Women’s Careers in Football Forum is Changing the Game
Sam Rapoport and Venessa Hutchinson have been working together to build a more inclusive NFL by helping identify qualified women to join the talent pool.
Getting a glimpse in the networking aspect of football execs and coaches can be the most challenging hurdle for women who have big dreams of working in the NFL.
Rapoport grew up playing both flag and touch football in Canada. Her love for the game was evident from day one. Every assignment she had to write for school somehow always ended up being about football. She played two years of tackle football in Montreal, Canada, where she attended college. Sam loved the game ever since she was a kid, and knew this was the field she wanted to work in.
She applied for an internship with the NFL, and was able to earn a spot in the marketing department. From there, she worked her way up the ladder, and is now the Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the league. Sam is going into her 18th season, and has spent a huge portion of her career working to get women and girls enfranchised into the sport.
Hutchinson started working in football when she was 18 years old, while attending Boston College. She spent the majority of her time there working in operations, helping out with recruiting, and also assisting the head coach. She fell in love with the game, and stayed at Boston College for three more seasons following her graduation.
From there, she met Andrew Berry, who is the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, while he was in Indianapolis. In 2017, she was hired as the Football Operations and Player Personnel Coordinator for the Browns. A general manager change brought Hutchinson to the NFL league office, where she started working with Rapoport. She’s now the Senior Manager of Football Development for the NFL.
These two women are a force, and by combining their many years of experience between both league and club levels, they’ve been able to create substantial change within the organization.
About 5 years back, Rapoport pitched an idea to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, with the hopes of building a bridge for women who love football and want to work in football, but don’t necessarily have the resources or connections at their fingertips. That pitch has since developed into the Women’s Careers in Football Forum, which is a two-day event that runs alongside the NFL Scouting Combine.
Rapoport and Hutchinson have been working as a team for the past two years to make the Women’s Careers in Football Forum the most robust and inclusive event that it can be. The forum is invite-only, and connects qualified female candidates working in football operations. While attending the forum, women are given the opportunity to interact with general managers, head coaches and club executives in the NFL, something they typically wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.
At the start of this journey, Rapoport and Hutchinson were just hoping for support, and for teams to be open to their idea of having an equally balanced talent pool in a world that has historically only been run by men. Gaining the trust of the owners and general mangers was their first challenge, and is still extremely important to both women as they continue to build this network out.
Over time, they say trust in the program has become less of a challenge, as women have gone on to see success while working in the league. Last season, we saw Katie Sowers make history by becoming the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have two women working full time on their coaching staff, with many other teams following suit. The Bucs also recently hired Jacqueline Davidson as the team's Director of Football Research.
Building this from the ground up has provided Rapoport and Hutchinson with the capacity to vet and have the best candidates possible. To date, 97 women have been hired through the forum.
Getting women into these roles is one thing, but in addition to that, making sure women of all backgrounds are equally considered is also something they strive for. As a woman of color, it’s important to Venessa that other women of color are equally included in these opportunities.
They set goals for every forum, and this past year, 50% of those who were invited were women of color. Doing so has allowed them to expand the talent pool exponentially, and find the absolute best candidates.
“It means a lot to work with someone who values this important piece of it," Hutchinson says. "Sam recognizes that women of color need to be a priority, as well. I’m so appreciative of her to act on that.”
As the Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Rapoport takes every aspect of the forum into account.
“When you do gender diversity programs, white women typically are the ones who benefit," Rapoport says. "It isn’t gender diversity if only one type gets in the door. We're incredibly intentional when we choose who will be in that room, and are passionately trying to make change. We’ve set a target for what we want the group to be, and then the cream of the crop rises to the top.”
Through the program they’ve built over the years, Black women, Latinx, members of the LGBTQ+ community and others have all seen many firsts.
When looking for potential candidates, they typically want someone with 1-3 years experience working in a college setting. That said, they are also open to candidates who have worked in women’s leagues and high schools, with consideration that opportunities for women in football are just now becoming available. Hutchinson says women who actively reach out to them and show they’re working hard and are gaining the experience needed are considered for the forum. With a large demand of women trying to get a foot in the door, it’s important to stand out and make yourself known.
“What we’re shooting for is the normalization of women in football," says Rapoport. "When someone is hired for a position, and no one is putting a spotlight on her for being the first woman, that’s when I know we’ve gotten to a place we want to be, because that allows for true inclusion for women in the roles they work to hold. Certainly, white men don’t have to deal with that part. This issue is bigger than any one sport.”
The empowerment of women is something they work towards daily, but they feel they’ve really only scratched the surface.
“In sports, the way jobs are typically secured are from being on a short list and knowing someone who knows someone," Rapoport says. "Part of what we’re trying to achieve is getting women on that short list, so that when a team is ready to hire, the talent is right there. That’s the process we’re trying to help create. That’s the value of a program like this, with an intentional objective.”