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Sport’s Direct Connection with Diversity in the Boardroom with Rowena Samarasinhe

Rowena Samarasinhe is a commercial lawyer, a sportswoman and a passionate advocate for diversity at all levels. She is Partner at law firm Level and created the commercial sports consultancy, GENSport.

Rowena specialises in negotiating and implementing international sponsorship or broadcast agreements which has led to working with some of the greatest athletes in the world at the top of their careers. She sits on a number of sporting boards, and until recently was a member of the National Sports Council of Sri Lanka and champions inclusive leadership and diversity.

At Blue Earth Summit, Rowena will explore the unexpected link between sport and the boardroom.

“At 17 I was an ambitious sprinter, yet splitting my time between school and my London club, I was always surprised and sad to see so many young people – often girls from minority backgrounds and many faster than me – drop out of the sport.

It was a real watershed moment for me. Here were other young women facing tough choices and feeling no alternative but to quit a sport they loved. I had been lucky enough to be able to combine my passion for running with my studies thanks to a scholarship to a top school, but back at home, girls my age were struggling with a variety of social reasons which compelled them to give up.

It really opened my eyes to my privilege and gave me an insight to the difficulties of accessibility to sport for so many. The talent among these women was off the scale – but it was all lost at such a young age.

Yet we know sport has a direct connection with diversity in the boardroom.

I find it fascinating that research by Ernst and Young showed as many as 94% of female C-suite executives played sports, many to a high level. Personally I think it makes complete sense. Sport teaches you a broad range of life skills, particularly those suited to the boardroom: leadership, teamwork, communication, resilience.

I know for a fact that pursuing sport gave me the edge I needed to battle daily discrimination – as a minority woman, over my perceived youth and inexperience and as the result of a multitude of unconscious biases. 

So I firmly believe that challenges in terms of accessibility to sport for minority and underrepresented groups translates to a lack of overall diversity in the boardroom. If we make sport more accessible to all, we’ll end up with a more holistic change in senior leadership roles. This also helps to change perceptions on that unconscious level too – the more we see minority groups playing and succeeding at sport, the more society will be accepting of them achieving professionally outside traditional roles. If there’s no representation at leadership level, it’s hard to achieve general acceptance of diversity in the workplace.

I’ve tried to use my unique background to influence my work – becoming an advocate for fairness and inclusion. 

I’m an Asian woman, raised in Britain – my parents left Sri Lanka before I was born. Today I live a hybrid European/Asian life which gives me perhaps a greater perspective across the board. When I talk about diversity, I don’t just mean diversity of race or gender, but a genuine diversity of mind – bringing people of all backgrounds and experiences to top level corporate roles. If we don’t do that, we are in danger of narrowing our vision as decision makers in business, but also of failing to represent minority groups of all kinds at boardroom level.

It’s interesting how Blue Earth Summit brings together such a melting pot of people and I suspect that’s part of its success. Just like in the boardroom, diversity is important for good decision making – otherwise there is always a danger of groupthink. 

A diverse board enables productive debate and a great example of the value of this is within climate- conscious decision making. After all, the environment is a global concern, so working in silos, even country by country, just doesn’t address the problem overall. We need more joined up thinking and the best way to do that is to create a more diverse set of backgrounds among policy makers – whether that’s governmental or corporate.

I’ve seen the “win at all costs” mentality change in sport – now it needs to fundamentally change in business if we’re to win the climate fight.

It’s true to say there has been a move away from sole focus on profit and the bottom line to a more climate conscious agenda for a while now in the corporate world – but ESG policies are only one part of the battle. I fear perhaps businesses are still too concerned with the idea that we need to look like we’re taking sustainability issues seriously, rather than wanting to fundamentally change.

Having said that, any small steps are still big steps in the right direction. Again, it’s all about changing perceptions and I think people are realising that minor changes over the last decade, such as cutting the use of plastic bags, or reducing waste have been influential and helped people realise we can all do our part.

There’s already a shift towards better corporate responsibility in the way big sporting events are run.

Environmental concerns are now embedded in the bidding process for major events. You’re even graded on your sustainability policy as a bidder, and that would never have happened in the past. Major events have seen big changes in transport provision too, with a move away from private cars to public transport for example.

But I’ll be honest – in my industry, it’s really hard to make impactful changes to mitigate climate change.  Sport is centred around large global events which require huge numbers of people – not to mention the athletes themselves – to move around the world.

Another aspect is that sustainability policies have a big impact on cost – and bidding cities are still accountable to taxpayers for the money spent on these large events, so there is also a conflict there.

It’s a challenge to make meaningful changes to legacy events, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Equally, it’s much easier to create future events around a much sturdier recognition of climate issues which is exactly what I’m doing from the start with new projects.

The bottom line is that concern for the planet is still a very middle class activity.

Climate change is an unarguable fact, and within sport we see evidence of it before our very eyes – threatening the foundations of our industry. Yet whilst focusing on the climate crisis is both necessary and laudable, for many, their worries are, by necessity, so much more short-term. Even in first world countries such as Britain there are increasing numbers of families concerned about how to afford to eat, let alone the millions living in poverty in developing countries.

The cost of living crisis is real, and it’s a fact that sustainable endeavours such as buying local, organic produce, low carbon energy, electric cars – all these things come with a higher price tag. So people who are struggling to get through the week just don’t have the luxury of worrying about the future of the planet too.

Blue Earth Summit’s strength is its diversity of thinking.

The theme of corporate responsibility is a really valuable one to raise in such a unique environment.  I think it’s really exciting to bring together those passionate about the outdoors, adventure and sport, with those immersed in the fight against climate change – and those representing business and innovation.  I’m interested to see these debates open up to new angles, challenging my own unconscious bias alongside others.”

Rowena will be speaking on Day 2 of the Summit – find her on the Forum stage on Thursday 12 October, discussing how sport is changing the boardroom, before she is joined by Chris Boardman for a keynote discussion on the transformative power of sports and the outdoors.


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