Women to Watch 2006
Tops this year is Comcast SportsNet’s Stephanie Smith, who has found extraordinary success in a jock’s—and wannabe jock’s—industry.
Sarah Schmalbach and Dawn E. Warden
When the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Sports Marketing Network hosted a panel to discuss the changing face of sports media last spring, they invited some of the city’s most knowledgeable sports minds to partake: Jim Jenks, sports editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer; Marc Rayfield, vice president and general manager at WIP; Adam Shaw, a senior vice-president at the NFL Network; and Don Tollefson, sports anchor on FOX 29’s Ten O’Clock News.
It says something that the sole woman on the panel was Radnor’s Stephanie Smith, senior vice president and general manager of Comcast SportsNet.
“She was excellent,” says Mary Meder, moderator of the panel and president of Harmelin Media in Bala Cynwyd. “She held her own among the men. She knows the sports industry as well as anyone in the country.”
An executive career in the male-dominated sports industry has made Smith accustomed to being one of a few women at most events. But, for her, it’s business as usual.
“I’m a woman. I can’t change,” says Smith. “And I’m not going away.”
Sitting in her plush corner office in the Wachovia Center, Smith laughs as she recalls people’s reactions when she tells them where she works. “I’m usually asked what show I do,” she says. “And I’m not even blond.”
With her stylish looks and meticulous dress, it’s not surprising that people mistake Smith for on-air talent. Couple that with a warm personality that draws you in and hardly implies that you’re talking to a woman in a position of power, and it’s hard not to be envious of Smith’s lot in life.
And while being behind the scenes may not appear as sexy as being on TV, Smith’s has to be one of the coolest jobs in Philadelphia. She oversees every department and every decision that’s made involving the multimillion-dollar Comcast SportsNet, Philadelphia’s first and only regional sports cable network.
“People think that all you do is go to games,” she says. “And the job is fun, but it’s also a huge business. I created the brand, and it’s my responsibility to keep growing it.”
It was her passion for creating a brand that inspired Smith to come on board at Comcast SportsNet back in 1997. Over lunch with her mentor, Jack Williams—who she’d met years prior as an intern at Time Warner in New York—she was presented with the opportunity. Williams, who launched the Philadelphia-based PRISM cable channel and served as president and CEO of Spectacor, told Smith he was interested in bringing her in as director of marketing and business development for the yet-to-be-named 24-hour, regional sports cable network, with its 13 hours a day of original programming.
It was a risky and ambitious proposition, to say the least. And presented to anyone else, the opportunity might have been a tough sell—a top position at a network that wasn’t officially established and didn’t have a name, programming, talent or even offices, for that matter. But Smith took the leap of faith and left a position at Philadelphia magazine, where she was director of marketing and business development.
“I would do anything for a start-up,” Smith confesses. “I’m a very strong branding person.”
A mere 90 days after Smith’s start date, Comcast SportsNet debuted. Nine years later, the brand is a household word throughout the region—something Smith’s considers to be her greatest accomplishment so far.
“People know who we are and what we do,” says Smith. “If you say to people that we’re only 9 years old, they’ll argue with you and say it’s been longer than that. There’s not a better compliment.”
Simply put, Smith wanted Comcast SportsNet to be as recognizable locally as the McDonald’s golden arches are the world over. Thanks to her strong marketing campaigns in the early days of the network, SportsNet is now consistently among the most viewed cable channels in the Delaware Valley, with an audience of three million cable households. Over the years, the network has received more than 50 regional Emmy Awards.
Lara Price, senior vice president of business operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, is bowled over by Smith’s unbelievable work ethic.
“It’s great working with Stephanie. She’s smart, she understands the business and understands what all of us are trying to accomplish,” says Price. “Comcast is a really phenomenal place to work because recognition is based on job performance. The company offers opportunities to people who want to take chances, work hard and go after goals. Stephanie did just that.”
So far, the SportsNet brand has made it to four other markets: Baltimore/Washington, D.C.; Chicago; New York; and Sacramento.
“Philadelphia was the guinea pig for the model of SportsNet,” says Smith. “We were a great paradigm, and it’s a success. All the markets that have spawned since our inception are also successful.”
As CEO, Williams now oversees all SportsNet markets—and there’s no one else he’d rather have at the helm of his flagship market. “Stephanie is a fierce competitor,” he says. “She did an outstanding job with the launch and brand, and continues to do an outstanding job.
It makes me very proud—what Stephanie has accomplished.”
Another quality of Smith’s that Williams admires—and one he knows has served her well in her successful career—is her willingness to express her beliefs. Whether it’s simply stating her opinion in a meeting or sharing a conviction by which she lives her life, Smith stays true to herself and those she leads.
And Smith will never waver from the belief that women can have it all. She remembers attending a communications luncheon back in the early 1980s when the keynote speaker, Barbara Walters, said that women could have it all—just not at the same time. Smith refutes that statement. She thinks women sabotage themselves by being too critical and having expectations that are unrealistic.
