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Five Questions With Deborah Slaner Larkin

Deborah Slaner Larkin took office as WSF CEO on August 1, 2014. No stranger to the Foundation, Deborah served as our second executive director from 1986 – 1992 and "returns home" to guide our efforts as we move into our fourth-decade of work dedicated to bettering the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity. We sat down with Deborah to talk about how things have changed since she last led the Foundation, what playing sports has taught her and her dream dinner party guests.

Women’s Sports Foundation: You served as the WSF’s second Executive Director from 1986 to 1992. Talk to me about the changes you’ve seen in those last twenty-five years in women’s sports. With what progress are you most impressed? In what area of women’s sports do you see a need still for more improvement?

Deborah Slaner Larkin:
I did a lot of thinking about this when I knew I was returning to lead the Women’s Sports Foundation and several things really struck me.

The first one is participation. Most people who follow women’s sports know that before Title IX was enacted in 1972, one in 27 girls participated in sports. Now that number is one in three; one in every two boys participates. The percentages have definitely grown in the right direction and the actual numbers of both boys and girls are increasing. That’s the very good news. But, what’s happening today and what was proven in the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 2012 research, Decade of Decline, the participation numbers for certain demographics of girls are declining. This is not good news at all. We’re really seeing this with the at-risk girls and African-American and Hispanic girls. Supporting programs to reverse this trend is something that we’re committed to doing.

Participation doesn't mean just athletes, but coaches as well. 40 years ago, 90% of women's teams were coached by females. Today, that number is less than 40% percent. You can't be what you can't see, so it's critical we encourage and help more women become coaches.

The second area regards health. When I was at the Foundation during my first tenure (from 1986 – 1992), the focus on health of girls was very different. Notably, obesity in America was not talked about the way it is today. The conversation was around girls just starting to show symptoms of adult onset diseases like heart problems and diabetes. Now girls are afflicted by these diseases as young as seven and that is frightening. That’s period, end-stop frightening. This underscores why all girls need to be physically active and why our programs are so critical. They are designed so that all girls receive the significant health, education and leadership benefits sports provide both on and off the field. GoGirlGo!, in specific, targets girls who are sedentary, who aren't involved in any kind of physical activity. GoGirlGo! identifies and weaves together quality resources within each community and provides comprehensive support to organizations through a hands-on curriculum, grant program and networking opportunities. When one in three girls is sedentary, programs like GoGirlGo! exist to reduce that number. And it's working.

The third area is safety. Back then safety was discussed in terms of equipment and facilities. Certainly those are still important safety issues. But today many people in the sports industry talk equate athlete safety and concussions. However, for girls, concussions are not the only problem. To us safety means are we safe when we’re going to and from a sports program. Are we safe from sexual violence, bullying and harassment. Fortunately we have Title IX, the law which provides legal protection for girls in schools, but these issues need to be addressed in areas that are not covered by Title IX. Its not enough to have the big numbers of girls playing sports unless we can provide an equitable and safe environment in our sports programs and organizations. Without equity, girls won’t get the full advantage of the tremendous health, education, social and leadership benefits that sports participation can provide.

WSF: You have more than 30 years of executive experience in corporate, government and non-profit leadership. What one experience over those 30 years has prepared you most to lead the Foundation?

There really isn’t one singular experience. It’s the path that I have followed that has prepared me to lead the Women’s Sports Foundation.

I must say that I think my focus has stayed pretty constant. By working on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, the National Women’s Law Center, My Sisters’ Place, SUNY purchase, Re-Gender and more – I’ve been able to focus on expanding opportunities for all girls and boys, women’s leadership, education and at-risk kids. All of this has helped shape where I am today. I definitely would have to add that I had tremendous role models in both my parents and family members. My Mother was a civic activist and athlete, my father was a successful businessman and civic minded. They both balanced their business, civic and philanthropic activities with equal passion and involvement. Dad and my mother played sports starting with tennis. Mom beat Dad so they switched to golf. She was better there, too. Smart man, they stayed in golf – he got the message. He was okay with her being better and supported her devotion to sports. That was a strong message for me growing up.

You’re an avid tennis player who stills competes in USTA leagues and tournaments. What skills have you learned on the court that you draw upon to be successful in your business life?

