Caiti Donovan is the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of SheIS Sport. Their mission is to use the power of women’s sport to create a future of, by, and for strong women. The organization focuses on the positive attributes of sport to increase fan engagement with women’s sports, while acknowledging and celebrating those who are collective powerhouses and unwavering cheerleaders for women in sport at all levels. During our interview, Caiti talked about her varied interests, career changes, the challenges of being a nonprofit entrepreneur, and her precious furry friend, Ava. She emphasized the importance of knowing one’s true passion in life and having an emotional connection to the work you do. Years of self discovery, failing, and getting back up every time has led Caiti to finding the way she’ll make an impact on the world. 

Where did you grow up?

I’ve lived in 14 different cities, 4 continents, and 5 countries, so “home” is a loose construct. I was born in Northern California and my dad’s job in radio took us to Alaska for about 3 years. Then, it was on to Tennessee so that my mom could get her master’s. Once she finished, she got a job in Germany and I completed most of high school there. I moved to Southern California to finish my last semester of senior year, so I actually have two high school degrees. My parents also had family in both DC and New York, so we spent a lot of time in those two cities as well. 

That was my entire childhood and it gave me the travel bug for adulthood. I fully embraced the mentality of seeing different cultures and places. As an adult, I spent time in London for work, which involved overseeing business in 7 different countries. I also spent a year living and working all over Australia, a place I miss regularly. I’ve been living in New York for the last 4 years and I would say I feel at home here.

Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

I started at UC Riverside because growing up I was so sure I would be a lawyer and they had a great Poli Sci program. But freshman year, my roommate talked to me about public relations, and I realized that it incorporated all the aspects that got me interested in law: the persuasive conversations, working with people, creativity, writing, and PR doesn’t require an extra 3 years of school.

By the end of freshman year, I was starting to apply to transfer because there were no PR programs at UCR. I applied to only one school – the University of Southern California. To say I was thrilled to receive that admissions packet would be an understatement. I was putting together press kits and working with journalists and PR firms, really gaining a hands on experience.

But junior year (my first year at USC) was also really tough because I was working three different jobs to cover everything from tuition to housing. Having been on the Dean’s list through my first two years at UCR, USC gave me a partial academic scholarship to attend, but this still left a large amount that I had to cover through work study, regular work, and loans. During my senior year, I was recruited by an ad agency (ADVO) who saw my sales potential and told me I’d be great in the advertising world. I was initially hesitant because I was convinced I was purely a PR person, but I remembered by favorite professor telling us that though the PR world needs talented, creative minds, the vast majority of us would end up going into marketing and advertising because that’s where the industry is trending. I was sure I’d be one of those to stay in PR but went through the interview process anyway. 

Looking back now, transitioning into this world turned out to be one of the best decisions for my career. When I was hired, I was the first person they had brought on without a completed college degree. It was still a tough balance with work and school, but I was making a decent salary and was able to have a bit of a more typical college experience. My weekends were free, and I was able to have fun with friends and finally go to football games (a big deal at USC!). It was at this job that I realized I was really drawn to the ad world and the work of finding new and creative ways to have conversations with consumers. 

“The earlier you can start down that path and start honing in on what truly fires you up, the better.”

What was the most important thing you learned from your first job at ADVO?

ADVO (which was eventually acquired by Valassis) taught me so much. Valassis started the idea of digital couponing which was revolutionary at the time considering the lack of mobile technology. The job taught me a lot about taking an integrated approach to advertising and marketing, understanding consumers and their purchases through data, and the importance of e-commerce. I took that learning with me to every job I held. Two of the most important things I learned at this early stage in my career:

