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  • Writer's picture Alysse Soll

Challenging the Comfort Zone: How a Sports Tech Investor Is Tackling Race and Gender Bias

By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory, LLC and WiST Board Advisor

Meet Melanie Strong, Managing Partner at Next Ventures

Joanie and Me
Joanie and Me

One of Melanie’s most beloved mentors is Joan Benoit Samuelson. As any runner knows, Joanie (as Mel lovingly refers to her) is a celebrated American marathoner, winning the 1979 Boston Marathon, the Gold Medal at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games and the 1985 Chicago Marathon. Joan has a long-standing connection with Nike, which is where Mel first met her. Since their very first meeting, Mel saw Joan as a woman who can, and does, conquer all. “She is a fountain of wisdom and has given me advice to last a lifetime.” Some kernels of insight include Joan telling Mel to “Get out of your comfort zone, only then will you know how far you can go.” Another golden nugget: when Melanie was contemplating her career move from corporate to the startup world, Joan’s words set her straight, “You’ve done enough there, go and enjoy your next chapter. Continue to contribute to the world and follow your heart.”

According to Melanie, Joan “is such an active participant in life, as an athlete, mother, mentor and presence. She is a lifelong climate advocate. This woman is pure energy!”

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone Even before Joan had recommended that she “get out of her comfort zone,” Mel had already put it into practice.

Melanie started her sports career as a Journalist and Editor at Runner’s World, covering Nike running events, among others. When a position came up at Nike Running, she recognized that she did not have the requisite pedigree (MBA, brand experience), but she had earned the support of the running community and decided to get out of her comfort zone in Journalism. She went for it and it paid off.

Rising to US Brand Manager, Nike Running, Melanie had achieved her dream job. Well into her career at Nike Running, opportunity knocked as a leadership role in Nike Soccer, leading emerging markets including Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. Again, Joanie’s words rang in her head: “Get out of your comfort zone.” She remembers, “I was terrified. Babies in Argentina know more about soccer than I did. But I was given a chance to bring value as a team leader and brand marketer. I earned trust and respect.” She went for it and it paid off.

After 17 years with Nike, Melanie had the opportunity to break into a new vertical, Venture Capital. The first-time fund, Next Ventures, was a 180 degree shift from the corporate, well-oiled Nike machine that she operated in. There was no safety net, no mother ship, no brand name. On the other hand, there was a chance to create something from nothing, to be a full partner in all decision making, to drive corporate culture for the team and portfolio companies. This was the ultimate “get out of your comfort zone.” She went for it and it’s paying off.

The way Melanie describes it, “I have learned to embrace discomfort and fear, to prove to myself that I can go farther than I ever imagined.” That is the goal of getting out of your comfort zone. The Empathic Leader: A Female Athlete Archetype

Fresh out of grad school with a master’s in journalism, Melanie took a position at Runner’s World, where she mixed with high performance athletes and sports business leaders. “I observed then that the people I viewed as true leaders in the sports business community were high performance female athletes who successfully transitioned their training, discipline, drive, experience and endurance into their corporate positions. These women were great leaders. This was no accident. This was a pattern.”

Melanie believes that the life skills that female athletes learn and earn during their sports careers—including failure and success—ingrain in them a true empathy and advocacy for others in their lane, whether ahead or behind. This translates into a Leadership Archetype that Melanie sees as critical for a culture of diversity and agency: the Empathic Leader.

Melanie recognized that the empathic leadership skills so prevalent among the former female athletes she worked with drove a broad range of successes, from financial KPIs to a corporate culture infused with collaboration and inclusion.

Melanie found this archetype at work especially with female founders she mentored. “I see these women making a huge sacrifice to bring their dreams to life. They are putting their personal and professional lives on the line to build a product, a culture, a movement through empathic leadership.”

Q and A with Melanie Strong

WiST: Your career path has been anything but linear. Can you share how you started in sports and fitness?