I’m going to go back even before tennis, because I was a five-sport athlete throughout school. I played soccer, basketball, field hockey, gymnastics and volleyball – I guess that’s more than five. I was captain of the basketball team, a good athlete and one of the better players in all my sports. I guess I got my Mother’s genes, but I was also the kid who stayed after others left, who shot hundreds of baskets, who got the ball machine and who hit many more tennis balls than my peers and watched sports on TV. My father was the coach. I was also fortunate to grow up in a community where we had many sports opportunities, unlike many girls of my generation.

Being captain and top scorer of my basketball team had a particularly profound impact on my life and was arguably one of my first leadership experiences. We were undefeated for six years, starting from middle school and into high school. I learned early on that if we were going to win, remain friends and stay committed to our team, I had to make the effort to reach out to each player and spur them on — whether they started, or sat on the bench. I just knew that when I made the effort to give personal attention it helped motivate them to improve their own skills and become better team players. Secondly, I learned the importance of focus and concentration. I was committed to learning my sports and excelling. Those characteristics led to competence and confidence – being a better team player and team leader. And not to be trite, but what I learned on the court also made me confident in the classroom, when I played other sports and through my business career.

Aside from your new duties as Women’s Sports Foundation CEO, you sit on several nonprofit Boards and participate regularly in service work. Why is it important for women leaders to be philanthropic and give back?

DSL: It’s important for women to be philanthropic and give back, no matter at what level. It’s all relative, whether you can give 25 dollars, 100 dollars, or a million dollars. When you give, its like you are standing up for something you believe in. Stepping out, embracing your passion and giving something of yourself to help someone else. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your contribution makes a difference in a girl’s life.

Women have not been socialized to be philanthropic at the same level as men. Historically, if the man of the family was the breadwinner, he often time made the philanthropic decisions. Men usually controlled the checkbook and investments and women asked if they could participate. Today this situation has changed, with so many two- working-parent families or single-parent households mostly run by women. It’s important that women take an interest in and responsibility for their financial security and that includes a role in how the money is spent.

I know some women give money anonymously and that’s certainly a choice, but I would encourage us to remember that giving publicly motivates others to give, as well. I’m always encouraged when I see women who bring in corporate support also give personally. I just read an article today about new research that shows that women are the fastest-growing group of people who give. Controlling the economics is powerful.

One of the first rules of fundraising with non-profits is 100 percent participation. It’s always easier to ask someone else to give if you make your own contribution. So if they’re some issues that women especially want to see fulfilled, we need to start giving. And take the risk and give publically, it’s ok.

It’s a very exciting time for the Women’s Sports Foundation and the girls and women we serve. Tell me about your vision for the future of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

The WSF has always been the premier organization helping girls and women in sports. We’re the only organization that crosses all boundaries. We are not guided by government or organizational rules like the USOC or the NCAA or some other organizations. So we really can go full speed ahead with a point-of-view that is grounded in evidence-based-research on the best ways to get girls and women involved in sports and physical activity.

Clearly we want to continue to work towards Title IX compliance, safety and equity in sport. We also want to be very passionate and very insistent about how important sports are because of the health, education and social benefits that help girls become leaders and important contributors to our entire society.

BONUS New-CEO question:

WSF: Aside from the long-list of amazing people with whom you’ve had dinner, who would you most like to dine with?

DSL: I am fortunate to have broken bread with many athletes, from Billie Jean King to Olga Korbut, Peggy Fleming to Jackie Joyner Kersee, and I can’t wait for our annual dinner when I get to see old friends and meet new athletes.

But one of my dream guests would be Nelson Mandela, someone who we know was under so much adversity but was so focused and steadfast in his quest for equality for South Africa and for people around the world. It’s really something I believe in so strongly. And would hope some of that would rub off on me!

Another would have to be Eleanor Roosevelt. As a female in another time, she faced all kinds of challenges in her personal life – fighting for women and equity for all. She was so smart, courageous and interesting. I think that would be just fabulous.

My third and final dream guest is Lidia Bastianich. Everything she cooks is bellisima. No one cooks with olive oil and garlic better than she. I’d want to cook the meal together and enjoy it with a great bottle of wine. What could be better than that!