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Cal Legend Natalie Coughlin and Other Groundbreaking Women Talk Career Success and More

May 26, 2018
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Earlier this month, the University of California hosted the espnW's Campus Conversations -the 21st stop on a tour of top collegiate programs in the nation in a forum designed to facilitate discussions that support, educate, and inspire female student athletes during their collegiate careers and beyond. 

The forum featured a moderator and four panelists of inspiring, ground-breaking women talking about achieving their career dreams after college -often in ways not considered practical or even possible for women just decades before. Attendees included over 100 Cal student athletes and staff.

The panelists included legendary Cal and Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin, former Cal point guard Monica Wiley, former Cal crew participant Anne Simpson and ESPN producer Sandy Nunez.

Prior to Cal, UCLA and Stanford, Duke, Texas, UConn, Howard, Boston College. Penn, Northwestern, UMass, Alabama, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Ohio state. Notre Dame, Penn State, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and several other universities hosted similar forums.

The forum was moderated by Emmy-winning ESPN broadcaster Shelley Smith. Smith worked at SI and the San Francisco Examiner prior to coming to ESPN and has a daughter that's a second team All-Pac 12 soccer player at the University of Oregon. Smith is the author of three books, including Just Give Me the Damn Ball

"Thank you for all being here," said Smith to the large crowd of mostly student athletes. "I'm stunned at this. Of course I would have done anything to get out of dead week too. I'm thrilled to be here."

Smith introduced the panel of four, consisting of three Cal grads of note as well as an ESPN producer.

"Monica Wiley is a 1992 Cal grad but my favorite part is she's a superior court judge in San Francisco," said Smith.

"She gets to decide whether you go to jail or you stay out -a good person to have on your list, right? Her family wanted her to be a doctor and she said there was one word that told her she was not going to be a doctor and that was trigonometry. 

"I'm going to ask her to tell you a little bit more about her athletic history here at Cal and she also was a Howard Grad student, so she's going to tell you about that right now.

"My name is Monica Wiley and I graduated in 1992," said Wiley. "Many of you were not born, but I played basketball here for four years. I was a three year starter on the basketball team was a point guard. I then went to law school at Howard University. I spent about 12 years practicing law in San Francisco and then in 2009, Arnold Schwarteneger appointed me to be on the bench in San Francisco. So I've been a judge for about eight long years. I want to say that I'm a 105 in judge years, but I really enjoy my job. 

"Right now I'm supervising the family department, so I do family law, delinquency and dependency. It's a little microcosm of everything. There's criminal law and there's civil law. I'm very, very happy to be back here on campus. I am a season ticket holder for the women's basketball team."

"Sitting next to her Anne Simpson," said Smith. "Ann was invited because she's a bad ass pilot. She was one of the first female commercial pilots ever in the country. She started at Northwest Airlines and then she went to Delta when they were bought out. But my favorite fact about Ann is that she went to a community college and she decided she wanted to be a pilot and so she took this class. And then she transferred to Cal, but Cal wouldn't recognize the credits. So she came here and had to redo everything. But she followed her heart and wanted to be a pilot and now she works a lot with a lot of young female pilots.

"It is just really an honor for me to be here to speak with this group," said Simpson. "I graduated in 1978, so 40 years ago. And so I just want to say first of all that there is a lot of life after you graduate from Cal and you leave your support. Some of you will probably continue on and compete at higher levels, but there'll be probably many of you that when you graduate, you're going to be just going out to work like I did and there's a great big, wonderful world out there. And because of your years here at Cal, and especially because of your years here as being an athlete, you have so many tools in your toolbox when you go out and you look for that work. 

"I started flying right when I got out of Cal. I got a job teaching flying. Then I went onto fly charter, flew for a commuter and was hired by Northwest Airlines in 1981 as the third woman pilot at Northwest. 

"I love my profession. It was fantastic. I have the best view from my office that you could ask for. I've flown 747, Airbus and the Airbus A330 and more. I flew around the world. And if anybody is looking for that as a profession, you still have lots of time. I'll give you my card and we can talk about it."

