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If You Can See It, You Can Be It, with Dani Rylan
Episode 69: If You Can See It, You Can Be It, with Dani Rylan
Dani Rylan, founder of the National Women's Hockey League, is no stranger to disrupting the status quo. As a female hockey player, she realized that women typically had no future playing past the collegiate level besides every 4 years at the Olympics. Dani needed to change that; she wanted to give women a platform post graduation and in between Olympic seasons to play the game she is fiercely passionate about. In this week's podcast, Dani talks being an entrepreneur, taking on the role of an activist and exposing more and more women to hockey. She's fighting the narrative that there shouldn't be a NWHL one goal at a time.
00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations with Women Changing the Face of Business. And now, your hosts, Kristy Wallace and Maricella Herrera.
00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello, and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is Kristy Wallace, and I'm joined here with my co-host, Maricella, and we cannot wait for today's podcast, and to share it with you. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dani Rylan, who is the Commissioner of the NWHL, the National Women's Hockey League. She is one tough cookie.
00:36 Maricella Herrera: I am sure. She was a hockey player too, wasn't she?
00:39 KW: She was a hockey player and still does play hockey in intramural leagues, but she's just... What I find so interesting about my conversation with Dani, is about pursuing your passion, because it was something that she really enjoyed, playing hockey. And after college, there wasn't a path forward, but how does she continue to do the thing that she loves? And so she created it. And how many times do you wish something existed, or wished you could be in a different situation? And that's as far as it goes, is wishing. And so when you make those dreams come true, that's exciting. I'm waxing all poetic here right now, but...
01:24 MH: I know, you're... I was hearing the Disney music in the back of my head.
01:28 KW: Clearly, I'm in a mood today.
01:32 MH: But it's so important, I would say, to really follow your passion. And I was talking to someone earlier today, and we were talking about your career, and what success means to you. And I think that there are so many different ways to interpret success, and the important thing is to find that type of success, what it means to you, what makes you happy, what makes your life complete. And I only think you can find that, if you find something that you're really passionate about it, and then give it your all.
02:10 KW: Yes, I agree.
02:13 MH: Clearly, passion is very important for us. I guess it is why we work at a place like Ellevate and why we do the stuff that we do.
02:25 KW: I thought it was the wine.
02:26 MH: Well, that too, and the whiskey.
02:27 KW: Yes.
02:28 MH: Don't forget the whiskey. We're big into whiskey. Well, actually, we're big into tequila. Did you know that yesterday was National Tequila Day, by the way?
02:35 KW: No, but I had a fair amount of it anyway.
02:38 KW: I was flying. I was flying, so I had to have the requisite airplane bottles.
02:42 MH: Flying with three kids.
02:44 KW: Yeah, flying with three kids, across country. I did not know about Tequila... But quick shout out, actually. You mentioned whiskey and we've had the pleasure at Ellevate of getting to know some wonderful women-owned businesses. Shout out to women-owned businesses, and minority-owned businesses, and business leaders that are working hard to make a difference. And so Catskill Provisions is a company we've gotten to know pretty well. You should check them out, really delicious whiskey. Female entrepreneur, who we hope to get on the podcast soon. But then, whenever I find good companies, I'm gonna be much more explicit and deliberate about shouting them out.
03:28 MH: I think I have a suggestion. I have a suggestion for a podcast. Should I send it to email@example.com?
03:34 KW: Yes, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
03:38 MH: I think we should do a shout out every week, be it to someone awesome, who's doing something awesome, or a company that's doing something awesome.
03:46 KW: Alright. Done.
03:47 MH: The 'Ellevate Suggestion of the Week' or something catchier. And if you have a better name, please tell me, 'cause I suck at that.
03:52 KW: Alright. Cool. Done.
03:54 MH: But going back to passion, [chuckle] we did ask our members, "How important is passion for a career success?" We know it's very important for us and it is extremely important for them. 48% of our community said that, "Passion translates to motivation, so it's very important." And then, 43% said, "It's extremely important." Just around 9% said, "It is a nice-to-have, but there are many other more important things." And no one said that, "It wasn't important at all."
04:26 KW: Well, let's hear about Dani's passion and how that led to the National Women's Hockey League.
04:43 KW: Dani, I'm really excited to have you here today. You are the Founder of the National Women's Hockey League, which is huge, and huge for many reasons. We can get into gender and sports. We can get into some of the financial aspects of support of sports. But I wanted to first start almost at the beginning, which is, what was it like to excel in sports? Clearly, there's a lot of hard work. There's a lot of dedication. What was it like to spend all of your formative years, up into your early 20s, working so hard at something that didn't have a future past college graduation?
