This week for our Women’s Empowerment Month series, we had the opportunity to sit down with Rhea Wadia, Senior Manager, Sports & Entertainment at Rakuten. Rhea shares how her college journey at the University of California, Berkeley shaped her life; how she paved a career in sports marketing, marrying her love for sports and business; and her greatest hope and advice for future leaders.
Read the full story below:
Please share a little about yourself. Where are you from? How did education shape your life?
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and went to college at the University of California, Berkeley. At Cal, I found my independence and started to understand I had a voice that mattered, even if I didn’t necessarily know when and how to use it effectively. It was through the classes I took and the people I met on campus where I was exposed to so many different ways of thinking, opinions and cultural backgrounds. I made lifelong friends and mentors I still keep in touch with to this day who have challenged and supported me to pursue my aspirations in the sports marketing field.
How did you find your career path in sports and entertainment?
During my last semester finishing my undergraduate business degree at Cal, I took an elective called Sports Marketing on a whim because of my passion for sports. I soon realized it was possible to marry my love for sports and business together as a career, which was mind blowing to me. At the time, most of my peers were pursuing careers in investment banking or consulting so my decision to pursue a career in sports was not common or understood. I also come from a wonderful and protective South Asian family of doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs, so it was tough to get acceptance from them in the beginning of my journey because they were so worried if this would be the right fit for me and were not familiar with the industry. Despite this, I was relentless in pursuing sports marketing because I loved the field. Particularly, I was so intrigued by the different routes you could pursue to understand the inner workings of the business side of sports such as agency, property (governing body or team) and brand.
Looking back, I am very proud of myself for following my passion and choosing to not be swayed by the opinions of my peers and family. Even if it was difficult at the time, I wouldn’t trade the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I have had. My choice is what helped shape my personal and professional growth in ways that I never imagined. It’s led me to work with the most inspirational athletes and the world’s biggest sporting events on robust and impactful marketing programs that have helped change lives.
Please share your experiences in leadership in tech / global companies.
My experiences working with reputable global brands on different sports marketing programs and campaigns have given me a unique perspective and awarded me with opportunities that continue to propel my career forward.
Observing the competition of sports live can be inspirational, but it’s really through the experience of running marketing programs alongside athletes and sports properties. Sports has the ability to impact a community and uplift the next generation of future women leaders in industries where they are underrepresented. s I have understood the true power of sportsThis is a responsibility I take seriously and handle with care.
For example, currently I manage two very important partnerships for Rakuten with the NBA and Stephen Curry. I run point on programs such as the Underrated Tour, a national series of basketball camps created by Stephen Curry that gives overlooked male and female high school athletes the opportunity to learn skills and gain exposure in the hopes of playing basketball at the next level. I also oversee a program called Future Leaders, which is a mentoring program we co-developed with the Golden State Warriors that aims to empower female high school students from underserved communities. The program pairs these students with women from the sports and tech industries to learn about a variety of career paths and receive guidance on how to grow confidently as they look to the next phase of their lives.
How have you navigated a gender-related challenge in your career?
A few years ago, I attended a partnership marketing summit that brought together a talented group of brand marketers to discuss various topics in athlete marketing. During the summit, attendees were placed into teams for breakout sessions. I was the only woman on a team of all men and raised my hand to lead a presentation we were to give to the larger group. This was a decision my team unanimously agreed on. About 30 seconds into the presentation, one of my male group members cut me off mid-sentence and started taking over the presentation. I was incredibly upset and flustered, but restrained myself from visibly expressing these emotions. Instead, I took back control of the presentation during a moment where he paused and carried on with my speaking points the way I intended to from the beginning. After the presentation, a few of my teammates as well other attendees expressed how impressed they were with the way I handled the situation. This experience taught me two very important things: (1) step into the light when given an opportunity to use your voice; and (2) don’t back down when someone or a situation tries to intentionally or unintentionally suppress your voice. Your voice, especially as a woman in business, is your greatest power and I am learning every day how to use it more and effectively.