Next up was ESPN producer Sandy Nunez.

"My boss, Sandy Nunez, who is as bad ass as pilots," said Smith. And Sandy is about as bad ass any producer of SportsCenter as there is. She was brought out to Los Angeles to start the very first Los Angeles SportsCenter. Stuart Scott was anchoring. She's been there nine years and she's done amazing things with SportsCenter. 

"I'm from San Diego," said Nunez. "I went to Ucla and I was not an athlete. So how did I end up on SportsCenter? Well, I started my career actually in news. I was a political science major. I had no clue what I was going to do. My sister is older than I am and always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She said, You really talk a lot. You should go into news. 

"There was a posting for Cable News Network (CNN) on the job board at UCLA. Back then, nobody really knew what that was, but I said, 'Great. That'll work.' So I signed up there and I was there for the next 20 years. I worked at CNN, I've worked in DC and then I went into network news, where I worked for Good Morning America and Nightly News. I also worked overseas for two years in and out of the Middle East and Asia and worked in the conflict zone. So I had a really good political and pretty well-rounded news background. And then I decided I need to do something more. So I called my friend Lisa Salters and said, 'So tell me about ESPN and she did. And the next thing I knew I was moving to Bristol, Connecticut and I went to work at the ESPN headquarters office there.

"When I arrived, that was really interesting because I was the only woman who was working on SportsCenter at the time and I was the only person of color. So I definitely felt like fish out of water. But it teaches you a lot about character. And so for two years I did that. And then in 2009, as Shelly said, we were lucky enough to bring SportsCenter off of the Bristol campus, the first time that ever happened in the company. And it was a really huge initiative. So luckily we succeeded and it did became the highest revenue grossing show of all the SportsCenters. So it's been highly successful."

Last, but not least, came Cal favorite and legendary swimmer Natalie Coughlin.

"Is there anybody here who doesn't know this person?," joked Smith. "Never mind that she is...you know what I love best Is that she is the most decorated female Olympian here at Cal and she was just eating a big old sugar cookie. She's an entrepreneur now and I'll let her explain a little bit more about what she's doing with her amazing businesses."

"I'm Natalie Coughlin," said the former Cal swimmer. "My eligibility here at Cal was from 2000 to 2004. I still see a lot of familiar faces out there because I continued to train here until 2016. 

"So after my college eligibility was up, I went on to three Olympics and I still train up here actually. So if you see the grand old lady lifting, that's me. But I, I've been pretty busy lately so I haven't been able to hit the gym as much as I would like. 

"The easiest way to describe what I do now is entrepreneur. I kind of hate that term because I feel like that sometimes means you're half unemployed and then half dreaming, but that would be the most accurate a statement of what I do now.

"When I was a professional athlete and even here at Cal, I worked really hard to build another term I don't really like -my brand. But I built my brand and I made some really great partnerships with a lot of companies that I continue to work with today. 

"So that's part of what I do. Last year I wrote a cookbook, so I locked myself in my house all last summer and wrote a cookbook that's been published by Clarkson Potter, a really large publishing house, next spring. 

"I also started a winery last year, Gadarian Wines. I know most of you aren't old enough to legally drink, but when you have your first glass of wine, have a Gadarian. We're, we're a boutique winery. We produce in St Helena and we make Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. 
"And then lastly, I work at a tech startup called Espirits. It's really difficult to describe, but basically our engineers and figured out this algorithm that uses your iphone or ipad to measure distance, space velocity and in our initial applications, for sport and swimming. So that's Why I'm involved in the company. But we're figuring out that there's a lot of applications beyond sport from agriculture to solar fields to all these crazy things."

"This was a pretty impressive group of women, " noted Smith. "Don't you all agree with me and pretty inspired what we've all done? And I'm including myself. 

