The year 2017 was huge for Marilou McFarlane. While she had developed, ran, and contributed to several businesses up to this point, she had not embarked on her most fulfilling venture.
In 2017, McFarlane committed to addressing a noticeable discrepancy in the number of women’s roles in the sports tech industry compared to men’s. By founding Women in Sports Tech (WiST), McFarlane embarked on an arduous journey of breaking down barriers. She and WiST have come a long way in these past few years, and she’s primed and ready to go the distance.
Driving growth for women in the sports tech field
According to McFarlane, 50 percent of the U.S. labor force, sports fans, and athletes are women. However, women working in sports technology jobs comprise only a fraction of that percentage. The reasons for this gigantic divide are steeped in antiquated beliefs and stereotyped career roles, and McFarlane said enough was enough.
The only way to change longstanding practices is to keep pushing, and that’s exactly what McFarlane did when she founded her group of mentors and career coaches at WiST. With the sports technology industry booming and expected to be a $30 billion industry by 2024, McFarlane developed her mission. “We aim to drive growth opportunities for women at all career stages, including internship grants, a proprietary jobs portal, networking events, and inspiring content tailored to all levels – starting in middle school.”
Complications of building a diverse workforce
For McFarlane, developing a pathway for young girls to begin thinking about non-traditional careers and to embrace sports tech was a completely natural concept. And spreading the perimeter of this idea to encompass women of all ages also just seemed to make sense because she had been working in the industry for over ten years. However, it was an irritating reality that she was often the only woman involved unless she worked with women she had hired.
McFarlane says the first female college students she met and mentored rarely aspired to pursue a sports tech career. It just wasn’t a career field they encountered enough to spark their interest. Therefore, pockets of the industry could not create diverse work cultures, including women, even though some tried. The recruits were just not available. Knowing these facts, McFarlane says the impetus behind WiST is very simple — changing the scope of career options for females to include sports tech and other careers that are currently “off the radar for young women.”
Gaining sponsorship — recognizing a time for change
After acknowledging something needed to be done, McFarlane began tackling the barriers that stood in her way. However, McFarlane recognizes that the walls are lower and further apart than in earlier times. She further explains that WiST is succeeding in a traditionally white male-dominated industry through various initiatives. “WiST is doubling down to open more doors for women at all stages of their careers in sports tech, and corporate partners and sports organizations are lining up to help make a difference and tap into our community,” says McFarlane.
With ample sponsors on board, McFarlane began popularizing these jobs to a level that enticed young females. She started by creating WiST Presents and WiST NextGen original content in the form of webinars and written interviews. These productions hosted events with diverse panels including women at conferences such as CES, SXSport, Hashtag Sports, and WiST proprietary jobs portal.
She also put together the WiST Fellowships that provided 15 grants to college and graduate students in 2020, with plans to expand to 21 fellowships in 2021. McFarlane says the increase in summer internships is available due to more sponsors and funding for this coming year. Partnering with top brands such as Nike, NBA, IBM Sports, Comcast NBC Universal, HOKA One One, FEVO, Panzura, Catapult Sports, Next Ventures, Zoomph, and Spartan is driving in more interest and support. McFarlane adds that a good number of private donors and foundations are also on board.
WiST’s mission and mentors
Knowing she needed mentors and coaches to spread the word and work with students, McFarlane was careful when developing her team. “Our mentors are our secret sauce,” says McFarlane. WiST mentors have a multitude of talents. In all cases, they act as thoughtful consultants, sharing industry knowledge and opening doors to their network.
However, their duties are more involved. They also work as empathetic counselors who listen, guide and offer insights that lead to better decision-making. Finally, McFarlane says, “Our trained coaches serve as dedicated cheerleaders who provide unwavering support and enthusiasm while sharing their own journeys easily and humbly.”
What advice might a WiST mentor offer? McFarlane says her mentors make it clear that the path to success isn’t a straight line up. There will be failures and setbacks to learn from and get over. “Our mentors encourage risk-taking. We believe experiences create the best learning. Therefore, we focus on the process, not the outcome itself.”
Turning opportunity into action
In the words of Marilou McFarlane, “We’re turning opportunity into action.” Focused on changing the face of sports tech, McFarlane and her team of coaches at WiST are grateful for all the positive responses. They are reaching more young women who now see sports tech as a viable career option. Regarding the number of women involved in sports tech careers, McFarlane was correct when she predicted, “Together, we can change the ratio!”