Who are women in leadership you look up to?
Ayesha Curry (entrepreneur, author and TV personality) and Shilpa Shah (co-founder of Cuyana) inspire me. I follow these two women on social media and have had the opportunity to meet one of them in person. They are strong, resilient, and smart women of color who are representing the Bay Area through the wonderful brands they are building. I learn something new from them every day based on how open and honest they are when they share their thoughts, lessons learned, and mistakes made on their public platforms. As a woman in business, they show me that you do not need to choose between your personal and professional aspirations. You can achieve them both simultaneously. It won’t always be easy and there will be sacrifices you will need to make along the way, but it will be rewarding.
Please share your experiences as a BIPOC woman in leadership.
Now more than ever I realize how important it is to see someone who looks like you in the leadership role you aspire to be in. Particularly in sports, there are very few female leaders of color, especially of South Asian descent. Early in my career, I didn’t see myself in a leadership role within the sports & entertainment industry because there wasn’t anyone who looked like me. I didn’t think it was possible.
It subconsciously weighed on me for years until I worked for a sports agency called Endeavor (formerly IMG) and was managing Visa’s global Olympics partnership portfolio. I distinctly remember meeting my client at Visa, Zaileen Janmohamed, for the first time and being in awe. Zaileen comes from a similar ethnic background as me and not only is she a smart and successful leader in her own right, but she commands immense respect from those around her, all while being very humble and gracious. On the first day I met her, she singled me out during a team meeting and asked me a question about one of our partnerships. She then went on to praise me for my response in front of my peers and senior leaders within my company. Little did I know back then that she was holding this unspoken space for me and continues to do that to this day.
As a BIPOC woman in leadership, it is not enough to just succeed on our own. We have to lift up those who look like us and come after us. We have to help show them the way, give them praise, and simply just give them space to have their voices heard. Representation truly does matter, which is why I always make it a point to take a call, respond to an email or reply to a LinkedIn message when a young woman, particularly a BIPOC, is looking to network. If I can’t help her find her next step or next opportunity, I put her in touch with someone from my network who can. Ultimately, it is up to her to decide how she charts her path and needs to be inspired to move forward, but it always helps when she has someone to show her it is possible.
What does SRA mean to you in terms of closing equity gaps?
To me, SRA represents a community of support and this means everything. Support can truly be the differentiator in motivating an individual to perform well in school or apply for a job. When I had the opportunity to interact with SRA leaders and youth at a Rakuten-hosted suite night during a Golden State Warriors game in 2019, I could feel the impact of this community in full effect. SRA is a family bonded by acts of seeking and offering guidance. The students, particularly the ones who would soon be graduating high school and moving on to college, were nervous about their next steps, but felt reassured knowing they had access to mentors and resources at SRA that would continue to be there for them. Potential is infinite when you have unconditional support.
What does leadership mean to you?
Building trusting relationships rooted in respect and shared values is at the heart of successful leadership, regardless of the form it takes. A great leader champions the valid opinions of those around him/her and creates the space for them to have a voice to communicate these opinions.
What is your greatest hope for women of the future / next generation?
I hope to see more women realize the power of their voices and the value of their worth at an earlier age. The most common phrase I hear from women today is, “I wish I had realized / done / said x, y, and z when I was younger.” It isn’t lost on me that everything happens at the time it is supposed to for each individual, but I think about the collective impact that can happen when that confidence is harnessed sooner. I have a lot of hope for the female youth at SRA. The way in which they speak with confidence and command a room when sharing their goals for the future is inspiring to me.
Any advice for future leaders?
Be brave and never miss an opportunity to surprise yourself. The best experiences I have had in my life thus far have not been meticulously planned, but rather, born out of making a conscious decision to step out of my comfort zone regardless if I fail or succeed. Growth comes from expanding your comfort zone and that is painfully beautiful in itself. Also, own your growth! It is so easy to give others credit for helping you achieve your personal or professional accomplishments, but you play the starring role in your life so always remember to lift yourself up as graciously as possible.