"I started out as as a business major and I was going to be a secretary because I was really good at typing and was going to be a typist for whatever and I thought making a thousand dollars a month was a great salary for a secretary. And then I took a journalism class and I fell in love with it. It was right after Watergate, which you probably don't know about either, but go find out about Woodward and Bernstein and the fall of Nixon and all that and you'll understand why we were so excited about journalism back then. And I decided, okay, that's what I'm going to do, and then I went into sports, but that's a very short description of a very long career. 

"I've been very lucky to have lasted this long. I will be 60 in July. That's sort of unheard of in our business, but I'm very proud to say I've lasted and proud of the women coming behind me as well. So don't give up because you think the journalism business is dead. It's not. It's never been a better time to get into it in various roles. We aren't all in front of the camera, but there are a lot of the roles behind the camera in the radio and the tv operations." 

Smith next asked Simpson what motivated her to be a pilot -particularly when there were so few female pilots in the industry.

"I did not want to work in an office," said Simpson. "I wanted to be in a bigger space. I could never envision myself sitting at a desk in an office five days a week. I knew some people in the airline industry and I also knew that there weren't very many women in that industry but I knew that they were going to have to be women in that industry. And, you know, I look back on it as a 22-year old who had that kind of foresight. I'm like, wow, I was smarter than I think I am. But all of these industries that have been male dominated, a lot of them engineering and medicine, now there's a lot more equality than then. But we're going to be there and we're going to be forces there. And if you recognize how important all of you are to society, to those industries, that's where you've got to go. 

"And Monica, we know trigonometry didn't work with you. So you get to take stats. How'd you get through stats and what got you into law school and what made you attracted to the legal profession?" 

"Well, actually it was my mother, said Wiley. "My mother wanted a doctor and a lawyer literally -to have two children that become a doctor and a lawyer, and trigonometry did me in as far as being a doctor. And so my sister to get a doctor and I'm a lawyer. Listen to your mothers! Mothers may actually know what you should do with your lives. 

"It was actually the perfect career for me. When I graduated I was still very competitive and the legal field and being a litigation attorney was an outlet for me. I got to fight verbally very well at times and that, I think built my competitive spirit."

"I get asked by people all the time, 'Why are there no women at the top at ESPN? " said Smith. And I say, 'Because it's a terrible job. Why would you want to do that? Why do you like being a CP and in charge of everything, which would drive me crazy?" 

"I think because there's an expectation that you're not going to get there, that you're not going to succeed and that just made me want to go back and do it, said Nunez. "It's that classic, you told me no. I say yes, I will. I remember in fact, when I first got to SportsCenter and it was all guys and it was the remote most seen from the northeastern region. They were very cliquey and I felt like such an outsider, it was crazy.

"I had worked in the West Bank. I've been shot at. I've had some pretty gnarly times as a producer. And so I remember coming back thinking -sports- fine, no problem. So I run into this crowd and they could have cared less what I had already done and they were very dismissive and I was their boss. So they were very dismissive initially.  I was really upset. There were times that I remember driving home at 4:00 In the morning at that time and I was so angry that I was crying in the car, but I remember thinking, you know what, I'm coming back tomorrow. And so I showed up the next day Is if nothing had happened. You just have the steel up and know that you have every right to be there just as much as anybody else. And I also knew it was really important for anybody coming behind me." 

"Natalie, you've had success in everything you've done, but It takes a lot of guts to start the winery and then a tech company. Why did you want to do that?" asked Smith.

"It was always a pipe dream of mine to start a winery and nothing I ever anticipated doing," said Coughlin. "But one day I was speaking to one of my friends who happened to be a winemaker and I was just so inspired by her journey. So she graduated from Florida State and she moved up to New York, met her husband and they moved out to California and she decided that's what she wanted. She was getting into wine and at the time I think she was about 25 or so and she didn't know anything about wine. So she ended up starting as a cellar rat ads. That's a term within the industry, basically, you do everything that no one wants to do.  And as she did that, she worked her way up. She went back and redid her undergrad at uc davis, then got her masters in viticulture and enology and became the resident frenologist at Flora Springs. She's just super, super talented. 