I would never bet that my career would have been in sports. While I ran cross country and track in school, I got my master’s in journalism and was focused on that path. I believe there are two themes that directed my career and roles in sports and fitness. One was my family and the other was my admiration for female athletes.

I am blessed to be an able-bodied person with the physical capacity to do anything. My younger sister, disabled since birth, has been a driving force in my intimate understanding that our bodies are not to be taken for granted. I recognize that the privilege I have, that all who are able-bodied have, to physically engage in our daily activities is not a given. We need to take care of ourselves and our bodies. Fitness, sports, and healthy lifestyle practices are innate to me. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to sports and fitness.

WiST: During your Nike tenure, there was a widely reported toxic culture within the company, resulting in executive level departures and reform. How were you able to navigate your way through this culture and continue to focus on your professional growth, while helping the company towards transition?

I’ve had many conversations with my Nike family about why it was so hard there. It really boils down to an archetype that successful leaders at Nike were modeled on: extremely charismatic, highly extroverted, deeply career-focused professionals who were super proficient at managing up and deftly navigating the political environment. These attributes are easy to spot but difficult to tame. People that presented with this archetype, including some women and people of color, but mostly white men, were promoted to leadership positions.

While this leadership style generated considerable value for the company and its shareholders, it facilitated a hegemony that marginalized many. Employees of other leadership archetypes—including those with deep knowledge, skill sets, work ethic—were overlooked and undervalued.

During my 17-year tenure, this leadership style created a corporate culture that many on the inside and in the media recognized and labeled as toxic. Working in a toxic environment does not enable you to thrive at your work because your skills and values are not aligned with the Leadership Archetype. This is what was happening, even to high profile leaders like myself.

The #MeToo movement helped US companies understand that leadership needed to become more equitable, empathic and transparent. Nike started moving in that direction, to transition their culture. It is a long-term process that every company needs to embrace if they are going to be foundations of excellence for the next generations of women and people of color who expect equity and equality. WiST: You are a Partner at Next Ventures, a new Venture Capital player in the health, sports and wellness space. Your co-Partners include high profile founders Lance Armstrong and Lionel Conacher. What prompted your move into VC, why Next Ventures, and what kinds of companies are you seeking to support?

My experience advising female founders and recognizing how I could best help fledgling startups is what drove me to VC. Leaving my Nike family and establishment was another step along my personal path to move beyond my comfort zone.

When I decided to enter the VC space, I took the time and opportunity to investigate a range of firms, from the large, well established funds to first time funds. I followed a few guiding principles when choosing which fund to work with. The fund needed to be aligned with my core values. It needed to be focused on democratizing the health and wellness space, essentially focusing on sourcing and funding technologies that provided access to the many, not just the few. It needed to be led by partners who were fully transparent and true professionals in their field. VC funds are typically a 10-year financial commitment, so this move was not short term. I needed to find the best fit to make the greatest impact.

I made an active choice to eschew the established VC corporate environment for Next Ventures, a first time VC fund. In selecting Next Ventures, I was the lone female partner, aware of the cautionary tale of tokenism. The founding partners,

Lance Armstrong and Lionel Conacher convinced me that I would be a valuable partner with a full seat and voice at the table. The three of us work together to make all fund decisions.

One of our LPs (Limited Partners) asked us a truly startling question, “What are your superpowers?” Lance, the Chief Product Officer, has twin superpowers: humility, having to earn back the trust of the community every single day through a very public failure, paired with his unique ability to test and validate product. Lionel, our CFO, has exquisite financial acumen. Understanding financial models, optimizing the modeling of our portfolio companies, he sees patterns in numbers we never knew existed. And me, I’m the compass: I find the fit and the path. I temperature check our leaders, our founders, our portfolio companies to ensure we are all pushing forward in a transparent, empathic and inclusive way.

