Cool jobs in sports: Adidas executives Nicole Vollebregt and Kelly Olmstead

Matt Eisenberg

Nicole Vollebregt, global head of women's business, and Kelly Olmstead, vice president of brand activation, have both tried to lead the charge in focusing Adidas' marketing strategies on women.

Before they became Adidas executives, Nicole Vollebregt and Kelly Olmstead were athletes with two different backgrounds. Vollebregt was a figure skater, went to the University of Toronto and worked for an agency after school. Olmstead played both volleyball and softball and earned her bachelor's degree at Willamette University in Oregon.

Both knew they wanted to continue to work in sports in some capacity. Vollebregt reached out to Adidas in Germany and thought she would work there for one or two years. That was back in 1997, 19 years before she became global head of women's business. After Olmstead finished her collegiate sports career, she remembers thinking, "I can't be done." An alumni exchange program led to her meeting the president of Adidas North America and eventually landing a job with the company, where she now serves as its vice president of brand activation.

They met early on in their tenures. Though when they did, Olmstead was on the cubicle side of the hallway while Vollebregt sat on the glass office side. The two of them work together from Adidas' offices in Portland, Oregon, to try to lead the company into a new market that takes a larger focus on women and features a relatively new subscription-based service.

New vision, new athletes

Matt Eisenberg/espnW

Nicole Vollebregt started with Adidas in 1997 and has since risen to global head of women's business, a role in which she aims to grow its women's business.

Nicole Vollebregt: We've been making products for women since the beginning of our company and our founder, Adi Dassler, worked with some of the great athletes like Wilma Rudolph back in the day. But I think what has been the biggest change in putting together a women's team to look across the company is focusing on the new opportunity that's emerged in sport, which is the emergence of this -- we call her the versatile female athlete. They may or may not be the best name, but essentially it's that post-collegiate athlete who's every bit an athlete as they were back in college or in high school, just a different type. They do a lot more different activities, but they are really committed to what the role sport can play in their life and living a lifestyle that includes sport. It's our opportunity now to embrace those women and see this entire new emergence of a whole new generation of athletes. In the past, we may have focused more on the high school or the college or the professional athlete. It's now widening our scope on what our definition of an athlete is.

Kelly Olmstead: She's maybe accessible, maybe inspirational to me, but that's what I think when we look at the campaign that we just put out into market, celebrating these different women, a really broad range of women who are highly competitive by their own terms of "I want to be healthier," whether it's at rock climbing or at running or just connecting with people and inspiring them to be fitter.

We're not trying to force feed these untouchable icons to her; we're trying to say we recognize these women are the ones who get you out of bed every day. These are the women who you need motivation to go to SoulCycle or to get you on your run. I think it is more about celebrating them at the level that we traditionally put these untouchable icons at, putting them up there and pointing to some of these major achievements. When we talk about what a woman does to balance her career, her own personal health, help her family, stay healthy and connected, we are trying to say that is a very extraordinary achievement in today's world and look to those as the new superstars.

Vollebregt: From a brand perspective, women are influenced much more by their peers and by the inspirational athletes they see at their own gym and in their daily life, so when we change the way that we behave as a brand -- it's traditionally been only top, top professional athletes driving down and using their message and their stories to inspire our consumers -- and I think what Women's will do for our brand will be helping create more women who speak to women about their stories and about their goals and about their inspiration. To us, that feels like a much more real and authentic way to grow our brand, which is much more on her terms.

Work-life integration

Vollebregt: I get up very, very early. A lot of people I work with are in Germany, so I'm usually on the phone by 6 and doing conference calls usually until 10 or 11. In that amount of time, sometimes I've made breakfast for my daughter with the phone on mute and driven her to school and the people on the phone have no idea that's happening, but it is. The afternoon is trying to get caught up in work, answering emails and work on next iterations of strategic plans, and hopefully spending some time to look out in the world as well and trying to leave at a reasonable time to pick up my daughter from school.

I think there's no such thing (as work-life balance) anymore. I think you have to love what you do these days. I certainly have never left my job. Even if I leave at 5 o'clock, I'm never done thinking about it. I think it's all sort of blurred together, which I don't mind, actually. Work-life balance has become about how you have it all in your head and compartmentalized different parts of your day. It's not something I strive to find; I think it's something that you just need to figure out what you get from work and what you get from your personal life and how it all fits together. It doesn't feel like something that you balance anymore.

Many identities

Vollebregt: Because our brand is so big and we have so many, we call them channels of distribution, so many places where our brand can be present. It's about really looking at the entire collection of female athletes through her whole life journey and making sure that we have the right packages of products for that consumer and then for each level of distribution. It's going into more information, but we will develop a specific product for an account like Dick's Sporting Goods that's absolutely right for that consumer. We also want to make sure we have the right product to sell at Barney's or at Bandier and the right product for Six:02, which is the new Foot Locker flagship. So it's really understanding that there isn't just one type of woman and one type of activity, and using the breadth of our brand from performance to style, which we luckily have, to bring it together and make sure that we're able to offer at different price-points and at different areas of distribution, really something that can be for everybody. There shouldn't be a woman who is an athlete who can't buy product from us. They should all find something they love.

When we talk about what a woman does to balance her career, her own personal health, help her family ... we are trying to say that is a very extraordinary achievement in today's world.
Kelly Olmstead

From Shark Tank to Avenue A

Olmstead: We've made a lot of efforts, both globally and locally, to find new ways to recognize great ideas. We have a system, I don't know if you'd call it a contest, that we went through this year called the "Shark Tank" where anyone at any point in the organization can come up with ideas, something they thought, "Hey, I don't know why we're not doing this. I think we should be doing this." I think we had over 800 submissions or something like that, and it ended with this really inspirational, amazing day where the top teams were able to talk through their ideas. We had a panel of both internal and external influential leaders in the industry to test and challenge some of those ideas. I think several teams, if not all of them, walked away with significant funding to execute their ideas.

One of the ideas that came out of the first contest was Avenue A, which is subscription-based shopping for women and running. I think we are being asked to think unconventionally and to partner in new ways and to break down barriers of "what group do I work in and what am I responsible for" to find the next great ideas that will make consumers' ability to embed sport in their life that much easier. ... I know that it's not intended to be only for women forever. I think it's absolutely a concept that can and will be used to the male athlete as well.

Matt Eisenberg/espnW

Kelly Olmstead, Adidas' vice president of brand activation, is responsible for marketing communications, advertising and retail experience, among other responsibilities.

Women leading the charge

Vollebregt: Largely, what we've spoken about in terms of the use of icons as we call them or superstar male athletes resonate more with men than with women and is something we know to be true. I think actually, depending at what age, if you look at high school or the collegiate athlete, there's a lot less of a difference between men and women than we realize, maybe a bit moreso post-college. I think that's changing as well. I think, in a lot of respects, it's women who are leading the shift to the modern athlete, and I think men are following in terms of the transition that's happened in the way that people stay fit and the way that they are interested in nutrition and the way that they see a wholistic life. I have done quite a few interviews on this with male journalists and they always say, "Everything you're saying applies to me, too." I think it's absolutely true. I think women have largely created this new shift. I don't think there's a massive difference in the way we market to men and women. It may be that we try things first with Women's that we end up bringing to the rest of the brand.

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