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A Conversation with the Foundation’s New CEO Dr. Deborah Antoine

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With over 40 years of experience in the non-profit sector, Dr. Deborah Antoine joined the Women’s Sports Foundation as our new CEO on January 3, 2017. Throughout her career, Dr. Antoine has focused her efforts on youth education, community development, women’s leadership and equality. She is also an avid tennis player and currently holds a top-10 national USTA singles’ ranking in her age group.

WSF is energized and excited to have Deborah join our team. “Deborah is an individual whose guidance, vision and life of service to the community illuminate the mission of our organization. She is committed to championing social change through sports, and her expertise in organizational development, fundraising and strategic planning makes her uniquely suited to lead the Women’s Sports Foundation,” said WSF Founder Billie Jean King.

We sat down with Deborah to discuss her career with non-profits, her passion for sports and her commitment to gender equality.

WSF: How were you introduced to sports to become an athlete and how specifically did you develop such a love for tennis?

Deborah: I am one of six kids and we grew up in a very fun loving, active, athletic lifestyle. My father entered us all in track meets. We learned to swim, ski, sail, surf, bike, almost anything that didn’t cost very much money to put six kids into. What was interesting to me was my four brothers were star athletes in high school, but they all played team sports. While I was very active, it never occurred to me to be a part of a team nor did anyone think to encourage me to be.

It wasn’t until I got married that I truly took up a sport. My two oldest daughters were playing a lot of tennis and one day the pro that was teaching them simply said to me, ‘you know I bet they get that coordination from you,’ and I responded, ‘oh no, not me. I’ve never held a racquet.’ So he said, ‘well do me a favor…next week when you bring the girls just wear a pair of sneakers.’ That’s all he asked me to do.

So the next week I come with the girls and he gets me out on the court and he’s feeding me a few balls and of course he’s says everything that makes me want to do this again. That’s my start in tennis, in my thirties.

There’s a competitive spirit in me and I also love to learn. I became committed to this game that is just so much fun and before you know it I’m playing on teams and leagues and so on. Tennis and the participation in a sport both individually and on a team changed my life. I’ve learned so much through sport, such as perseverance and diligence, and that was how I finally thought about myself as an athlete.

With my own family I wanted my girls to learn all the lifelong benefits of playing a sport. So at a very young age all three of them played volleyball and tennis. They had all the benefits of traveling on teams, getting their homework done on the back of a bus on the way to a tournament, maintaining good grades in school while competing and I’d say that it’s made them better people, better women for having done so.

WSF: How did you begin your career in the non-profit sector?

Deborah: It’s always been about helping underserved communities and finding resources and opportunities for those communities. I started out my career volunteering at a soup kitchen. At the time, most of the city services were focused on what we used to call a “hot and a cot,” which meant a hot meal and a bed. That was the core of what you could expect if you were homeless in terms of trying to find services. I knew as a volunteer that so many of the people I would meet on a daily basis could benefit from so much more. That is why I created the HOPE program, which is a job training program for homeless people.

Then I went into career development at SoBRO [South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation]. There it was about connecting economic opportunities and job creation with job training for low-income families. My first sort-of really paid job was as the Senior Vice President of SoBRO but the way I got that job was pretty interesting. I was playing in a tournament and my partner and I won in a tie-break and when I came off the court this gentleman, who’d been watching me, came up to me. He said, “I don’t know what else you know how to do but I want someone like you working for me.” It turned out it was John Patterson, the Founder of SoBRO. I did go for an interview and get the job, but it was because he saw me play a tennis match.

So, tennis in the background was becoming more and more of an influence in my life. Also, seeing my daughters at the time who were all involved in sports and how important that was to their development and how sport is just such an important part of people’s lives, really highlighted to me how important sport is for our girls.

At one point I was doing some consulting work for the Mount Sinai Adolescent Center and it was just extraordinary to me that so many of the girls lacked a healthy lifestyle in regards to their diet and activity.

You realize it’s all about mental health and positive living and feeling good about yourself and keeping a healthy body image and sport can do that for you.

WSF: What are you most looking forward to as you begin your tenure at the Women’s Sports Foundation?

