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To Win in Business, Ignore the Doubters, Say Champion Athletes

Basketball star Kara Lawson and golfer Stacy Lewis offer insights for anyone vying for gender equity in the sports and entertainment industries

Courtesy of KPMG
Courtesy of KPMG

Women know the feeling of “crunch time,” whatever field they’re in. Two champion athletes who have faced that pressure have some advice for women: To succeed, look to your supporters, not your doubters.

Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion, and current Duke University women’s head basketball coach Kara Lawson has broken more than one glass ceiling. As the first female analyst on a national NBA telecast and first woman to hold the title of assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, Lawson says a key to her success was shifting from trying to prove the naysayers wrong to proving her supporters right.

“Just that subtle shift really allowed me to narrow my focus and to play more free, to coach more free,” says Lawson. “Because you’re focusing on the people who already believe in you, they already think you’re great, that you’re focusing on proving them right.”

Golfer Stacy Lewis, who boasts two major titles on the LPGA Tour, has made maternity leave reform for women athletes a personal mission. “Though many jobs in a corporate environment have a maternity leave policy, there is not much of that in professional sports,” says Lewis. “So [we’re]  trying to change that, and have these different organizations, whether it be the WNBA or the LPGA, just be more supportive of us having families.”

In the pay-to-play model for professional women’s sports, taking family leave typically translates into no income for athletes. Not so for Lewis. A week after announcing her pregnancy with her first child, KPMG, Lewis’s corporate sponsor, decided to continue to pay her in full — a decision that led to other sponsors stepping up and doing the same for more players on the LPGA Tour.

With KPMG’s support, Lewis proved women can become mothers and still compete at an elite level. Following the birth of her daughter, Lewis went on to claim the 2020 Ladies Scottish Open, marking her first title as a mom.

“It was so satisfying,” she says. “More than anything, I was proving it to myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I could have a baby, that my body could come back from all of that and still be competitive and still do it at the highest level.

“My career would be over right now without daycare and paid maternity leave,” adds Lewis. “Being supported through it, and being with an organization like LPGA that supports you having a family, and supports you traveling with your family on the road.”

“I want maternity policies to be written into women’s contracts so that they get paid, because no one should have to choose between a job and having a family.”

Lewis and Lawson were speakers at the seventh edition of the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit, an annual event that brings together influential women in sports, politics, media and business with the goal of advancing more women into the C-suite. The summit, which was held virtually on June 23, provides hundreds of executive women with high-impact leadership content and breakout sessions, and access to executives who are inspiring greatness and paving a path for women to succeed.

For Lawson, there are clear parallels between women in sports and women in entertainment.

“In sports, as in film, there’s a ton of critics and people who think they know things. Most of the time, they don’t,” says Lawson. “They’re not with us intimately on a day-to-day basis.”

Lawson’s favorite people to be around are competitive women, whom she credits with being more resilient than most. “I think we’re the hardest people to knock out because we’re tough.” As she sees it, hard work is no longer enough; success requires a drive to win and be the best — which is exactly the competitive mentality she strives to instill in her players at Duke.

“We can never control when life throws things at us,” says Lawson. “We just know it will. So you have to be built to last, and you have to be built to withstand that.”

Leading the change alongside Lawson and Lewis, KPMG is helping support the development of future generations of women leaders through its KPMG Future Leaders Program, which annually rewards 22 of country’s top female high school seniors the opportunity to expand their personal growth through scholarships, leadership development and mentorship programs.

Lawson looks forward to a world where women are fully represented at the highest levels. “In every powerful position that exists in sports and entertainment, I’d like to see a woman occupying more than one of those positions.

“That’s the change I hope to see, because that will signify real progress in terms of decision-making and gender equality,” says Lawson, “I can’t wait for that.”