Our collective goal for this fund is to democratize access to products, technologies and services that allow everyone to live a healthier life, to deliver what was once reserved for the elites to a broader population. My dream for this fund is that the companies we back contribute to improving the lives of a whole generation by giving them access to health and wellness tools that were once out of reach. WiST: Gender equity, diversity, and combating racism are passions of yours. Building great teams and leaders who embrace these tenets are essential to align with your vision for Next Ventures investment. How do you guide the corporate culture of your portfolio companies in this mission?

I love this work! These companies are small, humble, trying to survive. It is much easier to create a positive culture within a company that is just getting started than course correct a behemoth. What holds true for Next Ventures holds true for the portfolio companies we invest in.

The discourse the world is having at this very moment, Black Lives Matter, requires a level of understanding and empathy that must lead every company’s mission in our portfolio. There has never been a question of our fund’s position on racism. Our portfolio companies can respond in their own words, but they must respond and always remain accountable for their words and deeds.

Coming out of my Nike experience, I was highly attuned to gender and race bias. Next Ventures actively participates in unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion training with our portfolio companies. It is critical to ensure that each and every one of us involved in Next Ventures, including the partners and portfolio company leadership, must be aware of their conscious and unconscious bias. We focus on a diversity of founders who bring with them a diversity of thought, networks and experience. We expect our portfolio companies to exhibit the same standards we ourselves are working towards every day: inclusiveness, flexible Leadership Archetypes, and full transparency.

Being half Japanese, I know what racism looks like. I do not fit the profile of corporate America or Venture Capital. I did not attend Stanford. I did not receive an MBA. Regardless, I have become an active participant in these verticals because I was given an opportunity and added value every step of the way. Our fund and our portfolio companies must work harder to find and keep great, diverse talent and representation on our boards and throughout our Investor community.

I know what great leaders can do and I know how to build great teams. Diversity, inclusion, transparency, honesty, kindness, and collaboration are hallmarks of great teams. Moving a great team forward with humility, integrity, and passion is the hallmark of a great leader. I want to build great leaders and teams at Next Ventures. I started this process early on with the partners, participating in CliftonStrengthsFinder , a tried and true test that highlights leadership skills, and identifies your “talent DNA.” It provides insights into how individuals accomplish goals, build relationships, and execute plans. Individual skill sets can become part of a collaborative mosaic, building a strong foundation for successful teams. For our team at Next Ventures, we keep this foundation solid with consistent check ins, giving and receiving critical feedback, and keeping each other accountable. We expect the same of our portfolio companies.

WiST: With age comes wisdom. Can you share some key pieces of wisdom that you have learned to this point in your career?

Show up as who you are. Be authentic. Keep your ego in check. Ask for help.

One of the hardest things to master is to show up as who you are. In my 20s, I lacked the confidence to be myself, adopting attributes modeled on the success of others who (I thought) were more charismatic, smarter, funnier, more valuable than I was. I was not showing up as myself. In my 30s I stopped wanting to be someone else. I figured out who I was, the value I brought, and started showing up as myself. That is when I became truly successful.

Authenticity comes naturally to some and is very unnatural for others. In my own life, I went through some extremely difficult times personally: the guilt of being the able-bodied sister, the insecurity I experienced in a single parent family, the need to be liked by everyone. Later in my life, I learned that these personal emotions are not unique to me, but I need to own them. Everybody suffers from insecurities in their personal life. Everybody suffers from imposter syndrome in their professional life. Be who you are. Be authentic.

In the early stages of your career, especially for women, we feel the need to play a role instead of choosing the role we play. Our self-confidence grows as we gain experience, earn recognition and respect, deliver value, and lead others. As we rise, so do our egos. This is dangerous territory because when we become successful, we need to lead with empathy, not ego.

Smart leaders ask for help! Asking questions either to gain knowledge, satisfy your curiosity, or understand the nuances of a situation enables you to learn what you don’t know. It allows others whom you lead to share their knowledge and thus feel valued. Trust in yourself. Trust in others.

A special thanks to Melanie for sharing her story with the WiST community. Empathic Leadership is successful leadership. Inspiration comes in all forms.

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