. It’s about empowering women, lifting each other up.”

Constance Schwartz-Morini engages the audience at HERE Presents: Breakthrough Women In Sports. Photo by Matthew Levinson for Nickelodeon.

“I was taught that fear stands for False Evidence Appearing Real,” said Borders. “If you recognize what you’re dealing with—fear—you can take it down a level, go ahead and negotiate, enlighten them. When you enlighten them, that power comes back to you.”

Messler recalls briefly losing her self-esteem as a result of being objectified in her industry. “I had to learn…people only have power over you if you let them. It’s up to you. Don’t give away your power to anybody.”

The night ended with a Q&A, and a poignant question from one of our corporate communications interns, Tatiana Cadet, who asked the panelists if they had a mantra.

Swann’s response left me with chills.

“I am an irresistible magnet for all things that belong to me by divine right.”

She says this throughout the day: “When I walk into a room, when I have to go into a tough negotiation. It’s not necessarily about a struggle. It’s about walking in the light. I’m not trying to grab things that never belonged to me.”

The panel ended at dusk, the tail end of a magnificent Times Square sunset. The room radiating an ethereal, ebullient light. By the time we left, it was dark outside.

It still felt light to me.

Follow @HereAtViacom on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook  for more wisdom from badass women, and use the hashtag #HEREWomenInSports to pass it along.

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