"Out of the blue last year, she asked if I wanted to be her business partner. She asked this over text and I texted her back probably within 60 seconds. She said, 'You can't take this back if you don't mean this, Natalie,' because she just wanted to start her own winery and needed a business partner. I'm someone who's very passionate and I'm someone who's tends, tends to say yes to a lot of opportunities, even if they're scary. I think that's really important thing. I've given so many opportunities in my life and I just jumped in head first and then figured it out as I go. And that could be very scary for a lot of people. That's really scary for myself, but I think because of my athletic successes and my successes beyond the pool, it's given me the confidence to believe in myself and know that I will figure it out and that I'm capable of doing this."

"Monica, how did playing basketball help you with your future and becoming what you wanted to be? asked Smith

"Well, I think it's time management. It's being coachable, taking direction," said Wiley. "It's leadership skills. If you're the captain of your team, you're trying to trying to find consensus from people. So I think all of the things that you're doing right now and all the things that I did when I was here, I think that will instruct you in whatever career that you're going to eventually get into it because all of those things that you're doing, they translate so well into industry."
Smith then asked if each of panelists employers understood the role that playing competitive sports had in shaping who they were as people.

Absolutely," said Simpson. "And I think everyone here should take advantage of that when they're building a resume. I still work for Delta on a limted basis and I interview the pilot applicants as they come in. It's always important to my selection team when we see where they've been leaders and, and in some cases, followers. They knew when I interviewed for that first pilot job, I wasn't just some whimpy girl but I had some meat behind me.

Next Smith asked Nunez what they were looking for in young journalists and applicants at ESPN.
"We actually look for the obvious things, like have you had an internship, sports related interest and so forth," said Nunez. "If you haven't though, and you've been an athlete or a leader of anything. that is highly attractive. And I'm also looking for someone who's just going for it. So I had a candidate recently. She actually was just waiting her turn and she had been trying to get an internship with ESPN.

"By the time I hired her, this was her third shot, so we talked about during her interview that she'd applied before and I didn't get it so she lived in Houston and she decided to go ahead and start her own Rockets related podcasts. So she gathered a couple of her other friends who were working in the same major and there they went and they interviewed all the players (for their show). And I've actually had a couple of other interns do that. Or they start a blog. People that are just thinking really big, very ambitious, lead very differently.

"I always tell people on their cover letters, don't just write, 'Hi, I'm so.' It's so important for a internship to be bold. Just go for it. Tell me something really interesting so that when I opened your letter, I'm going to stay and read the rest and everybody else just kind of falls by the wayside.

I think it's important in every profession to be proactive."
Smith then asked Coughlin how she got her start in swimming.

"I grew up in Vallejo and we had a pool in our backyard, so my parents were just really responsible parents and got me Into some lessons at eight months old. And then I ended up moving towns and the neighborhood that we moved into, it was all senior citizens and there were no kids. so my parents enrolled me on the local swim team so that I can meet kids my own age and in my new town.

"My parents, they always believed in the importance of time management. So even when I was in first grade, they were like, you're not going to do just just schoolwork. You're going to do schoolwork plus something else. And so it was immediately swimming. I joined the swim team when I was six years old and I just kept doing it. I tried a few other sports, like gymnastics and volleyball and I wasn't quite as coordinated on land as I was in the water. And so I stuck with it, but it was really my parents teaching me that I had to be able to balance academics as well as some, some other thing. And they were hoping it was a sport because I was quite chubby, They wanted me to be very active."

Asked if she expect to be as good a swimmer as she turned out to be, Coughlin replied: "To be honest, I was really confident as a kid, I was like crazy competitive from a very, very young age. And it was not justified, whatsoever. I was pretty chubby and uncoordinated, but it didn't matter. I just looked at the person to my left and my right and I wanted to beat them and I would figure out a way how to do that. And it wasn't until I was about 13 years old where the talent actually started to emerge from all that competitiveness and all the hard work. But I wasn't a God-given talent by any means, like I'm much smaller than most swimmers. and, and you know, I'm tall for a normal person, but I mean we have swimmers who are six inches taller than me." 