  1. The basis for working as a part of a team dynamic and what that really entailed: I had to work with multiple groups to get my job done and that was beneficial on another level. Our regional director, Melissa Chyba, was the woman who initially took a chance on me by hiring me while I was still in college. Having a woman in a leadership position was incredible, but I didn’t realize the impact it had on me at the time. I know now that I subconsciously emulated how she interacted with people, her leadership style, and how she communicated. I’m a huge proponent of “see it and be it” because of this experience. It was a wonderful first experience and set the stage for what I was able to do after that. 
  2. Professional attire doesn’t care if it’s hot out: We had a meeting in Vegas and the weather was so uncomfortably hot that I showed up in a short suit. We went through the meeting and afterwards Melissa graciously pulled me aside to tell me how I was dressed wasn’t acceptable in a professional setting. She approached an otherwise sexist conversation without making it sexist and turned it into a real teaching moment that I have been able to pass on as I advanced in my career.

Tell me about starting SheIS and where did your inspiration come from?

Credit goes to my co-founder for the inspiration behind SheIS. I met Brenda at the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2017. She was the Commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League at the time and I had just finished my time at Spotify. We started talking and discussing the #MeToo movement, which was really gaining traction at that time, amongst other women’s movements. She said that seeing people going to marches and talking about their experiences was great, but also forced them to relive their pain in order to talk about their strengths. For her, a lot of her strength had been derived from the sports world – the comradery and confidence sports offers brought positivity to her life. That really resonated with me as so much of my world has been influenced by what I learned from sports as well. 

Brenda invited me to be a part of the founding committee call that December to build a campaign to draw more attention to womens’ sports at the professional level. When we met again in January, I told her I thought that this had the legs to last longer than just a 6 month campaign and that I wanted to help turn it into a full organization. The story we need to tell about womens’ sports and athletes deserves to have a longer term strategy and become a business and Brenda agreed. It started with outreach to commissioners, athletes, and business leaders to gain support. Each time one of us would have a conversation, we got a resounding “Yes” from them to collaborate and take this step. By May, we had built a website, put up social channels, legal frameworks, and held a launch event at the WNBA headquarters in New York. The story that women’s sports leagues and leaders were coming together and putting out a statement that things need to be different was picked up by Forbes, the Washington Post, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and more. We had no level of expectation; we walked into this saying it’s the right thing to do so that’s why we’re going to do it. And it went insanely well. 

Three months later, we launched the Embrace All campaign with USTA which included Serena Williams, Andy Murray, Sloane Stephens, and pretty much every other big name in tennis that you can think of. It reached 43 million people, 11 million video views, and earned a silver distinction award at the Shorty Awards. We then did a campaign around the first all women event for the WWE in October 2018 that got 2.5 million video views. The SheIS Challenge was launched in January 2019 which was a massive coordination effort; the challenge was shared by every single member involved between January and July 7th, (the womens’ World Cup final) and tracked at nearly 140,000 engagements every week and 305 million impressions over the course of the campaign. We were told that the unique authors (people who created their own posts with the hashtag to promote the cause) were equivalent to campaigns run with the MLB or the US Open. 

We’ve had incredible success in our first two years, especially for a nonprofit. Thanks to our partnership with Adidas, we’re bringing 5,000 new fans to physically watch womens’ sports this year. Coordinating with leaders all across the leagues means we’re collecting data and hearing firsthand the issues we need to address. The number one issue across the board is “butts in seats and eyeballs on screens.” So that’s our focus right now – to engage and get fans to take action and show up for womens’ sports. The drop out rate for young girls is twice as much as young boys, only 5% of sponsorships go to women, and only 4% of media coverage is dedicated to womens’ sports.

What are your goals for SheIS for the next few years?

The mission is to remove the barriers to growing women’s sports by connecting with and mobilizing fans. The nonprofit has excelled so much faster and in so many different ways than anticipated so we’ve had to really look at what that entails but it boils down to using the power of our SheIS Collective to activate against three key areas:

  1. Drive fan attendance and viewership of women’s sports at all levels
  2. Connect through storytelling, inspiring fans to take action
  3. Centralize resources to help create the sustainable growth of women’s sports

Our ultimate vision is to use the power of sports to create a future of, by, and for strong women. Sports is a microcosm of society and intersects with so many aspects of our world. If we can change how women are seen in sports, we believe that will ultimately change how girls and women are treated in broader society. We believe the fans are the key to creating this change and we are building a community (our SheIS Nation) that is ready to stand together to make a difference in North America and eventually, around the world.  

