Duke alumna Laura Gentile,Trinity '94, knows sports. As a junior, she led the field hockey team to the first NCAA tournament appearance in program history. Now senior vice president for espnW and women’s initiatives at ESPN, Gentile actively shapes how women connect to sports—both as fans and athletes themselves. The Chronicle’s Cassie Calvert spoke with Gentile about her goals for espnW and memories of Duke. Their conversation has been condensed for clarity.
The Chronicle: As Senior Vice President, espnW and Women’s Initiatives at ESPN you fill many roles, but what does your average day entail?
Laura Gentile: Every day there’s a little bit of something. I’m talking about the business that we’re creating—so our P&L and our finances—thinking about our content, what’s going on at espnW.com and how it’s being programmed. We’re always creating new events so we are thinking about our espnW Summit—which is our signature premium event out in Dana Point, California—but then we’re also expanding our events to have a one-day espnW event in Chicago to reach a new market that is really strong when it comes to business and women. It really runs the gamut of creative issues, talking about business issues, talking about brand and marketing and also talking about content. Then, of course, in a position like this it’s really important to have good relationships across the industry with other women who are making change and other people who see the opportunity, so I do try to spend a lot of time having those type of external meetings.
TC: A really successful campaign espnW did this year was the collaboration with Marvel. You said you want this brand to be something women think is “cool and vibrant”—is that how you put that into practice?
LG: Absolutely. So many of our honorees were so flattered to be made into a superhero. You would think a Ronda Rousey, or a Serena Williams or a Becky Hammon has been showered with so many accolades, [but] then they see themselves as a superhero and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ So yes, that’s the perfect example of how you tell the story of these athletes in a new, interesting way and you actually bring to light the things that make them different and amazing at what they do. We’re super proud of that collaboration and ideally it becomes an annual thing.
TC: Would you say the partnerships espnW has with other organizations—including with the U.S. Department of State’s Council to Empower Women and Girls Through Sports—are one of the more important components of your work?
LG: Yeah, I think it speaks to the bigness of our vision. Like I said, at the end of the day [it is about] creating a business. But there [are] also so many powerful benefits and intangible differences we’re making in the world and the mentorship truly changes the lives of women around the world. It speaks to the power of what you can do when you create something and you really believe in it and you don’t just stop at the business proposition—but you think about the greater influence it can have.
TC: 2015 has been called the year of the female athlete, perhaps also the female coach. However, you’ve said every year is the year of the woman—what do you think 2016 will hold?
LG: I think more and more women will just become a natural part of the sports conversation. We’re still at the phase where we’re pushing— we have to make the argument why female athletes matter—why Serena Williams deserves the headlines, why Ronda Rousey is a breakthrough athlete or why the women’s national team needs to have a ticker tape parade in New York City…. It’s going to be another year of that type of progress where lo and behold we start talking about female athletes as athletes an women’s sports as sports and more and more women are continuing to progress through the ranks of the sports industry.
TC: As a mom, do you think when your children grow up their generation will already be ingrained to view female athletes that way?
LG: Totally. I have two sons—one is seven years old and one is eight months. Will—my seven year old—thinks I’m an amazing athlete and it’s not weird. It’s not foreign to him—that’s just how it is. When he wants to have a catch, I have a catch with him. When he wants to play goalie in the basement, I shoot on him…. My husband is very into sports, but I’m super into sports. It’s just the way our house works—that when you talk sports not only am I at the center of the conversation, but it’s a ‘girl-thing.’ It’s a ‘woman-thing.’ It’s an ‘everyone-thing.’ He doesn’t have that ‘girls don’t play sports.’ That would not even cross his mind.
TC: It has definitely been quite the year for women’s sports at Duke—as an alumna have you been proud to see the programs develop in this way?
LG: Oh absolutely! To see the final four accomplishments—I mean Duke’s always had wonderful athletics and really had the priorities right—but to see these programs take that next step is wonderful. It’s also really important now for the women’s field hockey team to seal it and actually win a championship because we’ve been so close so many times. But absolute pride—you can talk to anybody on my team and they’ll say ‘Enough already! Stop talking about Duke!’
TC: What has your Duke education and experience meant to your career?
LG: I think it’s the notion of being exposed to so many smart people, so many big ideas and to people who have had incredible experiences. I came from suburban Long Island and I was very academic-minded, but I was also very sports-minded. Coming to Duke to study and also play field hockey at such a high level was the perfect combination for me. But then, once I actually got on campus and [started] interacting with people from all around the world and talking about such incredible worldliness, I think I changed just by the exposure to such talented, smart people. I think it prepares you then for when you graduate and you want to make a difference in New York City. You have a little more confidence because you already feel like you’ve interacted with the best and the brightest that I can now do that in my professional life.
TC: What is your favorite Duke memory?
LG: I just loved my field hockey team and some of my best friends for life are [from that] team. [My favorite memory is] probably making the NCAA tournament for the very first time as a unit. The first time Duke ever made the NCAA tournament was my junior year. That was just a huge accomplishment. And we worked so hard for it, so that’s certainly one. And a more visceral one is when Laettner hit the shot against Kentucky. We were all watching the game at a Central Campus apartment and as soon as they won and he hit that shot—you couldn’t believe it—we all literally ran out of the apartment, ran through the Duke Gardens to West Campus…so we could celebrate with everybody.