Whether in sports or business, Virgin Sport CEO Mary Wittenberg has always been racing against men. And she will tell you that she has never let her gender get in the way of what she wants.
When she was a college student, Wittenberg served as the coxswain of the men’s crew team at Canisius College of Buffalo, N.Y. because there were no female teams. And as a law student, she trained with the men’s cross country team at Notre Dame. Wittenberg then became an accomplished runner and lawyer, qualifying for the women’s marathon at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials. But injuries cut her Olympic journey short and her passion for running shifted to improving the state of the sport for women.
In a society where female CEOs are few in number compared to their male counterparts, she became the head of New York Road Runners (NYRR) in 2005 and helped to increase the prize money of female athletes at the NYC Marathon. Today, the 55-year-old Buffalo native is leading one of the largest fitness organizations in the world.
No doubt: Wittenberg has smashed the glass ceiling in corporate America while raising her two boys on the Upper East Side of New York City.
In the midst of her jam-packed schedule, Excelle Sports got a chance to chat with Wittenberg about what she learned from running with the guys and how that impacted her career as a badass female CEO.
We know it’s fairly common for women to coxswain men’s boats. But why did you decide to run with men at Notre Dame?
I started running because of a dare during a happy hour with the men’s crew team in my senior year of college. There was a four mile race the next morning and the men’s cross country coach who happened to be there asked me to run with the team. After that I won a couple of local women’s races. So when it came to running in law school and there was only a men’s team, I didn’t think twice about joining.
How did the Notre Dame coach receive you when you asked to train with him?
I was so lucky. I was blissfully ignorant because I didn’t know how it all worked. So I called the coach to be added to the team and he said no, “Why would you run with the men’s team?” But he still invited me to lunch-time group run to meet him and he said I guess I ran strong enough to convince him I could cut it. Obviously, I was slower but I had an amazing experience. I got to be a big sister [on the team].
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I bet that experience played a lot into your confidence as a female CEO in a male-dominated sports industry.
Both being a coxswain of the men’s crew team and running with guys made a huge difference in my career. As a coxswain, you’re really setting strategy. You are part coach, part dictator in the last 20 strokes of a race and you also have to have a really good feel for your team and what you need to do to motivate them. That’s really a game-changing experience in terms of not thinking twice about being in a leadership role with men, being confident and also being supported by men. For me, if I’m going to do something, I’m not going to let what someone else says bother me.
Do you think there is still a lack of upward mobility for women who aspire to be CEOs?
Yes. There is still a lot more opportunity for women in leadership roles in sport and business in general. There are more women in the workplace and there are more women in sports and fitness organizations. What’s important is that these women are encouraged by the sports industries to keep pursuing their career goals and let them know that those doors are open.
What’s the best advice you could give a woman who wanted to be in the C-Suite like yourself?
Look at the people who have changed the world—men and women. Often there’s been nobody in front of them who has done what they are doing. Why should a woman think that she can’t lead an organization just because no other woman has? So don’t look ahead and be discouraged if you don’t see someone that looks like you in more senior roles. Keep going.
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What do you hope to accomplish with Virgin Sport in regards to women and their fitness goals?
Women feel very empowered now often in running and they often feel more empowered than men in indoor fitness. Women can help men get more comfortable with things like stretching or yoga. But in the future, I’d be intrigued to explore women in cycling. Cycling is where running used to be where it’s pretty intimidating getting into a cycling race with guys if you are not a cyclist. So down the road I would like to do more with women in cycling.
What has sport and fitness taught you about gender roles?
They have taught me not to worry about them. Boys and girls learn differently and we need to tailor sports and fitness to where each is. The messages, though, should be the same in terms of embracing challenges and really encouraging boys and girls to go after something they might be afraid of, especially in sport. Teaching everyone to embrace things that are hard will help them to keep pursuing what they want to pursue.
The next Virgin Sport Festival of Fitness will be held in San Francisco from October 14-15. The event includes the Twin Peaks Mile hill climb and the San Fransisco Half Mile Marathon.