What is a challenge you have faced or currently face and how did you overcome it? 

I chose the entrepreneurial life and so I’ve faced everything that comes with being a founder, a woman in business and in the startup culture. There are the practical challenges of healthcare, budgeting, and making sure you’re providing for your life when there aren’t always regular paychecks. It’s a very different lifestyle and lack of stability is a consistent challenge I face. Having anxiety does not mesh with the frequent changes and shifts that require constant adaptation. I’ve had to balance the mental health aspects of living this life and I owe so much of being able to overcome it to my incredible support network, namely my partner. His patience and support, even with something as simple as figuring out dinner because I might not have the energy or capacity to do so, is so important. My support network also extends to my family and friends; I have a small but very quality group of friends that I can call on for anything and I know they’ll be there. 

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs looking to enter the nonprofit industry and maybe found an organization like yourself?

It’s so cliche, but figure out what you’re passionate about and spend some dedicated time on that because it’s a process. The earlier you can start down that path and start honing in on what truly fires you up, the better. For myself, it’s been years of self discovery and failure. If you go the entrepreneurial route, especially nonprofit which is a constant hustle, you have to be prepared to fail and be told “no” constantly. But you still have to know how to get back up and ask the right people for help. 

Outside of your career, what are your hobbies and interests?

Sports is a huge passion of course. I played five different kinds as a kid: softball, swimming for a hot second, gymnastics, dance & cheerleading (the most consistent), and soccer. To-date, I’ve run 4 marathons. I thought I was out for the count after my 3rd marathon in London until I saw a personal hero in the flesh, award winning long-distance runner, Shalane Flanagan. I ran the Boston Marathon this year and though it was especially tough and painful (it’s a notoriously tough course!), it was very special to me. I ran for my husband’s nonprofit, You Can Play, an organization that advocates for more LGBTQ inclusion in sports. It was founded to honor my husband’s brother, whose coming out had a transformational effect on his hockey team, college, and family. As a bi woman working in sports, You Can Play’s mission really resonated with me, and I was honored to run for an organization that has had a serious impact in the sports world. 

I am also passionate about music (who isn’t?!)  and how it impacts society, a Spongebob fanatic (hello inner child), and a loving dog mom to Ava. She’s a 17 pound ball of light who was rescued by the Sato Project in Puerto Rico. She has so much personality, gives me side-eye, and when she curls up next to me, laying her head down on my shoulder, I know that nothing bad can happen at that moment. You can follow Ava’s adventures at @avasamazingadventures!

Is there a product you use often that makes you feel empowered, and why? 

I’ve been using a pair of earphones called Yurbuds for the past decade. They have a little silicon earpiece that goes over the headphone that fits directly into your ear and keeps them from falling out. They’re more than just the perfect earbuds – they give me the opportunity to have conversations with friends and family, conduct business, and get me through marathons. When I’m heading to an event or meeting and I have good music on, I feel confident and ready. These earphones have been a part of my life for a long time and are a tool for helping me to listen and connect to myself and others.. They are now discontinued (hearbreaking!) but no worries, I scooped up extra pairs for backup on Amazon so I figure I’m good for a least a few years until someone invents something else as good.

What does it mean for you to be powerful? 

I mostly associate my power to how self assured I feel. Getting to that place of feeling self confident in what it is I’m doing or how I’m doing it is a long process of learning, listening to different people, having different experiences, and failing and getting back up. I equate my own feeling of “I feel powerful in this moment or I have confidence” to finding self assurance through that process.