Meet The Women Executives Driving Change At Athletic Companies

women athletic firms running illustration
Illustration.
Mario Wagner.

Jennifer Estabrook, Fila North America’s newly promoted COO, can still recall her first few executive meetings with the company’s Korea-based management team when she started at the athletic firm as legal counsel in 2005.

They were sometimes uncomfortable. Stark cultural discrepancies meant that some of Estabrook’s top bosses had never seen, much less worked with, a woman in a high-ranking leadership position.

There are a lot of cultural differences — particularly in Korea, where there aren’t very many highly ranked women,” Estabrook said. “It took me a long time to figure out how to work there.”

But over the course of Estabrook’s journey — and her proven ability to get the job done — many of their differences were overcome.

Now, [our chairman and I] have a great partnership, and he relies tremendously on me,” she said. “He says that [Fila North America president] Jon [Epstein] is his right hand and I am his left hand.

Jennifer Estabrook Jennifer Estabrook. Fila.

Estabrook’s ascension through the ranks at Fila as well as the challenges she has encountered are very much indicative of the course that the athletic industry has taken in recent years. Much like the male-dominated sports industry, many of the major decision-makers at athletic firms have historically been men.

But those dynamics are changing.

Women are entering the sports-and-fitness arena in huge numbers and are seeking more and better products to meet their evolving needs. And while the athletic industry is working to attract more female customers, a growing number of women are pummeling through barriers to join the executive table.

A Paradigm Shift

Carolyn MacNaughton, VP of footwear for women at Under Armour Inc., joined the firm in 2015 and has already been a driving force in the brand’s push into the women’s market.

It became apparent just before I was hired that Under Armour had been approaching footwear from a very male-consumer point of view and needed to figure out how to go after this opportunity with female athletes,” MacNaughton said. “That is my charge: getting product out there for our female consumer that is as good as she is.”

MacNaughton, who spent nearly a decade at Nike, has been in the athletic industry for more than 15 years. As Under Armour strives to transform its male-dominated, football-focused image, the brand persuaded the executive out of semi-retirement to develop its women’s shoe business.

It’s really exciting to be a part of this from the ground level and watch it grow over the years and to know that I was a part of getting that up and [running],” MacNaughton said.

Natalie Ellis, VP and GM at Foot Locker’s Six:02 banner, has also taken a similar charge at Foot Locker. While Ellis has held other posts at the company, including VP of strategy for the retailer’s global portfolio, helping to build the elevated women’s Six:02 concept has been her most rewarding role.

Natalie Ellis Six:02 Foot Locker (L-R) Natalie Ellis chats with a Foot Locker employee. Courtesy of Foot Locker.

I’m proud of being a part of Six:02 from the very beginning and to have had the opportunity to create a brand that [has been] thought about from a female point of view from its onset,” Ellis said.

While it certainly isn’t their only calling in the athletic industry, the ability of women to help sell shoes to their peers — and introduce fresh ideas that may have been overlooked by their male counterparts — is difficult to deny. Still, experts warn, companies should also be careful not to relegate all women to roles where they are focused solely on selling to female counterparts.

It’s easy to make that direct correlation and say, ‘We want to sell more gender-specific product to women, so we need more women [at the company],’ but the bigger dialogue and the bigger opportunity is to [place] more women in [a variety of] leadership positions,” said Deanne Buck, executive director at the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition, whose organization has been championing gender equality since 1996. “Diversity is just good for business.”

Indeed, big-name athletic brands and retailers are recognizing the payoff that comes from having savvy women in the “C-suite.” In addition to helping athletic firms better understand female customers, several seasoned female executives have risen to posts that allow them to make other high-powered decisions and drive major revenue growth.

The New Corner Office 

Lauren Peters, EVP and CFO at Foot Locker Inc., has been with the New York-based athletic retailer for nearly two decades. Peters played a key role in growing the business from its days as Woolworth Corp. to a global powerhouse with more than 3,400 stores in nearly two dozen countries under nine different athletic banners.

Lauren Peters Foot Locker (L-R) Lauren Peters with a Foot Locker employee. Courtesy of Foot Locker.

My journey with Foot Locker has been transforming it — we had about 40 [athletic and nonathletic] banners when I joined 19 years ago — to this athletic business that we love today,” Peters said. “I started in finance in our accounting group in Pennsylvania and about three years later transferred into the New York office to take a planning role. That was exciting for me because it meant that I was no longer worrying about accounting for history — it was all about planning for the future of the company.”

With Peters at the financial helm, Foot Locker continues to dominate the athletic retail space, producing $7.4 billion in revenues in 2015.

Similarly, Mary O’Brien, VP of global marketing at Saucony, has been the brain behind several marketing initiatives that yielded major payoffs for the company over the past eight years. They include well-received branding efforts such as Saucony’s “Find Your Strong” and “Seeker” campaigns.

I’ve brought competitiveness, adaptability and a willingness to always keep learning, but most importantly, [I’ve brought] the passion to change people’s lives through running,” O’Brien said.

Athletic brands are finding that female executives bring an unparalleled and often-spirited creativity to their businesses. Rachel Muscat, director of icon collaborations at Adidas Originals, has been the marketing guru behind the brand’s high-profile and critically acclaimed collaborations with superstars Kanye West and Pharrell Williams.

Kanye West FNAAs 2015 Red Carpet Arrivals Kanye West with Adidas’ Jon Wexler, Rachel Muscat and Arthur Hoeld at the FNAAs. REX/Shutterstock.

Australia-born Muscat has helped Adidas forge partnerships that have reinvigorated the brand’s momentum in North America, pushed the creative envelope and set new industry-wide standards.

I’m known to break down barriers of old ways of working to allow for the new to grow and become the normal,” Muscat said. “Working on collaborations from Jeremy Scott to Palace skateboards — it’s always about a partnership. It’s not about just putting a name on the side of a sneaker. Both teams grow to build it in different ways.”

While Muscat said that Adidas is “a firm believer in working to change gender stereotypes,” like many of her female counterparts, she still finds herself surrounded by men in senior-staff meetings.

To continue to overcome gender hurdles that may still exist, experts contend that the onus is on company leadership to set both an example and an agenda. But these things take time.

Running brand Brooks, led by CEO Jim Weber, has been deliberate about fostering a dynamic and healthy work environment for male and female executives, OIWC’s Buck noted. Weber, a member of the OIWC’s board of directors, was one of 53 outdoor-industry CEOs to sign the organization’s CEO pledge, committing to placing an added emphasis on promoting gender diversity at his firm.

For any organization, it’s important to recognize and draw out these diverse differences, particularly in leadership positions, as that’s where every organization’s tone is set,” Weber said. “Gender diversity is an opportunity to enhance Brooks’ culture to mirror the sport and lifestyle of running. Women have been driving the sport’s growth for the past two decades, and now it is equally balanced in attracting women and men. While our organization is gender balanced, we have work to do at the executive leadership level.”

Anne Cavassa started her career a sales associate at Nordstrom Inc. and worked her way up through roles in design to product management — including a stint at Timberland — before joining Brooks as VP of apparel in 2013. Cavassa, who now serves as Brooks’ chief customer experience officer, said the company’s appreciation of “family, community and personal health” have been instrumental in her success over the past three years.

The single most impactful thing in my growth at Brooks has been the full support to pursue both my career development and my family life. It is not one or the other, and day in and day out, it is proven to me,” Cavassa said. “While I believe that, generally speaking, the demands on working moms are more intense than working dads, the really cool thing about Brooks is that we support parents in their efforts to balance work with their everyday family life.”