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What’s It Take To Be Female Sports Executive? A Former Exec’s New Novel Tries To Explain

“We need more female characters in fiction who are portraying this kind of strength and positivity.”

Photo courtesy of Shaz Kahng.

Lifelong athlete Vivien Lee would become either the most remarkable female executive in the sports industry — or the biggest failure. She arrives at the Smart Sports campus in Portland, Oregon, and is introduced as the first female president, one of the highest-profile jobs in an industry inhospitable to women.

Principled but slightly naïve, Vivien believes her male peers will give her a fair shot. She makes a series of rookie mistakes early in her career, but it’s the guidance from the “Ceiling Smashers,” a secret society of successful professional women, that teaches Vivien how to navigate the treacherous terrain of the business world.

That’s the backstory for the timely sports-oriented, female-driven “The Closer,” the debut novel from Shaz Kahng, who knows a thing or two about the fictional Vivien’s successes (and failures) because she has firsthand experience as a woman thriving in the often male-dominated sports world herself. Before becoming an author, the Wharton-trained Kahng was one of only a few female senior executives at Nike — where she led the global cycling business — and she was the first CEO of Lucy Activewear to make the company profitable.

As a former health research scientist who found her way into the upper echelons of global sports business management, she’s seen how discrimination and harassment reared its ugly head long before #metoo took hold, and learned how to embody the characteristics needed to succeed as an outsider looking in. But instead of getting discouraged, Kahng believes there’s an opportunity to shed more light on how women can work together to pave a better path in a number of industries. The book is the first in a series designed to keep the momentum going in destroying stereotypes that nice women finish last.

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, GOOD caught up with Kahng to talk about the important intersections of pop culture, sports, and business and ways to change the landscape for women in leadership now and in the future.

Studies have shown that a majority of female executives were involved in sports when they were younger. Were you an athlete growing up?

I was. I started dancing when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I did ballet, tap, and jazz, I did gymnastics, and I ran track in high school. I did a number of things. I know a lot of female senior executives who were former athletes. I think it just helps you with determination and with focus and taking a tough situation and turning it around. It teaches you resilience.

Tell us a little bit about what inspired your novel and its title?

The main character of “The Closer” is named Vivien Lee and she becomes the first CEO of a sports company. And then there's the Secret Society of Professional Women who help her succeed called “The Ceiling Smashers.” The reason why I called it “The Closer” was because, in the book, this character is able to take a seemingly impossible challenge and get it done and have success. So, ‘the closer’ is somebody who's able to overcome a challenge and achieve success in a situation that people never expected her to. And she does it consistently.

One of the other things that was very important to me was that this character didn't compromise her principles and she maintained her integrity throughout the story. I wanted to show that it was possible to maintain your values and still be successful in business.

How can women find a tribe that supports them? Why is it important?

It's important for women, especially young women. The whole tone of the book was about women collaborating with women and the tone was really positive and was intended to be really inspirational. I have twin daughters and I always try to give them the lesson that they can do anything they want to — they can achieve anything they want.

The story in the book was that everybody was saying this woman who didn't have experience in the industry wouldn't be able to do a good job, and she would not be successful, and what I showed was with perseverance and creativity and intelligence and integrity — if you approach something with those elements — you can succeed. And you shouldn't let naysayers discourage you.

I think that is such an important thing for an athlete or for a female leader ... if you believe in the vision, then you can achieve it; just know when to listen to people and know when to ignore them. There are a lot of women out there who are doing this, but we need more female characters in fiction who are portraying this kind of strength and positivity.

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