From a stature standpoint, Wiley was also on the short end of the spectrum playing basketball and had to overcome similar size obstacles as Coughlin at the collegiate level.

"I was always the shortest person on the team as a point guard in college," said Wiley. "I started playing at nine and I actually was really good right away. And you know, I've always said everyone should have one thing that we do that were really, really good at  and they don't have to work at it. And for me it was really basketball, I was faster than everyone and I could anticipate things. When I was in high school, I was really good in high school. Then I got to college and all of a sudden I was the shortest person on the team. So In college I was just more of a point guard distributing the ball. And so it was a very, very different role. So for a lot of people who were very, very competitive, everyone was great in high school and then you get to college, some of you might still be great, and some of you who might just be good. So when you transition from high school to college, you have to find where you fit on a team.  

Coughlin was asked what advice she'd give now to her 18-year old self.

"I turned 18 during welcome week," said Coughlin. "I was a very different person. I came to Cal very much broken. I tore my labrum in high school and I'd had all these expectations placed upon me when I was about 15, 16 years old. I was going to be the next greatest thing. And with USA Swimming, everything was going on track. Everything was going towards my first Olympic games in 2000. Then I tore my labrum. I'd had a horrible year of training, struggled through it on top of being 16 years old and having all these pressures. I also had a really unsympathetic, horrible, emotionally-abusive coach. So I came to Cal broken emotionally and physically. 

"What I learned from that injury and that experience was to always have a plan b. I knew that even though, yes I was injured -and honestly when I came here, I thought I wouldn't swim past freshman year. And then I went on to swim another 16 years, which is insane. But I came here knowing that this was going to be a great springboard for me academically  and in the professional world. 

"So look beyond your sports and always understand that it could be taken away tomorrow or it can be taken away 10 years from now or 15 years from now, but just always know that it will end. And so you have to have a plan in place and you have to make the most of every opportunity that you're given."

Coughlin was asked if it was a difficult decision to continue to swim after the Olympics and college versu moving on with her life and starting her career.

"It was a pretty easy decision for me," said Couglin. "My senior year coincided with my first Olympic games, so the 2004 Olympics were my first Olympics So as soon as my eligibility was up in March of 2004, all my focus was on those first Olympic games. So I started doing all these commercials. All these sponsors were lined up and I was juggling that. And then I was fortunately very successful at those Olympics so I had a lot of sponsors. It would've been silly for me to turn down all those opportunities and I wasn't ready to be done with swimming quite yet. I thought I would only swim till 2008 and then I thought I only going to 2012. Then I swam till 2016, so I just kept going, just because I still loved it so much. And I had such great sponsors that allowed me to pay the bills while I was still able to do what I loved. And I knew that I could always fall back on the Cal degree. 

It wasn't like I was just an athlete in my free time. I was still building my brand, educating myself how to be better at giving interviews or interacting with people, promoting myself. Things like that.  It might sound terrible, but that is something that you have to be good at. So you could build yourself on your own while you're still competing."

Smith wrapped things up by exhorting student athletes and those planning for their future careers that following traditional paths aren't as important as how you go about pursuing future opportunities.

"I've come to understand that it really doesn't matter what you get your degree in," said Smith. "You go after what it is that you want to do and you can get an internship or a job. 

"My daughter was an art major. I was about to shoot her, but she got a great job at the NFL Network and she's producing film. So don't give up on whatever it is you want to do. It doesn't matter what your degree is, just go for it."

 

Discussion from...

Cal Legend Natalie Coughlin and Other Groundbreaking Women Talk Career Success and More

MoragaBear
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Video from the first half of the event was just added to the story.

This was a really cool event. Even though it was geared towards female athletes, it was really inspiring for women of all ages and also applicable to young college grads or high school students of both genders worried that their major or potential major aren't marketable.

The challenges and glass ceilings broken by all of these women are all really inspiring stories and well worth your time to hear some of what they said in their stories they shared.

Really cool to get a chance to talk to one of my true Cal Athletics heroes in Natalie, too.
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