Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
When she was younger, Kathleen Francis was pushed to play in the outfield on her family baseball team, because her brothers—all very talented pitchers—said they didn’t want her to get hurt. Little did they know that years later, she’d become a trailblazer in the sports world, making sure that women hold prime positions in boardrooms and businesses across the country.
As national board chair and president of Women In Sports and Events (WISE), Francis is making her impact in the C-Suites of some of the most respected organizations in the world. In her role, which she took over from founder Sue Rodin in 2011, Francis leads more than 25 national chapters of WISE, an organization that provides women with a range of resources and tools—from networking events to mentoring programs, scholarships and more—to hone their skills and ultimately become leaders in the sports business industry.
“We have focused on being the preeminent leadership development organization for women,” says Francis, who worked in marketing for Major League Baseball and was managing director of the United States Tennis Association before joining WISE. “We're not an advocacy group, but we give you the tools to advocate for yourself, to be more confident in the work that you do and to recognize what you need to do.”
Currently, WISE reaches more than a thousand people annually through its chapters, with its members holding positions at MLS, MLB, the USTA and more. Their partners—the NBA, MLB, NFL, NBC sports, CBS Sports, ESPN and more—are working to ensure that women in the sports industry have access to networking, training and job opportunities.
For example, a cohort of 40 women at Dartmouth come together to focus on managing change, mastering work-life harmony and developing hard skills, such as technical knowledge, and soft skills, such as communication and time management. Meanwhile, the WISE Emerging Leaders Certificate Program was designed to help women in middle management grow their leadership skills and think about the business holistically, through a focus on what Francis calls the “missing 33%.”
“The gap is your strategic business and financial acumen,” she says. “If you're only looking at your lane, then you're not going to expand.”
Francis says women tend to ask, “Why should I understand the financials of the business?” She urges them to think strategically, as it helps better understand where the revenue is coming from and the types of people that they’re going to need to hire. Early in her career, while working at the health care company Aetna, Francis learned the value of not only securing a great job but knowing how to navigate it.
“What was interesting about being on the corporate side of working at Aetna and being an admin, is that whenever you got a new role, they sent you across the street to the Aetna Institute for training,” she says. “I oversaw a few people. I was in my mid twenties, and I was thinking ‘I have like one or two people, what could go wrong?’ But once you take the class, you think, ‘Oh, I see exactly what can go wrong.’ ”
And coming into sports, that’s the perspective that made Francis realize the lack of training that existed, not just for women, but for everyone. The talent development was usually on the court or the field, not in the office space. “I kind of always had that [training concept] in my frame,” she says. “If we had more of that, and especially as women, we could start to shift the balance.”
Francis—who played tennis, softball and baseball in public parks from 1969 through ’75, and came through the corporate sports industry in the early 1990s—recognized that there were very few women in the industry, and they were definitely not in senior roles. In 1992, during her tenure at MLB, she received an invitation to a breakfast at Mickey Mantle's restaurant. A group of about 60 women gathered and marked the inception of WISE under Rodin.
Now, with the organization under the leadership of Francis, she’s urging women at the top to support and empower other women.
“It’s important to be inspirational but ultimately help others to be aspirational,” she says. “That’s how we impact the industry.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.