Tennis legend Billie Jean King once famously recalled that at 12 years old she was excluded from a group photo because she wasn’t wearing a skirt.
It was 1955 at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Afterward, King “knew she wanted to change the sport.” She went on to do just that, winning 39 grand slam tennis titles and becoming one of the sport’s most acclaimed players.
Though King has been inducted to several tennis Halls of Fame, including the International Tennis Hall of Fame, equally impactful were her efforts off the court. She persistently denounced a pay gap between male and female athletes in the 1960s and 1970s, and her later activism promoted not only gender equality but also equal rights for minority and LGBTQ communities.
Now King’s principles of leadership and empowerment are emulated in a case study on her career for a class at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The B-school built the 11-page case with the help of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit founded by King and her partner llana Kloss in 2014. The case — one of 10 Darden is rolling out on issues related to women’s experience in sports — chronicles King’s early life and career and key moments of activism and accomplishments. It will officially roll out in classrooms next year in a new class focusing on women in leadership.
WHAT THEMES OF WOMEN IN SPORTS EXEMPLIFY
What can students learn about business from women’s sports? Darden Professor of Business Yael Grushka-Cockayne says there are many multi-faceted ideas MBAs can draw larger conclusions from about the world of business and beyond.
Each new case in the Darden series covers a different hot-button issue that even non-sports fans might know about from the news. Cases cover the Women’s Soccer League, the Women’s NBA, USA Gymnastics and Nike. The series includes topics on rules around uniforms, unequal pay and widespread abuse in the gymnastics community. Questions about the larger system and rules in place convey messages about other business sectors. Take, for example, a case focusing on the Norway women’s handball team who were once fined for not wearing a specific bikini.
“We try to dig into the question of where and why these rules get set and the messages behind that. And really does it have anything to do with the actual sport?” Grushka-Cockayne says.
Scrutiny of outfits might inspire Darden MBAs to think about the nuances of presentation, say, in the airline or restaurant industries. Focusing on the business of sports bring intersecting themes on more than gender but race, leadership, access, inclusion.
WHY & HOW THE SERIES WAS DEVELOPED
Darden alumnus Bill Shelton graduated in 1993 and went on to have a successful career in banking. He later started a company called Parity. Co-founded in 2020 alongside another former banker Minji Ro, Parity focuses on helping female athletes grow their brand through endorsements and sponsorships.
Shelton knew members of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative through his work and introduced them to the Darden faculty. Shelton’s connection and his experience with the B-school’s value of the case method led him the pitch the idea of a “multi-faceted” case series showcasing women in sports. After a few calls, King’s foundation and the faculty developed goals and mutual interests.
The cases are a collaboration among Darden faculty Edward Freeman, Jeanne Liedtka, Allison Elias, Grushka-Cockayne, representatives of Parity and King and Kloss’ foundation. Much of the material was researched and written by Darden’s longtime case writer Jenny Mead. Grushka-Cockayne says the purpose is to shed light on pressing issues. She has long led an effort at the B-school in mentoring young women as they go through the program, capitalize on different opportunities and try ultimately, to express who they are.
“We know Darden is the place of choice, we are trying to make sure everybody else knows that,” she says. “The case method environment here at Darden is one that I believe strongly is great for women in terms of their training and preparation for the rest of their careers.”
The case study method, a widely popular style of teaching among B-schools, was implemented by the Harvard Business School over 100 years ago. The method begins in the classroom in analyzing a business narrative students are expected to have prepared for ahead of time. Discussion commences and students present viewpoints or debate issues to effectively build on each other’s ideas. Proponents of the method believe it teaches students about decision-making and presentation skills. Cases at Darden are typically 10 pages tops, because sometimes students must prepare 2-3 per class. Cases usually provide background and enough information about a certain industry. Lessons at hand may dive into one specific issue or – if at all possible – hone in on a single decision.
“We walk in, have a conversation, and dig deeper and deeper and deeper to the insights and learning and identify thoughts and real actions managers should be taking,” Grushka-Cockayne says.
LEARNING FROM BILLIE JEAN KING’S EXAMPLE
Materials in the series are less about specific names and less about administrative mishandling, and more to the point of illustrating insights to inspire MBAs. King’s story emphasizes her unwillingness to let sexism define her game professionally or trump the things she believes personally. But her activism has continued long after she retired from tennis, pressing on through her foundation (and King is very active on Twitter). Grushka-Cockayne says Darden wants students to think about King’s work and ask a question such as, how do we know it’s ever enough?
“Say you’re a business leader,” she says. “How do you continue to investigate this question by asking yourself do we ever stop?”
Not just one but several themes could resonate with students about King’s case. The path and purpose a discussion takes is never really known until a class begin sharing their thoughts.
There could have been moments where King’s actions were automatic, Grushka-Cockayne says. King knew in some moments she had to act, like in 1955. Grushka-Cockayne adds there are likely other moments King was deliberate and strategic on her part to keep her legacy going and use her name to inspire others.
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