Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute
This Week in Leadership
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Not so long ago, American men who wanted to become bicycle frame builders would serve apprenticeships in England or Italy to learn from the acknowledged masters of the art. As the first builder of women’s frames in the United States, Georgena Terry had no models to follow, and it is unlikely any of the Old World craftsmen would have welcomed her to their ateliers. But she has become a model herself to a new generation of athletic and entrepreneurial women.
“I think I would not be able to specialize in the way I do if there had not been a Georgena Terry before me,” said Natalie Ramsland, founder and frame builder at Sweatpea Bicycles in Portland, Ore. “She definitely pioneered the women’s biking niche, and made it visible and legitimate. Then it became some-thing the industry could not ignore.”
Ramsland’s marketing reflects the blend of athleticism and femininity that marks women-specific companies like Athleta and Title Nine. She separates her custom and standard frames under the headings “LOVE” and “LUST,” with one production model called “The Little Black Dress.” A former bike messenger and architecture student, she sprinkles her Web copy with phrases like “Lookin’ Good. Hauling Ass,” and recently blogged about racing cross — a combination of on- and off-road courses characterized by mud and beer consumption — while pregnant.
“Each week I pin my race number to my jersey and I race,” Ramsland wrote. “I may find my heart rate higher, my pace slower, and my finish placement sliding, but that is no longer relevant in my new numerology. I want to be counted among a field of women. Not first, not top-ten perhaps. Just one among many who are doing with their bodies something remarkable and common, hard and temporary.”
Margo Conover, owner of Luna Cycles in Santa Fe, N.M., was an elite-level road racer before taking up the welding torch, and prior participation in sports is common among the new generation of women entrepreneurs. Does athletic competition build leadership skills? Certainly the way some CEOs throw around sports metaphors suggests it should be a prerequisite. Since the passage in 1971 of Title IX, an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women have been guaranteed equal access to elementary and high school sports programs. That may translate into a different kind of leader.
"When you interview a lot of young women athletes, they definitely know that if they can succeed, it will help the greater whole,” said Michael Jager, president and creative director of Jager Di Paola Kemp Design, a brand design firm based in Burlington, Vt. “That, to me, is key to leadership; my success is the team’s success. We’ve talked to women Olympians, professional and teenage athletes, and that theme is common. When everybody is feeding off that idea, pretty amazing things can happen. That will emerge in women creating business platforms that are not just money machines, but a part of building something greater, contributing to the whole.”
For Terry Precision Bicycling, one of the unexpected benefits of its move to Burlington, Vt., in 2010 is that the city is a magnet for fit young people: cross-country skiers, hikers and bikers too, despite the snowbound winters. And although Terry’s founder and its new chief executive are baby boomers, most of its 16 employees are quite young, and all but two of them are women.
“There is definitely a greater sense of adventure and willingness to take on risk in these younger women I’m working with,” said Elisabeth Robert, Terry’s majority owner and chief executive. “There is definitely a greater inclination today among young women to be entrepreneurs, which suggests to me there is a greater leadership ability baked into their psyche than my generation had. For both men and women, team sports are a great early-stage curriculum for leadership. The fact that women’s athletics, especially at the high school level, has evolved has a lot to do with women having greater leadership ability.”
Missy Park, founder and chief executive of Title Nine, a women’s athletic apparel company in Emeryville, Calif., also employs many athletic young women. But, despite her company’s name, she does not attribute their leadership style or ability to the landmark legislation. “Women are inherently more collaborative, and I don’t think that has anything to do with Title IX,” Park said. “I think it has to do with being the original team captain, managing the home. I don’t see people here competing hard for resources. It’s ‘Let’s collaborate rather than having a wrestling match.’ All of those characteristics were there; Title IX just uncovered that skill set, along with the women’s movement.”