In honor of Women’s History month, MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with several Hartford-area women who are successful company leaders and team players.
Next in our series, Mary Ellen Gillespie, Director of Athletics at the University of Hartford. Mary Ellen spoke about her role with Hartford Athletics, what it takes to be a female leader in a male-dominated industry, and the economic impact athletics has in Greater Hartford.
NAN PRICE: How did you get the background and skills for this leadership role?
MARY ELLEN GILLESPIE: I’ve worked in higher education my entire career and have gained an incredible cross-section of experience, which prepared me for the role of Athletic Director. You have to work with so many different people from several areas and you have to know how a university works. Through my experiences in student affairs, academic development, and then athletics development and administration, I was able to build a broad-based skillset that helped me achieve success.
NAN: To what do you attribute your success as a woman business leader?
MARY ELLEN: People—my supportive family, the people who I’ve worked for and with, those who have mentored me, and those who have given me opportunities to learn and to grow.
I always tell people the most important thing leaders do is hire good people. The success I’ve been able to achieve over the past several years is because I’ve surrounded myself with really good people who work hard, manage up, dream of the possibilities, and lead. It isn’t just my success—everything we achieve is due to the contributions of others.
For example, we bring in incredible coaches who are the CEOs of their sport. They are on the frontlines every day and help us change lives and build leaders, which is our tagline here at Hartford athletics. When our student-athletes win in competition and in the classroom, it’s because of the hard work of a great group of people.
NAN: What does leadership mean to you?
MARY ELLEN: I consider myself more of an authentic servant leader. I want to empower others and help people be successful. I want to help places elevate to make an impact on people’s lives. Paying it forward is very important to me.
NAN: University athletics isn’t just about preparing students for careers as professional athletes but setting them up for success in all different realms.
MARY ELLEN: We want our graduating student-athletes to feel we have changed their lives and they are leaving with the skills to be successful—whether they want to play a sport professionally, go to graduate school, or begin their career. We also want them to contribute to their community. Less than 2% of college student-athletes go onto play professionally, so it’s our responsibility to make sure we prepare them for life after eligibility. We want our graduating student-athletes to be incredible ambassadors for Hartford and for their sport—knowing their career as an athlete probably ends the day they graduate.
NAN: Speaking of Hartford, do many graduates transition to careers here and end up staying in the area? Does the athletics department help with that?
MARY ELLEN: We are seeing this more and more, which means our local area and community are important to our students. Our coaches do a great job of getting our teams in the community, which does make an impact on their decision to stay local after graduation.
As a department, we’re in the process of developing some new programs within our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) to provide more educational opportunities, including career preparedness. We’ve been talking with our campus career services staff about partnering and collaborating to get student-athletes prepared for resume writing, interviews, and career exploration. How do they apply their degree and their background in interdisciplinary studies to go out and change the world?
NAN: In what ways does athletics make an economic impact in the Greater Hartford region?
MARY ELLEN: We have 17 sports here that bring in visiting teams and fans for games. We’re helping put heads in beds and these visitors are filling their gas tanks, eating at restaurants, and shopping locally. We host well over 125 events a year, so Hartford’s Division I athletics does contribute significantly to the overall economic impact of our local area.
For example, this May, Hartford will host the America East Conference Softball Championship on this campus, which is not something you get to do every year. This championship will include the top six teams from the conference. We’ve been partnering with the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau, trying to designate hotels that will host visiting teams—and that includes families, university administrators, and fans coming to Hartford—some for the first time, some for a return trip. We want to expose them to the Hartford area and show off the city and the surrounding area.
NAN: These events create vibrancy in the city.
MARY ELLEN: These events definitely create excitement for the Capital City. It’s March and that means March Madness. Everyone knows what March Madness is—it’s the most popular time for college basketball—and the city of Hartford will be on the national stage as a host for the men’s basketball NCAA first and second rounds. Basketball lovers are going to come to Hartford and college athletics is putting Hartford on the national stage.
NAN: You mentioned mentors earlier. In what ways have you benefitted from mentorship?
MARY ELLEN: I’m very indebted to people who believed in me and challenged me to grow and experience opportunities. It’s my responsibility to pay that forward and do the same for others coming up behind me.
I work with three mentees right now, female and male. They are rising stars in college athletics who want to get into the athletic director chair. Mentoring is the right thing to do and it helps me as well. I hope they learn from me, but I’m also learning from them because it helps me remember what it was like to work your way up and the challenges you face along the way.
NAN: Any advice for other women leaders?
MARY ELLEN: The number of women in athletic director positions at the Division I level are starting to grow. When I got my first athletic director job, out of the 351 Division I institutions, I think I was the 27th woman to sit in the chair. Over the past five years, that number has grown by maybe 15 more, so we’re getting there but we still have a long way to go.
At the end of the day though, we have to work harder. I encourage women to make sure they have a seat at the table and to advocate for themselves. It’s a very male-dominated field, but it’s not a bad thing that we have to work harder—many of us are wired that way. Advocating for ourselves, working harder—that’s why more and more women are getting into the chair.
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