05:32 Dani Rylan: It's funny. It's one of those things that I've talked about with my peers a lot, and it's one of those things that nobody is prepared for. You play your entire life. I started skating when I was five years old, and fortunately, I'm still playing in various beer leagues in New York City. But you never...
05:49 KW: Is that 'beer league?'
05:50 DR: Beer league.
05:51 KW: That's a term?
05:51 DR: Yes. [laughter]
05:51 KW: How do I find a beer league?
05:53 KW: Well, we'll talk about that after, but yes.
05:55 DR: [chuckle] Adult hockey leagues. They generally have a beer or two after the 10:30 at night games. But, yeah, after you're done with your college career and playing at the highest level competitive hockey, no one really prepares you for that immediate drop off. And it becomes such a huge part of your identity, something that you were striving for everyday, to compete at the highest level, to train, care about your body, and making sure that you're the best athlete that you can be. And then it's all gone. There's definitely an adjustment period after that. And some people find their way into their careers, and others wanna find ways to stay involved in the game. And so, for me, I was never one of the best players. A good week, and if I was trying real hard, I'd be a third liner. And, yes, it was one of those things where it was, "We need to find an opportunity to give these women a platform to continue to compete at the highest level, between Olympic years." Because that's all that there was for the top players in the United States, it was the Olympics. And obviously, once every four years is not enough for these women to be competing at the highest level.
07:02 KW: What are the other sports, do you know, that women can play competitively in college, but then don't have any post-college? And I know there's quite a few, but what are some of the big ones?
07:16 DR: It's actually really fascinating how many leagues are starting up. There's a lacrosse league now, for post-collegiate players. There's a rugby league. Obviously, there's soccer, and basketball, tennis, golf, so there are more and more women's leagues starting. And I think there's been a bigger movement around women's sports in the last couple of years, that we're putting our flag in the ground, and saying, "We're here, and we're here to stay, and we're only gonna get bigger, and better, and stronger." It's gonna be one of those things where we're too good and too big to be ignored, and keep providing those opportunities for women to keep playing.
07:52 KW: What has playing sports meant to you, in general?
07:56 DR: It's so hard to actually put your finger on what playing sports means. And you'll read all the research papers that say, "Women, and even men, who've played team sports, are better in the boardroom, they're better in team environments, they're more dedicated, persistent. They'll work hard." And all of those things, I believe, ring true. But when you're an athlete, and it's just who are, and it's part of your nature, I don't think you really think, "Oh, I'm a team player, because I played team sports." It's just one of those things that, you are who you are, probably, because you've been so closely tied to the game from a young age. And the opportunities that exist, even at the college level, to play club sports, to join intramurals, it's not always about playing at the highest level. It's playing, and the friends you meet, the experiences you have, that last a lifetime. A lot of the people who I work with currently, and who've made it possible for me to launch the National Women's Hockey League, are people that have been in my life from a very young age, and a lot of them were teammates. And it's a different connection that you have with someone who you've played an entire season with, who you've gone to battle with, who you've trusted on the ice, or on the court, on the field, whatever it might be. I think it's those relationships and experiences that you take from sport that really last a lifetime.
09:22 KW: You graduated college. You loved playing hockey. There was in between Olympic years, so there wasn't that opportunity. And what happened? You just woke up one day and you're like, "You know what?"
09:34 KW: "Today, I'm gonna solve this." How did we get to this point?
09:38 DR: It started out as, I wanted to have one team in New York City, for women to play after college. And that idea quickly turned into, "Well, if I'm gonna spend all this time and energy on putting together one team, let's do a whole league." So what's four teams? And let's make this a real thing, let's pay the players, let's give them the things that they haven't had after college, and give them those opportunities. And so the idea quickly snowballed. And I surrounded myself with a lot of really great people. And that network supported me, and said, "However we can help, let us know." And before I knew it, we had four rinks, we had four teams, we had...
10:16 KW: Oh, my gosh.
10:18 DR: Players signing, everything was rolling, and yeah, it's been a roller coaster of two and a half, three years now. And, yeah, it's really exciting to see what we've been able to accomplish. And it's really hard to imagine that it didn't exist before us.
10:35 KW: The National Women's Hockey League versus the National Hockey League...
10:41 KW: There's some differences, right? Predominantly, in just size and money? Do you see the women's hockey league growing to the same stature as the NHL?
