The interesting life of Keisha-Ann Down, Vice-Chairman of Jamaica Rugby and the first recipient from the Island of the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
Sometimes life comes full circle, and for Keisha-Ann Down, the Vice Chairman of the Jamaica Rugby Union, it has filled her with a mission to make a difference for her island, her teammates, and her sport. Keisha-Ann’s first memories of rugby are going to watch her father Mervyn, a British ex-pat and PE teacher, play and referee the sport in Jamaica. Mervyn played for Jamaica on a team that won a Caribbean Championship, and Keisha-Ann fondly remembers outside passing a rugby ball in the yard, mostly to spare her from housework.
Fast forward to 2020 and Keisha-Ann has brought a life in leadership and corporate coaching, the lessons she learned playing rugby, and a deep passion to make a difference to become the first person from Jamaica to be awarded a World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship. Her unique set of life experiences have developed a toolbox that will guide her as she sets off on the next part of her journey.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Keisha-Ann left Immaculate Conception High School in Jamaica after five years to attend Moreton Hall Boarding School where there were no contact sports for women – she played lacrosse and considers her performance to be “rubbish”. It wasn’t until she started at Kingston University in London that she was approached by a future teammate to come out and join the women’s rugby team. The club was still fairly new, and once she got started Keisha-Ann was hooked. The team was quite diverse, and as a mixed-race woman she enjoyed immensely the cultural experiences that the team gave her. Jokingly hesitant about the athletic quality of the players, Keisha-Ann is quick to point out that the team moved up three levels in the league during her time and a couple of teammates were given trials for the English National Team. They did so well, they were Awarded “Best Team’ at Kingston in her final year. She reflects on what the experience meant to her to be a part of something great, and to want to contribute to it with all of your strengths.
The confidence she gained during her time playing at Kingston and an innate desire to help led her to her first job as the Student Union President at the University. She had to run for the position and the overwhelming support she got from the sporting teams drove her to perform at her best in the role. She says the role helped to learn a ton about people, what motivates them, and how to help them succeed, which would become the cornerstone of her work life.
Keisha-Ann also earned a Master’s Degree in Education for Sustainability from London South Bank University during this time. In typical style, the driven Keisha-Ann was a Commonwealth Scholar, earning a full scholarship for the program.
ISLAND LIFE & LEARNING
After the Student Union she taught at Skinners Academy (where she would return), but left after a year to join Project Trust, a UK based charity that provides opportunities for volunteers to teach, partner in social care and provide outward bound programs to communities across the globe. Keisha-Ann was a volunteer as a teen and was profoundly affected as the mission helps the volunteer to educate themselves and question their role in the world. She became a Project Trust Desk Officer which brought her to the Isle of Coll in Scotland’s Hebrides for eight years. With a population of 250-300 people life on the Isle of Coll was a unique experience. While there was no rugby on the island, she did become quite friendly with Rob Wainwright, a Scottish International that lives on the Isle with his family. Based in this tight-knit community Keisha-Ann helped organize and train volunteers in Project Trust and was successful in moving the charity forward.
Keisha-Ann returned to metropolitan London after small-island life to work at Skinners Academy, a diverse school where nearly 100 languages are spoken. She was a Behavior Mentor and eventually Director of Learning with the mission of improving students opportunities through education, sport, and she loved the continued opportunity to see people “move forward” in their lives. While soccer was the main sport at Skinners, she took some learnings from her rugby days in encouraging kids to “leave it on the field” in all aspects of their lives.
After 22 years away from Jamaica, Keisha-Ann realized it was time to head back and be closer to her family. She had already started Dragonfly Pathways a corporate coaching company and she was able to travel as needed between the UK and Jamaica. The Dragonfly represents change, and Keisha-Ann has worked with companies across sectors on change management in a number of verticals. She was able to take her experiences and work with educational, hospitality, IT, and Tech startups to work on systems, strategy, procedures and communication as the companies grow, change, and adapt. Tailored workshops and meetings have benefited all of her clients.
Little did she know that rugby was about to make a major return in her life. She attended the JRFU AGM with her father and Jerry Benzwick, JRFU Chairman, seeing the potential of what Keisha-Ann could bring to the organization, asked her to run for Vice-Chair. With some hesitation as she was concentrating on Dragonfly, she said yes and has not looked back since. With financial and structural troubles to overcome, she and her colleagues were determined to change for the better. In three years they overcame debt, established charity status, raised money, developed the constitution and bylaws, and have set a strategic path that focuses on 7s rugby in the short-term as they build international status. From hosting fish fries to partnering with Premier League soccer on the island to get the sport on television as a half-time showcase, Jerry and Keisha-Ann have made great strides, crediting the Old Crocs, a group of veteran players on the island as excellent partners for growth. They were just re-elected in June and have set their sights on growth from the grass-roots to the international 7s team for men and women.
THE WORLD TAKES NOTICE
World Rugby has taken notice of Keisha-Ann’s talents and she is a 2020 recipient of the Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship. The program provides funding for recipients to develop a personal development program and apply their learning to rugby endeavors. Keisha-Ann is taking a Women in Leadership course through Cornell University (USA), working on an on-line Sports Coaching Psychology program in the UK, has been provided a mentor to work with on her development, and attends virtual conferences and meetings to work with scholarship recipients on various governance strategies. The experience has been excellent to date and although the current global pandemic is forcing some changes, the work continues and Keisha-Ann is excited to harness this experience for the betterment of Jamaican rugby, and to further her aspirations.
To gauge her enthusiasm, all that needs to be done is to ask Keisha-Ann about her goals. For Jamaica and Jamaica rugby, she wants success for the sport on the island, in the Caribbean region, and around the globe. She emphasizes that she wants them to do “exceedingly well, not just OK”. Creating pathways, generating income, developing educational and personal growth to develop a robust system that gets people excited about Jamaican rugby is the overall aspiration. Keisha Ann knows this can be done by thinking and acting creatively to create positive change. She wants to help create a “rugby Industry” on the island and a “space for all” that highlights why people love the sport and the values that make it unique.
As a rugby executive, Keisha-Ann wants a seat at the table, the big table. Prior to the scholarship she was focused on Jamaica as a domestic rugby project, but she believes her experiences will be valuable to rugby as a whole. She knows Jamaicans are happy to break barriers and would love to help smaller rugby nations be influential in the growth of the sport. Without a doubt, the rugby world will be hearing from Keisha-Ann as she brings a life’s worth of passion and professional experience to an evolving sport in a changing world.