Last month we sat down with Becky Heidesch: Cal Poly alumna, former collegiate softball coach, and experienced entrepreneur. In 1995, Heidesch launched her first business, Women’Sports Wire. As a clearinghouse for women’s sports news, the Wire had several prominent subscribers including ESPN and the Olympics. Since starting the Wire, Heidesch has pivoted her business several times. Under the Women’Sports Services name, she also offered event planning and consulting services. Her most recent endeavor, however, is broader in scope. While retaining the “WSS” prefix, Heidesch operates the WSS Executive Search, a recruiting agency that works with top firms to place women and diverse individuals in C-level positions. When she’s not recruiting, you can find her volunteering at Cal Poly’s Hot House, or starting this spring, teaching a sports marketing course on campus.
WIB: What inspired you to start Women’Sports Wire?
BH: I was looking for a job in sports marketing at the time, and I felt that [women’s sports news] was an area that had been missed. There was a lot of research that had come out and one of the organizations conducting these studies – The Amateur Athletic Foundation – found that any given sports page’s coverage was between 4 and 7 percent women. So, I knew a women’s sports publication was a missing product, and I wanted to create kind of a national clearinghouse for women’s sports news. I started in college athletic departments, then I moved on to sports organizations and covered grassroots, nonprofits, and corporate sponsors. So it was a niche newsletter publication. But it was really more than a newsletter and just a little less than a magazine: a 16-page, high gloss piece with information.
WIB: How did it feel to have such big subscribers like the Olympics and ESPN?
BH: Oh, it was great. We knew that we had a product and that there was a community – there was interest. So it was fun. We had a lot of good names. Looking back, I wish I had charged more and done some different things with the business model. But I had started it, and it ended up evolving into a women’s sports marketing agency.
WIB: What were some other things you would’ve changed, if you knew then what you knew now?
BH: I ended up making all the entrepreneurial mistakes. I started without a business plan and without any funding. I just started, and before I knew it, I had three or four little businesses in the air. I started all these little businesses, from event marketing, to consulting, to the original Wire. The major challenge with entrepreneurs is to be focused, and I had to decide what we were going to do.
WIB: So what did you decide on?
BH: The Wire kind of became a lost leader to consulting, because consulting paid much better. But it opened the door, and I was getting calls. It was a transition to more significant contracts. Then we started doing event marketing and that was really labor intensive. We were selling sponsorships and it all went together, as a cohesive marketing agency, but we had so many balls in the air. The market was, and still is, very challenging.
WIB: What was one of your most memorable events?
BH: We ran a dinner for the 50 year anniversary of A League Of Their Own. We had [director] Penny Marshall and the actors in that movie come to it. We also did a few black-tie dinners for the state of California celebrating 30 years of Title IX.
WIB: How did your original business and consulting eventually lead to what you’re doing today – the WSS Executive Search?
BH: I did some consulting. But one thing led to another and people were telling us that we should run with the career side of the business. At the time, women and minorities were underrepresented in jobs within the sports industry. So we decided to move into what’s called “executive search”. [Our business] has been an evolution of trying to survive in a niche marketplace, and trying to pivot where you need to pivot. At the same time, we tried to have that differentiated brand and carry it with us too. So we went from just the Wire to WSS, to eventually just keeping the executive search. We kept the WSS because people kind of knew us as that already.
WIB: What would you say is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in building your business?
BH: I would say personal life: friends and family. The hours, and the amount of weekends and long nights is hard. Running your own business is like having ten kids. There’s always something that the business needs; it’s like having multiple kids and they all need shoes, and jackets, and coats and food – you know, whatever. I always feel that’s how a business is. I would do it differently if I could go back. I wish I was exposed to the resources that the Hot House provides. I think mentoring would have made a huge difference, as well as business experience and access to capital. I would I have done things differently if I had that kind of support, instead of just running for it.
WIB: Where and how would you suggest looking for mentors?