10:57 DR: I think it would be a lofty goal to say, "The same stature," but I see us growing. We've grown exponentially since we launched. A lot of people told us that there wasn't a market for women's hockey, and we have so much data that proves the exact opposite of that. We've created a market and there are incredibly passionate women's hockey fans out there. And it's not just in our markets, it's even greater than that. One of the challenges that we have is combating the narrative that women's sports don't really have a place. Whether it's a narrative that we're fighting against potential sponsors, potential fans, and even against some of the major men's leagues. And one of the fortunate things about women's hockey, is that it's evolved into such a beautiful brand of the sport, that it's fast, it's physical, it's competitive. You can watch a women's hockey game as a true fan of hockey, and as a true student of the sport, and say, "This is an amazing game." And having that as our foundation, really allows us to grow indefinitely from there.
12:03 KW: But you've also had, not just an impact on viewing and awareness of the league, but also on the pipeline, in getting more girls, really, to know about the sport, to get excited about the sport. How do you feel about creating this next generation of leaders in sports?
12:23 DR: That's the immediate return. Obviously, providing this opportunity for this generation, the women playing in the league now, and who have played in the league the last two years, is an amazing thing. But seeing the way that those players are ambassadors, and role models, and leaders for that next generation, and the girls who have started playing hockey, and believe that they can dream as big as their brothers, and have never known anything else, that's really what is special. And knowing that they're not only gonna be forever fans, but maybe they'll be potential draft picks down the road, or just a part of the game, and have the same opportunity to fall in love with such a great sport. Yeah, that's definitely been one of the best and most immediate returns that we've had.
13:06 KW: What were some of the biggest challenges you've had starting up the league?
13:10 DR: I think fighting the narrative that there shouldn't be a professional women's hockey league.
13:15 KW: "There shouldn't be one at all." You're like, "Yes, there should be."
13:18 KW: And they're like, "Nah, nah."
13:19 DR: Yeah, and that's definitely...
13:21 KW: Did you raise funding or sponsorship at all?
13:24 DR: Yes. We had a lead investor who gave us the final incentive to actually go forward. And we have a handful of other investors in the league, and we're constantly looking to close sponsorship deals. And then, obviously, our revenue from our ticket sales, and merchandise, and all that good stuff as well. And yes, it is...
13:46 KW: It's like a straight-up company. You're like, "I have a business plan. I have a financial model. I'm fundraising."
13:52 DR: Oh, it's everything. And that's what's so beautiful about it, is there is a business here. This isn't just a charity where all these women wanna play hockey on the weekends. It's not what it is at all. There's a real business here that we've developed. There's a real fan base. And the potential, especially in this day and age, where media is this ever-evolving landscape that we were born into this era. For us to be able to livestream our games, to get creative with social media, to do all of these things that allow us to grow our fan base, find revenue in unique areas, and grow our business. We're constantly modeling and reworking the actual business itself, 'cause we are a start-up at the end of the day. And to see that, and how it's evolving to something that is, not only break-even, but beyond that, is really inspiring. Even for us, it's inspiring.
14:50 KW: I, as a business leader, sometimes struggle with, "How do we best respond to certain situations?" Particularly, in the political or global landscape, because we have to be very cognizant and aware of the diversity of our community, and make sure we're respectful of diverse opinions and mindsets, we're not alienating anyone. Two seasons in, I know that there was the boycott for the women's championship due to pay and equity, and how did you respond to that, in terms of your decision to come out in support of that team?
15:33 DR: The US Women's National Team boycotted against USA Hockey for equal pay. And not only equal pay, but just to be equally compensated for their time, and equally marketed, and given the same opportunities that the USA Hockey has given the men. And it was very clear to us that we wanted to support the players in our league. And it was a unique situation, because the players who were asked to go play for Team USA, and compete at the World Championships, their teammates were NWHL players, who were wanting to support them as well. And one of the unique things that we did, was we... It was actually during our playoffs, when the boycott started... Is we had our National Team players line up before the anthem and have their NWHL teammates line-up behind them, saying, "We're standing in unity and we won't be scabs. We won't be the B team for Team USA. We're here to do what is, not only best for us right now, but for the next US National Team players, the next generation, who deserves so much more." And to see that alliance succeed, and to see the bigger message amplified, and the ripple effects of that, was really remarkable. And I'm so incredibly proud of the National Team players, and proud of USA Hockey for doing the right thing. And to see that... And then they went on to win gold, which was a huge exclamation point on the end of the whole thing. It was really a great time for, not only women's hockey, but women's sports on the whole.
17:09 KW: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
17:11 DR: Of course.
17:12 KW: When you started the league, was your mindset around that... Is it, "This is just the right thing to do and it needs to be done," or do you see yourself as an activist, as an advocate, as a feminist? Is it through a specific lens or is it just like, "This is the way it should be?"
