Why This Is A Watershed Time For Women In Sports

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer spoke at the "How Women are Defining the New Rules of the Game" panel Tuesday at the Milken Institute Global Conference. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

LOS ANGELES -- Katie Warner Johnson never thought of herself as an athlete. She was a classically trained ballerina, and danced on Broadway before an injury ended her dance career at the age of 20.

In college, she roamed the halls of Harvard dorms with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg -- "he'd be there in his hoodie and his flip-flops" -- and after graduation, she went to work in finance before the financial crash of 2008 got her thinking about what would come next in her young career.

What came next didn't come easy. Warner Johnson, 30, became an athletic trainer to make ends meet. She watched YouTube tutorials and taught herself how to code and how to use Photoshop while she set up her website, Carbon 38, which sells women's fitness apparel. Last year, Carbon 38 did $1.5 million in sales. This year, it is on pace to top $10 million.

"I think my experience with ballet taught me courage," Warner Johnson said. "It was something beyond confidence. You have to have the courage to fail or be great. I think it's the same for athletes."

Christine Driessen, ESPN's chief financial officer, believes this is a watershed time for women in sports. They've gained some financial footholds, such as the WNBA's television rights deal with ESPN. They've gained a voice on topics such as domestic violence and athletes. And they have seized on ripe business opportunities.

Women's involvement in sports -- whether the success of elite athletes or the desire of women of all ages to stay fit and healthy -- might finally be moving from being a viable cause to a viable business.

"These young women are elevating this conversation," Driessen said. "Women have a seat at the table like we've never seen before. There is a confluence to all of this."

Driessen joined Stanford women's college basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, venture capital executive Molly Ashby and a group of young female entrepreneurs Tuesday at the Beverly Hilton as part of the Milken Institute Global Conference, which brings together leaders from business, politics, economics and industry. Tuesday's evening panel was entitled, "How Women are Defining the New Rules of the Game."

Milken Institute founder Michael Milken opened the panel by reminding the audience that women are a factor in 80 percent of all consumer-purchasing decisions and that women-owned businesses grow 1.5 times faster than other businesses.

Ashby's private equity firm, Solera Capital, is investing in new businesses run by women, for women in the field of sports and fitness.

"We only do things that are bold and we have to believe in it," Ashby said. "Sports is the single most important space I've seen in my career for women business owners and growth."

VanDerveer, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, talked about her own experiences -- or lack thereof -- with sports as a young girl.

"I had a love-hate relationship with sports," VanDerveer said. "I loved sports and I hated that I couldn't play."

VanDerveer said she used to bring the best basketball to pick-up games so the boys would let her play.

"I never played on a high school team," she said, "I never had that experience."

But VanDerveer knows as well as anyone how much things have changed. She has coached elite female athletes for four decades, and she sees an unmistakable sense of expectation from even the young girls who come to Stanford to attend summer camp.

It is that expectation -- and empowerment -- that's driving young women entrepreneurs to start businesses that tap into the women's market for sports and fitness. And to redefine that entire market.

Massy Arias has been a social media presence as a virtual personal trainer, a career that was borne out of her battles with depression. She turned to workouts and nutrition to avoid medication. And it became a career. Arias, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 13 years old, formed MankoFit. She has created a series of workout videos for social media.

Payal Kadakia is the CEO and co-founder of ClassPass, a fitness membership concept that allows consumers to buy a pass to a variety of fitness classes in their local markets. ClassPass is in 35 cities, with three international sites.

Kadakia, a former dancer, quit her job working for Warner Music four years ago. "But it took three years before anything started happening," she said.

Holly Thaggard created Supergoop!, skin care products that emphasize sunscreen protection. Amy Lombardo, a yoga instructor, created SmartMat, a yoga mat that provides digital feedback to its user while it's being used.

"A lot of us didn't have a game plan laid out in front of us, it came from a place of passion," Lombardo said. "We are really listening to the audience that we are trying to serve."

The Milken panel included five different young women with five very different projects, and a common denominator: a ripe opportunity to tap into women's expectations that they too are not only players, but athletes.

"It's a new universe," Ashby said. "It's not your classically defined sports market. Women are driving so much change."