March is Women’s History Month, and statistics show women continue to make strides to shatter the glass ceiling of several male-dominated industries – but there is still a long way to go when it comes to achieving equality. Women are not new to leadership; think of the women who led the civil rights and education reform movements, the women who represent their constituents on Capitol Hill, and the women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies. Even with those examples, women are still outnumbered in leadership positions in business, politics, education, and sports. The same goes in the tennis industry – something USTA Florida has been working to change.

“We need more diversity in leadership – period. Too many like minds at the table are going to result in the same ideas,” said Laura Bowen, Executive Director of USTA Florida. “In order to grow and evolve, sports need new ideas and voices. Women are a big part of that. Women are also a major consumer base for sports, especially tennis. Having them in leadership positions should help us gain a valuable voice of the customer in the strategic process.”

In 2019, 10 motivated and diverse women joined the first-ever USTA Florida Leadership Academy, seeking to develop their leadership qualities, business knowledge, networking skills, and professional careers. Each have a unique connection to the sport, each have unparalleled ideas and visions, and each have a passion to create change and grow tennis.

“Growing begins in the community and knowing how to help and who to connect people with is an asset,” said participant Michelle Brown. “Having the opportunity to be a useful advocate for USTA Florida was exciting.”

“I read over the mission, vision, and description of the Academy and all of it aligned with exactly what I needed to continue executing my goal of growing the game of tennis in my immediate community,” gushed participant Stacey Speller, a Student Success Coach at Bethune-Cookman University.

Along with a series of modules designed to align the strengths and skills of the volunteers with the capacity in which they operate in the organization, the Academy is also structured to encourage open, candid discussion. That platform, combined with hands-on mentoring, gives these women the chance to explore issues unique to them – such as the pressures women in sports can face, from gender stereotyping to lack of representation.

“We need more leaders who function as role models and share similarities with us,” commented participant Fernanda Cristine Alem Freitas. “Gender equality in sports leadership is a wise investment for our future.”

Freitas, who works as a leadership coach and mentor with a training company based in Brazil, understands how important it is to promote women in leadership. A mother to two young tennis athletes and a former junior player herself, Freitas credits her supportive family for helping her obtain a high-level education to reach her dream career.

“Coming from Brazil, I am fortunate of always having my family to support me and my endeavors,” she shared. “This is surely not always the case for other girls and women in Brazil.”

That supportive environment is one she plans to carry-on in her own home with her husband, 12-year-old son, and 14-year-old daughter. She believes building equality at home is just the first step toward empowering women in our society.

“Why don’t we all agree that gender equality is a balance we should aim at? Empowering women means more confident leaders, more sense of leadership, and it brings us all into a more equal society.”

It’s no secret that the women of the USTA Florida Leadership Academy recognize the importance of women empowerment – something mentor Alexis Johnson, who serves as the Executive Director of the USTA Florida Section Foundation, sees as an opportunity to encourage other women to step out of their comfort zone and achieve their very best.

“We all come from different backgrounds and experiences which provide an array of vantage points that, I believe very strongly, should be valued as much as the next person,” shared Johnson. “I feel that women should have both female and male advocates, as well as mentors, throughout their career path for optimal growth each step of the way. Giving women a support system to shine will promote their success in reaching the same positions as their male counterparts.”

Johnson says she was elated to see so many women take advantage of the Leadership Academy, put aside their fears, and freely discuss what they face in the industry. One of those women, Jenna Kelly, is Johnson’s mentee. 

“This academy is a tremendous platform to better ourselves both personally and professionally, expand our network, and enhance our leadership skills,” said Kelly, the Senior Manager of Events for the USTA National Campus.

Tennis has been a lifelong sport for Kelly, who fell in love with the game when she first started playing at just four years old. The Central Florida native trained at Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs, worked her way through USTA tournaments, and played on Winter Park High School’s tennis team before competing at the collegiate level for the University of Central Florida. While there, she turned her passion for the game into an education and pursued a role that would help create memorable experiences for others, just as so many tournament directors, staff, and facilities did for her throughout her childhood.

“Sports are a tremendous platform for positive change,” Kelly emphasized. “They are also a reflection of our culture. They should be a platform that provides opportunities for all individuals, to use their passion and talents to better themselves, develop leadership skills, and enhance their well-being.”

As a female professional, Kelly also recognizes the challenges women face when it comes to securing positions of leadership in historically male-driven industries. She maintains that women need to continue saying ‘yes’ to leadership roles and higher positioned opportunities, so they can continue focusing on being the best version of themselves as they pave the way to future successes.

“Sports serve as a vehicle to enhance leadership roles for girls and women by allowing them to improve on essential leadership traits such as decision making, communication skills, confidence, problem solving, amongst so many others,” added Kelly. “We would be doing an injustice to others, both male and female, at any age, if we aren’t providing a plethora of opportunities for all to engage in.”

The women of the USTA Florida Leadership Academy may have all applied for different reasons, but they do share a common thought – that women need to create a new narrative. Finding ways for women to have a voice in tennis is a priority for them, and that is something USTA Florida stands behind.  

“If I had to give advice to the next generation of female leaders, it would be don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Bowen. “There are a lot of great people who want to see you succeed and are eager to help you grow – and if you hit a barrier or fail, keep moving forward.”

To learn more about USTA Florida’s Leadership Academy, click here.

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