A 2013 EY survey found the vast majority of top women executives had participated in sport at school or university, and proved that sports play a key role in developing women leaders.
One example is Kenyan social entrepreneur Dr Elizabeth Odera, who since 1992, has been running Sadili Oval Sports Academy, a talent school that uses sports to equip children and youths, mostly from underprivileged communities, with entrepreneurship and life skills. Sadili generates income by organising seasonal sports camps in which the public pays to participate as well as through the leasing of its sports facilities.
She was one of Kenya’s top sportswomen between 1976 and 1986 competing in local tennis circuits and Europe. Her talent academy based near Nairobi’s Kibera slums has trained over 7,000 children in various sports, including football, tennis, basketball, swimming, volleyball and rugby. Some of the students have competed internationally, received sports scholarships to leading universities, become coaches and pursued entrepreneurship.
Applying lessons from playing sports in entrepreneurship
Odera says sports have had an impact on her more than 20-year journey in entrepreneurship.
“One of the important lessons I acquired in sports, and that I constantly apply in business is discipline. I saw it with players that I think were better trained than I was and way more talented, but the one thing that I had that they probably lacked was discipline. Without discipline you have nothing,” she explains.
“As an entrepreneur you can apply discipline with little things like keeping time, setting goals and following through to the end. It means working according to the rules. You don’t change the rules because it now suits you. You have to stick to the game plan.”
While sport is not for everyone, Odera says, entrepreneurs should consider taking it up since it will help them strike a work-life balance, get better at working with teams, and grow as individuals.
“You may be growing your business but that doesn’t mean that you are growing yourself. While you are playing you will also be interacting with friends and learning new things which enrich you. Sports give you an understanding of who you are and how far you can be stretched. When you step on to the pitch chances are that you are going to fail, but you are willing to go there and fight.”
And she adds: “When you win you have to win with humility, understanding that there is some sense of responsibility that comes with being a champion. If you lose you lick your wounds, accept your loss gracefully and get ready to fight another day.”
Odera notes that playing sport has also helped her become a more committed entrepreneur sticking through the hard times. Equating it to running a marathon, she has learnt to “keep running a race even if you are the last person to finish”.
She explains that as people begin to excel in their sporting careers they will get tempted to engage in activities such doping and cheating. Playing sports has helped her avoid such negative elements that are also present in the business world.
“In business there is a lot of cheating, and people who are ahead of you will find ways to keep you down and they play crazy. Some people bribe their way through things but this will always hurt you in the end.”
Odera recalls that competing in athletics, volleyball, tennis and rugby taught her how to brand herself. Her teammates and coaches, she says, knew what her strengths were.
“You need that as well in business from the way you present your company,” she explains. “You should also be consistent. Don’t change things too much because people will stop recognising what it is you are doing. And if your patterns change too often, you become unreliable.”
Despite the many benefits, Odera says there are certain things she does because of her sports background that irritates other people when applied in business. She explains that as a sportswoman she is attuned to heavy strategic planning and preparation before a competition. As a result some people may perceive her as being less flexible because she always wants to be “really ready” before taking on something.
“It’s a whole process of preparation which I think makes me a neurotic when it comes to business. You become a little bit of a perfectionist when you want get into the competition stage. Everything is about flow and timing. It is very valuable in business but it can be very irritating for people around you. They say ‘it’s now, that thing is ready, let’s go get it’ but I am thinking I am not ready because the timing is wrong. I was supposed to do this in October not in August,” she explains.
However, Odera says once she is on the pitch the rules change.
“You can’t rush me into doing something, but once I am in it I don’t hold back.”
She is also used to teams having colours and this affects how she views people and teams at work. She assigns colours to departments and goes “beyond seeing people as individuals to seeing them as the ‘blue department’, for instance”.
“I do too much colour coding. People just don’t get it. I have green card, red card, blue card, stop sign (and) go sign because it helps me recognise when something is warm or cold,” she explains. ”I see people as teams not individuals. Yes individuals have responsibilities but the sad part about it is if one person fails, the whole department has failed. Someone who has not done sports might not look at business that way.”