17:33 DR: It's funny. When I first launched, I never thought of myself as an activist. It just was, "Okay, this is what I wanna do." And I never thought of myself as, "I'm a female entrepreneur," or... I'm just an entrepreneur. I have a list of things that need to get done, and I'm gonna do whatever I can to get those things done, and move forward. Be bold, take risks, do all of those things to make sure that this idea succeeds. And after we launched, we got quite a bit of media coverage. I realized that there was a different narrative here, that I did not even consider or think of being a possibility. And I had to embrace a different role, in becoming more of an activist, and becoming something greater, and a resource for other women, who want to do... Whether, whatever it is. If they wanna start a business, if they wanna be a professional hockey player, if they want to do anything, to know that they can.
18:29 DR: I'm given a microphone, so to speak, that I wasn't really aware that was gonna be handed to me, was unique. And something different that I wasn't totally prepared for, but it's something that I've embraced, and been really proud of. And so I would say that I'm a bigger feminist now, than I was two and a half years ago. And I think it's also a lot of struggles that women have, I've been exposed to more the last two and a half years, where I thought that maybe the world was different than that, [chuckle] until I was in board meetings...
19:03 KW: I know.
19:04 DR: Or I was in pitch rooms, or just being in the world more. I've realized, "Wow, this isn't made up," [chuckle] that there are inequalities in our world that we're still battling and facing today.
19:18 KW: Sure. And I see you as such an inspiration. When I even think about my kids and myself, definitely myself, but having the ability to not just see men playing sports on the TV, but to see women as well, and showing that to my son and my daughters, that, "Yes, men and women both play." Having conversations, I used the US Soccer Team as the pay equity conversation with my son, because it was like, "Okay, do you see the men's team?" "Yes." "They lost. See the women's team? While they won, they did great, we watched them through the whole World Cup, amazing, did you know they made so much less than the men? Why do you think that is?" And he's like, "Well, the guys have to be better," and I'm like, "But we saw the guys lose and we saw the women win." And he's like, "But the guys have to be better, if they're making more money, right?" And I'm like, "No, [chuckle] that's not... "
20:16 KW: And it's a great conversation to have. For me, it was a great opportunity, because it was so black and white, and we had experiences watching both teams, and so, what you're doing is not just inspiring generations, it's not just giving a platform for women who wanna play, or for women and men who wanna watch, but it's also, really, to your point, redefining that narrative. And the narrative we can share with our families, and our spouses, and our friends, around, "What is the role of gender within sports, and compensation in sports, and the sponsorship of sports, and access to things?" And traditionally, I feel like it's been very one-sided.
21:01 DR: Yeah, and you made a great point saying, "You want your daughters to see the same opportunities that your son sees on TV." You want him to see men's soccer, you want her to see women's soccer, and a big part of that is a subconscious thing, that when we were girls, we probably didn't have leaders to look up to as entrepreneurs, and so it's one of those, "If you see it, you can be it." And so, for us to provide this stage for professional women's hockey to exist, little girls can see it, they know they can be it, and they can dream just as big as their brothers, and I think that's the biggest thing. And that, that subconscious effect, or whatever it is inside of us as little girls, that ever told us that we couldn't do something, maybe we just didn't have someone to look up to, and that the more role models that we can have for the next generation, the better off we'll all be.
21:56 KW: Who were some of your role models?
21:58 DR: As a hockey player, I grew up playing in Tampa, Florida, which is not exactly a typical hockey market. [laughter]
22:02 KW: Interesting! Who knew?
22:05 DR: Yeah, and Manon Rhéaume was actually the first woman to play in the NHL, and she played for the Lightning. I started skating in '92, she played her first game in 1992, and I was like, "I'm gonna be the first defense-man to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning." Yeah, she was definitely my inspiration and I never thought that I would have to do anything less, because Manon Rhéaume could do it.
22:31 KW: I love that. A question for you, I'm gonna hit on it, and I hope you don't mind. Another barrier bias, which is age. You're very young for a C-suite executive and I applaud you for that. I, personally, I think it's amazing, and I think we need less barriers that are tied to experience and age, because that's really gonna drive diversity, and thought, and experience, but have you faced any obstacles due to that?
23:06 DR: Probably without me even knowing it, I'm sure.
23:07 KW: How old are you? I'm sorry.
23:08 DR: I'm 29.
23:09 KW: Okay. And I am always weird bringing this up, 'cause I don't want people to think...
23:13 DR: Oh, no, yeah.
23:13 KW: That I'm being this old lady, that's like...
23:16 DR: No.