“It’s all about balancing. You know you’re not going to have the Martha Stewart dinner on the table after working a nine- or 10-hour day,” says Smith. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t sit down as a family to eat.”
Which leads to Smith’s motto, “It’s all homemade, just not at my house.”
“I probably have spent more money at Carlino’s and FoodSource than I have on my mortgage over the years,” she says.
The mother of a college-age daughter, Smith realized early on that it wouldn’t be possible for her to be at every game or every school event. So she came up with an impressive compromise.
“I would sit down with her with a calendar at the beginning of the school year and ask her to tell me the top six events she wanted me to be at during the year,” she says. “I’d mark my calendar, and my daughter never doubted that I would be there for those events.” Smith encourages her entire team at SportsNet to put family first. “Everyone has a personal life,” she says. “If there’s someplace they need to be, they should be there. [But] no one ever takes advantage of this. It goes back to the importance of hiring the right people for the job and letting them do what they’re best at.”
At a time when CBS News anchor Katie Couric and Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi are breaking new ground for women, Smith prides herself on being the kind of boss who’s committed to teaching others, helping groom them for senior management positions.
“I’m a big believer in mentoring,” says Smith. “I keep giving people new challenges and projects constantly to grow their own development.”
Cynthia Weiss started with Smith nine years ago as a marketing assistant. She is now vice president of marketing for SportsNet.
“Cynthia had never been on a sales call before,” says Smith. “I started taking her on sales calls with me, letting her observe.”
Soon Weiss was taking over the sales presentations while Smith observed. “Now she’s an invaluable asset to sales,” says Smith. “Cynthia goes up to New York for big sales calls with Fortune 500 companies and is very confident doing it. All she needed was someone to take the time to foster that in her and to make her believe that she could do it.” At SportsNet, not all good work is restricted to the office. Smith encourages her team to volunteer for various community causes. “I’m very privileged in my life, and it’s so important to me to give back,” says Smith.
Among the worthy charities in which she’s involved is Philadelphia’s Ronald McDonald House, where Smith and members of her team spent an evening last spring preparing dinner for families staying there. She and others from SportsNet were also on the planning committee for the Coaches vs. Cancer Gala, which raised more than $300,000 this year for the American Cancer Society.
“I get as much pride in giving back as I do in seeing great ratings,” says Smith.
The members of Smith’s SportsNet team can recite by heart many of her mantras on success.
“Jack [Williams] gave me so much good advice throughout my career,” Smith says. She now dispenses that advice daily. One of her favorite sayings: “Be smart enough to know what you don’t know.” Because in a business like hers, it’s impossible to be an expert in everything. “When I’m put in certain situations that are beyond my comfort zone, I’m never afraid to ask questions,” she says.
Another popular Smith-ism: “People with power don’t have to show it”—which is an especially important lesson for women.
“The true people with power don’t have to come on that strong,” says Smith. “When you get to a certain level and you’re a minority of your sex in a meeting, the instinct is to come on strong because you want to be heard. It’s simply not necessary.”
Another one of Smiths’ golden nuggets of wisdom would seem to have little to do with the day-to-day rigors of working for a local TV ratings force. Or does it?
“Take up golf—and be good,” Smith says. “A lot of business is done on the golf course.”
More Women to Watch:
Shannon Casey and Elizabeth Sall
There must be something around here that cultivates a sophisticated sense of style—and 24-year-old Main Liners Shannon Casey and Elizabeth Sall are living proof. The pair is carving an impressive niche in New York City with the launch of their new fashion line, Dakota Martin, following in the footsteps of Main Line fashionista Tory Burch.
Dakota Martin—which combines Casey’s grandfather’s first name and Sall’s middle name—offers girlie, functional pieces aimed mostly at 20-somethings. It’s being sold in boutiques on both coasts, including Skirt in Bryn Mawr. Sall and Casey grew up with entrepreneurial parents and share a love of clothing. “We were always interested in fashion,” says Sall.
Both began their education at the Gladwyne Montessori School before moving to Burch’s alma mater, Agnes Irwin, where the two dreamt of co-owning a company. “We used to joke in high school about going into business together,” says Sall. “We can’t imagine working with anyone else.”
Following high school, Sall enrolled in Bates College in Maine and double-majored in studio art and English, while Casey attended the University of Denver in Colorado, graduating with a business degree. And though the two of them now live in Manhattan, they’re inspired by their Main Line roots. The combination of growing up in an affluent area and attending an all-girls school has been crucial in the pursuit of their dream. “You learn there is no difference in being a male or female,” Sall says.
Sall credits all those years spent in uniform at Agnes Irwin for showing her the importance of fashion as a vehicle for self-expression. “You view fashion as an art because you’re told to wear a kilt and collared shirt everyday,” she says.