BH: Somebody once said to me, “Find somebody doing exactly what you want to be doing, and befriend them.” Figure out how you can work for that individual – can you befriend them? Can you do something else? That might be one angle, if you know what you want to do. I think you do have to have some kind of idea as to who is the right kind of mentor for you. Some people get lucky and they just come across somebody. At that point, you just have to ask.
WIB: What if you’re new to a field, and you don’t know who to ask?
BH: I didn’t know who to ask; we didn’t talk about finding mentors. But if there’s somebody you aspire to be, or if there’s someone you have respect for, and it’s in line somehow with some of your interests, then you want to build a relationship with them in any way you possibly can. And after you’ve built that relationship, ask them if they wouldn’t mind mentoring you.
WIB: Do you have any tips on how to approach a potential mentor about this?
BH: Ask them if they could be one of your mentors. It’s important to say, “one of my mentors” versus “my mentor” because everybody’s busy and they might not know what [being a mentor] means. So you should tell them what it means. Say, “I just want to be able to call you when I need business advice” or “I want to launch this business and I don’t know where to start”. Then, on the other side of the coin, you also have to be respectful of the mentor’s time. If I’m going to invest in mentoring you, you have to be somebody that’s going to be worth the time – that you’re going to be one of those people that takes initiative. Don’t be afraid to ask. It doesn’t have to be a woman either, I should make that point. There are a lot of men who are great mentors to women and you need both. What you need is people to open doors for you and introduce you to people that might be able to help you.
WIB: How is your executive search service similar or different to what you were doing before.
BH: It’s still a niche, but we work with corporate America. Firms will retain us to hire women and diverse candidates for senior-level, leadership and executive positions. In a sense, we’re still kind of in the women and diversity space, but we’ve branched out. So we work with other industries now. For example, we’ve done a lot of work in the financial services industry. We got involved with them and we started to see that this is not just a need for women and minorities in the sports industry for jobs, we saw it in automotive, engineering, banking and in almost every industry. I think EY did a study in 2014 that found that only 4% of CEOs in the S&P 500 companies were women. So when you really look at the numbers – where it was 20 years ago and where it is now – we’ve made some movements but it really hasn’t changed a whole lot. I think I’m in the right place at the right time, with the right history for the work we’re doing right. You know, it’s kind of all coming together at the right time.
WIB: When you’re recruiting for these high-level positions, are there any specific characteristics that you look for?
BH: The characteristics we look for are more culture-related. We’ll start out with the position specs, then try to find individuals that have the right experience – that are also female or diverse – and are a good culture fit for the company. When we start recruiting for somebody, we ask them about the makeup of the department and what kind of person they’re looking for. We ask about the individual who was in the position previously, and besides the technical skills, experience, and education, what other characteristics would make someone a “good” hire for them? We want to know, at the end of year one, what a successful hire would look like. So it’s a lot of interviewing and screening – a lot of matchmaking. And we want to know the candidate too. We want to know if it’s a good placement for them, in their heart of hearts, because we want this to be a successful placement.
WIB: Do you have any other pieces of advice for our readers? Is there any one message we should take to heart?
BH: Women helping women. I think what [Women In Business] is doing is great; having that kind of support system – that network – that you guys are starting is something to hold on to. In ten years, you’re all going to have great careers and jobs and in fifteen years, you’re all going to be leading companies. There’s been a long time for the good ol’ boys network to develop. You see these male executives get let go from their company, call their buddy, and get hired at their company all the time, and I think it’s been so hard for women because it was harder to get into business to begin with. We haven’t had the same opportunities, recognition, equal pay, and responsibilities as men. Historically, women had to fight to just compete; they were working their tails off to just get to the next step. So they weren’t developing the same kind of networks [as men]. I think a lot of this has changed now, and you see a lot of women kind of coming together and saying “Hey, we need to support each other.” We should be hiring other women, and we should be making sure this company has as many women as men. That’s it. Hang on to your women’s network.