It is International Women’s Day and a perfect time to catch up with the recipients of the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship from Rugby Americas North nations. These seven dynamic professionals are utilizing the opportunities and networks that scholarship programs have provided and are making their mark on rugby development in their respective nations.
As a collective they have cited the personal and professional development that has them looking at old problems in new ways while strategizing on inclusivity, player growth and development, player welfare, and leadership among other areas. They stay in touch often and will be initiating a Facebook Page for Women in Leadership Development (WiLD) to ensure their work, available resources, rugby content, and information sharing for female players in RAN nations is available. Each has been incredibly complimentary of their fellow recipients and the community they are developing.
A synopsis of each recipient’s path is below, and if you speak to each of them, there is a lot more coming.
MARIA THOMAS, TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
Maria Thomas has made the most of her experience since earning the Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship and is bringing what she has learned to the benefit of Trinidad & Tobago and the wider RAN membership. After completing a Masters of Sports Administration at an immersive year in Russia and earning certification for Women in Leadership through Cornell University in America, Maria is utilizing that learning to develop pathways and resources for all rugby athletes in her home nation. She is the Secretary of the Trinidad & Tobago Rugby Union and is tasked with facilitating the growth of rugby on the island, a challenge she is eager to take on.
Maria has been busy developing the administrative and strategic framework to advance the sport while the island nation’s borders have been closed due to the pandemic. This has included setting up Technical Directors to train rugby on the island, the development of a 100-year working group that will identify resources to aid in the growth of the sport, and the development of a women’s rugby database as part of a global effort to grow the game. Once the island re-opens and rugby returns to full play she wants Trinidad & Tobago to be prepared to hit the ground running.
She has credited the opportunity to see how other sports operate in the Olympic and Pan-Am models with expanding her understanding of how to develop an inclusive infrastructure that will ensure opportunities are not missed. As she said “The scholarship has provided a network and support system that has allowed me to align my personal growth with my aspirations for rugby on Trinidad & Tobago, as well as across the RAN membership”.
ARABA CHINTOH, CANADA
Dr. Araba “Roo” Chintoh has added the learning from the Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship to her life experience as a psychiatrist to develop governance around player welfare in RAN as well as for the wider World Rugby membership. Roo assisted World Rugby and the International Rugby Players with the development of their online mental health training module to address this critical issue. She also serves on a World Rugby’s Concussion Working Group and has presented on player welfare issues at Word Rugby medical conferences. She was appointed chairperson of the working group to review guidelines for Transgender players in rugby.
Roo credits the opportunity to work with a mentor, in this case World Rugby Head of Technical Services Mark Harrington, as critical to her leadership development. She worked alongside former Regional Training Manager, Mike Luke who created a Medical Manager position for RAN tournaments and Roo acted in this role at the 2019 RAN 7s in Cayman, where she trained additional RAN medical staff to act in this capacity at further events. She is passionate about player welfare concussions safety efforts. With an eye on the unique challenges of RAN nations (i.e. varying size, funding, resources etc.) Roo is focused on developing standards and protocols that can be implemented with available resources so player welfare remains a key initiative moving forward. She is hopeful that players and coaches can be engaged to further these efforts as the game opens up.
On top of all of this critical work, Roo has become the first female RAN representative from Canada and now sits on the Board of Directors for “Own the Podium”, an organization providing funding recommendations for national sports organizations throughout Canada. Roo credits the scholarship program with helping her to broaden her view and to be a voice in the growth of rugby. She says “this program has opened doors and given me the opportunity to sit at certain tables that previously, I did not have access to. I hope I can use my new privilege of position to create opportunities for other women and ensure that women are at the forefront of rugby development.”
LAUREN ROTHWELL, BERMUDA
Lauren Rothwell has tasked herself with ensuring rugby stays at the forefront of the Bermuda community during a challenging moment in history, and credits her work with World Rugby as a key driver. Through the Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship she has taken several Leadership courses with Cornell University in America that have helped her in her professional career and her efforts with Bermuda Rugby. The Covid-19 pandemic forced a total sports shutdown on the island through which Lauren has used her appointment at the Bermuda Rugby Football Union Press Officer to make sure rugby has had a steady presence on the local news and has worked with the BRFU team to showcase the opportunities rugby can provide.
In her career as the Marketing Coordinator for One Communications Lauren says the connections she has made and the added tools and skills have helped to advance her career to and provided additional benefit to her employer and their client base. It has been a goal of the program to assist recipients in engaging growth in all areas of their lives.
She is keen for rugby to open back up on the island where she will be a key part of the effort to re-establish and increase player numbers, particularly among the female population. Lauren says “The ultimate goal is to continually increase women’s sport on the island. I am hoping to see the Union carry through on the women’s program initiatives as we continue to build inclusive rugby programming on Bermuda.”