Both have an appreciation of Ralph Lauren, for his classic, preppy designs, and Carolina Herrera, for her feminine, flirtatious creations. They share responsibilities at their small company: Sall does most of the drawing while Casey is the bookkeeper and main contact for the stores. “Less than a year feels so long because we’re working [on the line] everyday,” says Sall.
Buzz about Dakota Martin began through the pair’s college contacts nationwide, word of mouth and close friends wearing their designs. Then, in June of this year, the line caught the attention of shopping website SheFinds.com, which described it as “stylish and, above all, unique,” filled with “luxe fabrics, crisp shapes and rich colors.”
Sall and Casey have since changed their own site (dakotamartin.com) from a look-book to an online store. “There are tons of directions we could go,” says Sall. And given their enthusiasm and creativity, that direction will likely be up.
Tarah Epstein Baiman
Tarah Epstein Baiman lost both of her parents as a teenager growing up in Allentown. Now she’s committed to giving back. “I feel fortunate, like I have something to offer,” she says.
When Baiman was orphaned, therapy and outside resources were unheard of. She was an only child, so her close-knit family took her in—aunts, uncles, cousins. But they were also grieving.
“Everyone’s reaction was to keep things as normal as possible,” remembers Baiman.
“They thought, ‘If we don’t treat her differently, she won’t act differently.’”
Today, on top of chasing her toddler, Jesse, around her Gladwyne home, Baiman is busy launching a national support network for orphans—something she and her extended family never had. The programming for her new non-profit, the Orphan Society of America, emphasizes the importance of connection, self-empowerment and optimism.
The idea for OSA had been in Baiman’s head for years. It was the impact of many things—including the plight of children left parent-less by 9-11 and Katrina, and the birth of her own son—that finally set her plan in motion. She compiled a list of programs and services she wanted to provide, launched a website and started working toward her certificate in nonprofit executive administration from the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’m not ashamed to say, ‘I know a lot about this subject and I’m going to put my 2 cents in,’” Baiman says.
OSA is not an agency; it doesn’t place children in homes. Instead, the group focuses on positive psychology and concentrates on how the children are feeling. “For some, there seems to be a certain amount of shame that goes along with being orphaned,” she says. “It’s so important to de-stigmatize.”
Since June, Baiman has been reaching out for local support. This month, OSA is partnering with Buckner Orphan Care International to encourage Main Liners to donate to the “Shoes for Orphan Souls” drive. (Visit theorphansociety.org for more information.) On her current list of short-term goals is acquiring office space. “I have an eager group of volunteers who are happy to telecommute,” says Baiman. “But it’s important to have a physical space where these volunteers can meet and interact face-to-face.”
To unwind, Baiman trains for marathons, gardens and plays in the yard with her dog, Lacey. But her “true north” is Jesse.
“My son has given me the most unadulterated sense of joy,” she says. “Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I look at him and everything makes sense.”
Patricia Roberts and Nancy Blair
Sometimes the cards life deals us become the very things that drive us. For the past 15 years, Patricia Roberts and Nancy Blair have watched their daughters struggle to keep pace in academic settings that never fully matched their individual learning styles. While fortunate in their ability to access vital resources to enhance their daughters’ progress, both women felt thwarted by the lack of innovation and availability of alternative teaching methods.
“It’s really not fair,” says Roberts, who has a background in education. “There are so many proven techniques available to help kids learn, but it takes way too long to get into schools. I had to take an active role in getting services for my daughter. I had to attend the training and play tutor. Not everyone has the ability to be so involved.”
Fighting and, in a sense, beating the system has transformed Roberts and Blair into advocates for all children with learning disabilities. This past spring, they cut the ribbon at The Academy in Manayunk, a grade school and professional development center inspired by their refusal to set limits on their daughters’ academic achievements.
Modeled after The Lab School in Washington, D.C., the academy embodies a hands-on, “live it, learn it” philosophy, incorporating proven learning tools such as Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O, Read Naturally and Fast-Math with visual and performing arts and rigorous academics.
By teaming with curriculum-based academic clubs and integrated occupational, speech and psychological services, The Academy aims to give kids a greater chance of educational success and individual fulfillment. As a training facility, the school has a clear mission of seeking out and implementing the most up-to-date, innovative teaching methods for both private and public educators.
“Some kids with learning differences never make it to college—they don’t even see it as a possibility,” Blair points out. “We want to change that.”
An education at The Academy is not cheap—annual tuition is $25,500. But with so many schools paring back on special education programs, parents are desperate to provide their kids with a fighting chance. Currently, there are 30 students enrolled in grades 2-7, but the goal is to add a grade level each year.
Time will tell if The Academy holds the key for kids struggling in traditional settings. And both Roberts and Blair are well aware that there is no miracle school for kids with learning disabilities. Right now, though, they’re pretty confident that The Academy in Manayunk comes pretty close.