23:17 KW: "You're young." But, no, I love it. I think this is what I hope my kids see too, is someone who is not, "Okay, well, I need to wait until I'm 50 to start my company," or, "I need to," whatever it is.
23:29 DR: The day in age that we're in, I think it's easier to be a younger entrepreneur, and see success as a young leader and C-suite exec, and I think it's also a struggle that I won't even realize, until maybe I'm older, and I'll see maybe the respect change, or just a different approach in various meetings. I'm not sure the exact impact that it's having or has had. Or maybe it's a benefit that I can work 20 hours a day, and blood, sweat, and tears, and bounce back up the next morning, and do it all over again. I think that wherever it was, I maybe didn't have the right experience in certain ways. The day and age that we live in, there are so many tools and things that you can surround yourself with, all of the answers that you can find. Yeah, I think being a younger executive has been a struggle at times.
24:28 KW: Yeah, but it's also... And to your point, you talked about having maybe some more stamina, or energy, but it's perspective. Sometimes, when you have worked for a number of years, you can almost psyche yourself out of ideas, 'cause you can be like, "Oh, that's not possible," or, "Here's the long way to get from A to B," or it becomes... Your path for it is somewhat defined by, of course, your prior experiences. Coming out of school, and really looking at a problem, and wanting to tackle that problem, and almost coming at it with fresh eyes, is what's really going to disrupt the industry. It's what's gonna really create new solutions and we need more of that. I think we just need to be less trying to put people into the, "Do have your MBA? Have you had X number of experiences? Have you done this?" Because then, what's innovative about a bunch people that look and feel the same, starting companies?
25:43 DR: I think that's a really great point. And especially in the sports industry, I find that the people who've been in charge, have been in charge forever. So coming in, and being able to disrupt the status quo, and saying, "Alright, there's another option here, and unfortunately, it took everybody else [chuckle] a little too long to figure it out. There's no more time to waste." I think you're right. That has been one of the blessings, to come in with a fresh set of eyes and say, "Alright, we're doing this, and we might not make everybody happy, and we might turn a couple heads, but there's a point where this needs to get done, and I'm the best person to do it."
26:20 KW: What's success look like? What's the path forward for you?
26:25 DR: Expansion and growing the league. We're very fortunate that, every four years, women's hockey is on the biggest stage at the Olympics. And fortunately, for us, a lot of the players in our league will be competing on the US National Team, so that, hopefully, they'll win that gold medal, and bring it back, and we'll be able to show them off, and create new women's hockey fans from that experience. We're projecting that the '18, '19 season, following the Olympics, as our first phase of expansion. That's a very exciting time and real sign of growth. We're excited to grow from four to six in that 2018 season.
27:07 KW: Well, I look forward to having you back here in '18 to '19, so we can celebrate that success. We'll have champagne.
27:16 DR: Yeah.
27:16 KW: We'll celebrate it.
27:19 KW: There's also... We had a speaker from espnW at an event a couple months back, and she talked a lot about how espnW came about, and this perception that sports fans are men, and a lot of the advertising and everything is really catered towards this male audience. But it was something, in reality, 40% percent of sports fans and watchers are women. How have you seen women as fans respond to your efforts?
27:50 DR: It's actually been amazing to see the number of women we've converted into hockey fans, women who didn't support us, because they were hockey fans to begin with, but loved that we were providing this opportunity for women. And so they came out, and said, "I want to support these women, who are doing this amazing thing, and I want this to be successful." And then they came to one game, and like, "This is amazing. This is such a great sport. I've never been to a game before, and now I'm a season ticket holder." I think that is obviously one end of the spectrum, is taking a woman who's not even a hockey fan at all, and turning her into one. That's been really fun to watch.
28:30 KW: And even as important, or a more important question is, what about men as fans?
28:35 DR: Oh, yeah. Real fans of the game, even the men, will say, "This is such a great sport." And what I've enjoyed more than the passionate male fans that we have, the little boys who would come out, and they say, "My favorite player is Rebecca Russo," or they'll be waiting in the autograph lines, just with the little girls as well. To see that, I think is just as powerful as the message that we're giving to the little girls, that they can be anything. The little boys are also learning, "Women can be anything. My sister can do anything and I'm gonna support her, because I want her to have this opportunity too." Yeah, it's men and women, the boys and the girls, that's really... And they all have... They pull at a different heart string of mine, for sure.
29:19 KW: Well, thank you. Thanks for everything that you're doing and congratulations on your success. This is amazing.
29:23 DR: Yeah. Thank you so much and thanks for having me.
29:28 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @Ellevate N-T-W-K, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network.com. And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks. And to our voiceover artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much. And join us next week.