JILLION POTTER, UNITED STATES
Jillion Potter focuses on inspirational leadership, culture and high performance, and leverages her experience with the Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship to foster these skills. She has successfully made the transition from full-time athlete to working professional, and is currently working as a Senior Associate for EY in their Learning Design Lab. The Next Step: Transition to Business at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, helped her move seamlessly into the business world. Cornell’s Women in Leadership courses taught Jillion how to navigate life in the workplace and develop a greater understanding of challenges that women face in business. The program also gave her access to a network of thought-leaders and change-makers, particularly through her attendance at TED Women conference. Jillion also attended the Aspen Institute, a think tank known for bringing diverse thought leaders, creatives and scholars together in an effort to turn ideas into action and cultivate a transformational impact on society.
In her new town of Indianapolis, Jillion is giving back to rugby at Marion University Men’s team where she is focusing on culture development, player empowerment and creating an inclusive environment. The pandemic has slowed down her ability to apply her work to the rugby world, but she is hoping to return as a referee and will continue to grow the sport. Says Jillion, “the scholarship afforded me learning opportunities that helped translate my on-field experience to competencies that are relevant to creating a positive and inspiring change within community at-large. I’m incredibly grateful to have been given this valuable development opportunity.”
MARIA FERNANDA VAZQUEZ VILLATORO, MEXICO
Fernanda Vazquez spent an immersive year at an NGO in Spain founded by Patricia García Rodriguez, an International rugby player and Olympic Athlete, as well as studying sports Management in the FIFA CIES Center at the Spanish Football Federation. This experience provided through the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship has resulted in Fernanda working with the Mexican Rugby Federation to evaluate their current status and to think big in planning for future growth. She notes that the national teams have done well, with the women in particular competing in the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2018 and believes the path forward will be for the women to go beyond the pitch to enhance the game. She is working to create a network of leaders across the country that will advocate for and continue rugby’s growth.
She is well positioned to affect change and build this network as she has been named as a Board Member of the Mexican Rugby Federation in 2020. She is excited to work closely with new Federation President Ernesto Sainz to implement these strategies.
Fernanda aspires to increase visibility of the game through as many avenues as possible, identify and establish sponsors to invest in the sport, and to engage former players to take on new roles to attract a legion of new players. Of her advancing passion Fernanda says “Rugby has changed my life and having won the scholarship and recognition from World Rugby I have gained in confidence and skill to affect change going forward.”
JENN HEINRICH, UNITED STATES
The World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship and pandemic downtime have provided Jenn Heinrich with the opportunity to identify areas that she would like to focus on personally and professionally, as well as provide innovative solutions for participants in her non-profit programming. She completed the Executive Leadership Course through Cornell University’s online education program and is currently enrolled in the Financial Success for Nonprofits program, also through Cornell. In the values-based Girls Rugby non-profit that she co-founded in 2018, Jenn believes the scholarship is providing valuable tools to continuously improve programming that aims to empower young girls to reach their potential.
Girls Rugby plans to return to full operation this spring with programming opening up in six states and expansion planned for the fall. In the spring of 2020, Jenn spearheaded an online engagement series that was originally intended to keep participants in Girls Rugby connected through a seven-week topical program. The program and its unique approach has been picked up by 30 countries and translated into Spanish, providing weekly content highlighting one of the values that Girls Rugby is founded upon. While in-person programs are always better, this innovative approach allowed them to maintain connection to the community of young women during a difficult time.
With this great experience and a return to play coming, Jenn says “The goal is to continue closing the gap in accessibility to sport for girls and create more opportunities for women and men to volunteer and work in rugby.”
KEISHA-ANN DOWN, JAMAICA
Keisha-Ann Down, in her role as the Vice Chairman of the Jamaica Rugby Football Union, is making sure that the opportunities afforded her through the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership translate to success for the nation. The Women in Leadership courses she completed through Cornell University have been instrumental in helping her to see the success gaps and pitfalls that exist in current systems and to correct this going forward. The pandemic has provided JRFU staff with the opportunity to spend time setting strategy and implementation plans that will open up pathways and opportunities once rugby is back up and running. By enhancing their infrastructure and succession planning, she hopes they will be able to identify key resources that will pay dividends as they move forward.
During this time Keisha-Ann has moved to the UK where she has been able to observe the women’s pathways to higher-level competition with the Premiership teams and has worked as a Presenter for The Women’s Rugby Show. She has engaged the JRFU and the Jamaica Olympic Committee to create more visible pathways for female players on the island and her first-hand view, particularly of the successful development of the new Exeter Chiefs Women’s Club has her excited about the number of possibilities available. In looking at the development of women’s 15 in Jamaica, Keisha-Ann would love to see local players afforded the opportunity to play in competitions like the Allianz Premier 15s in the UK, as well as develop exchange programs for female coaches to gain more experience at the international level.
Keisha-Ann credits Lynn Cantwell, her scholarship mentor as being inspirational and a positive presence in this journey. One of the best things for Keisha-Ann has been the collaboration between scholarship recipients. She says “The community that we have and continue to build has opened my eyes to the possibilities out there for players, coaches and administrators. I want to make sure people in the region can access those possibilities as well.”