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Striking Gold

Donna Goldsmith has held senior executive positions at the NBA (National Basketball Association), WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and 2014 Super Bowl Host Committee. She reveals how she became one of the most influential women in the business of sport.

I had to start from the bottom. I didn’t go to an Ivy League college, and don’t have a family that is well connected. I may not be the smartest person, but I have a lot of common sense and drive and that has got me to where I am today. It was a challenge to achieve my milestones because I had to do it all by myself.

I wasn’t interested in sport at all. I was a little bored working at [watchmaker] Swatch, so it was time to make a change. I saw an advertisement in the New York Times that read ‘major sports league seeks packaged-goods marketer’. Before I knew it, the NBA hired me. I was the only person who had consumer goods experience, whereas everyone else who applied was from sport. I started as a director and moved up to vice-president of consumer goods and non-apparel licensing.

The years working at the NBA were the greatest of my life. It was at a wonderful time with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird all playing. You couldn’t ask for a better property to be with. But after 10 years I felt I couldn’t make any more difference in the corporation, so I knew it was time to move.

I gave 150 per cent to my work and kept nothing for myself

Linda McMahon, the former CEO of WWE, amazed me. A recruiter told me about a job with them, but my initial reaction was ‘no way, I’d never work there’. However, when Linda interviewed me she really made me think twice about the job. She was a powerful woman that was incredibly smart and personable.

There was no glass ceiling working at WWE. Everyone assumed that WWE is a male-dominated environment, but it was still a very family-orientated business when I worked there. Obviously at the highest level there weren’t as many women, but I was promoted to executive vice-president of consumer products and became chief operating officer in just eight years.

I felt my position at WWE was being marginalised. I had a great relationship with [majority owner] Vince McMahon and the executive team, but I felt I wasn’t getting out of the role what I was at the start. I was also working 24/7, so I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was done with that lifestyle.

Looking back, I wish I had given myself more personal time. I’m not sure if it would have made any difference, but it’s something I now realise later in my career. I gave 150 per cent to my work and kept nothing for myself.

I was unhappy working on the 2014 Super Bowl. [Former NBA commissioner] David Stern introduced me to the host committee for the 2014 Super Bowl in New York. I was only involved in that job for eight months, because it was very event focused, but I’m a business person. Sometimes you have to just admit to yourself that you’re not at the right place at the right time.

It’s not about the money anymore. Ten or 15 years ago I would’ve said I want to be an executive vice-president or COO of a big company, but I’ve done that now, so I just want to do what interests me.

Forbes named me the second-most powerful woman in sport in 2009. I didn’t even know I was up for the award, and I’m extremely honoured by it. I’m also proud of the fact I’ve been part of businesses that are the best at what they do, straight from when I left college and worked for [cosmetic company] Revlon.

Work only counts for 49 per cent of the job. My very first boss at Revlon was the biggest influence on my career. He was like a grandfather figure and gave me advice that, at the time, seemed insignificant. He would say 51 per cent behind success in business is creating relationships, and as my career grew, I realised its importance.

I want to move Tough Mudder into retail. I’ve been working with them a lot since I started my own consultancy firm, and it is a terrific growing property where I’m able to make a difference. They potentially have a very viable merchandising and licensing programme, and I think we can make that commercially strong and successful.

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