Deborah: I have so much to learn. I really look forward to just gaining a much broader knowledge of women and girls in sports. I look forward to using my skills as a connector to bring people together to give to this incredible cause.

I am excited to create an ever-wider community of people who really want to climb on board this mission of creating more opportunities to get girls engaged in sport. I’m absolutely convinced sport was what launched my career and it’s just such an important social and emotional part of my background. I can’t imagine not having sport in my life.

WSF: You still play and compete in tennis. What skills learned on the court do you feel translate to your professional life?

Deborah: I’m a planner and I love setting goals for myself and then working really hard to achieve them. Playing competitive tennis is social, it’s fun, it’s exercise and it’s competitive in the sense that I want to get better, I want to get a higher ranking. I love playing both doubles and singles.

I set out a number of years ago, in my early fifties, and my ranking was maybe 60th in the country but I would just set a goal for the next year and the next year and the next year to improve. This past year I was really aggressive with myself and I said I want to be in the top 10 in the county and bygone I made it! All the skills of staying committed to learning, it’s just so important and this is why it’s so good for kids.

In our society some kids in life win way too much and that’s not so good for them and some kids lose way too much by living in truly impoverished communities with few or no resources, but most kids learn a lot from winning and losing. It’s like playing chess. Today you’re going to win, tomorrow you’re going to lose, but the brain keeps adjusting. I’ve learned to adjust a lot and I’ve learned to be very aware of other people in my life. Whether it’s an opponent I notice in the warm-up, how well does he or she move side to side, back to front and then coming up with strategies for how to win based on what I’ve noticed.

I’ve won some matches I had no business winning I’m sure. A book that was so important to me years ago was Billie Jean King’s book ‘Pressure is a Privilege.’ It taught me whether it was on the court or in the boardroom if I’m feeling pressure that’s really pretty special. I have to acknowledge I’m very fortunate where I’m in a position that I feel pressure. A lot of people don’t feel pressure at all any day and so if you do well you’ve got to live up to that.

WSF: If there was one person throughout history that you could seek advice from who would it be and why?

Deborah: Years ago I was recognized by Governor Cuomo and Matilda Cuomo with the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Community Service. I’d have to say if I went back in history Eleanor Roosevelt would be the person I’d really want to speak with.

The reason I connect with her in particular and why it was such an honor to receive that award is my connection to one of her books called ‘You Learn by Living.’ When I read her book I was sort of an average kid growing up in a little home with six kids, two parents and one bathroom. I was not gifted by any outward sort of measure but I’ve been learning by living, by being interested in other people and by pushing myself.

In her book she says to stare down your fears. You gain strength and courage and confidence in every situation that you stare down the fear. You look fear in the face and you do it anyway. It’s kind of like Billie Jean’s motto, ‘pressure is a privilege.’ It’s exhilarating to face the fear of a new situation and to use that courage. So yes, Eleanor Roosevelt would be my “shero.” She’d be who I would want some advice from.

WSF: You are the proud mother to three daughters and have four grandchildren. What do you believe is the WSF’s role in achieving equality now and for future generations of girls and women?

Deborah: I think this involves a lot more thinking on my part and, with all due humility, about actually being in the role and understanding things from the inside. I don’t want to presume for a moment that I have the right answers but in some ways it’s sort of like how I felt addressing the problem with homelessness. You just wish you didn’t even need to talk about it anymore, that it was just ingrained in our society that women and girls have the same opportunities as boys and men and there wasn’t even a need, but there is a need.

When I look at my own three daughters and two granddaughters and two grandsons, I see so much opportunity for them and the generations that they will grow up in. There’s much more blending between men and women today and one hopes that that blendedness translates into equal opportunity every step of the way. That all girls have fabulous opportunities ahead of them.

What I see as the most important thing for me to do is to use the power of the Women’s Sports Foundation to get more and more young girls involved in sport. There’s no doubt that we know what sport can do to change their lives and if they’re not engaged early they’re missing out on this huge opportunity. So this is about public awareness, it’s about engagement, it’s about connecting communities and it’s about providing these resources to the young girls in our communities who need and will benefit the most from these interventions.