There is no one path to a career in sports and Jennifer Ridgeway, the Vice President of Social Responsibility for the Wolves and Lynx, is an example of how hard work, discipline and investment in your own development can lead to great things across many different disciplines.
Ridgeway spent the beginning of her career in the financial services industry after earning her undergraduate degree in Economics at UNC Chapel Hill and her MBA in finance from the University of St. Thomas and came to the Wolves and Lynx from The Sanneh Foundation, a nonprofit focused on holistic youth development. Ridgeway attributed her passion for using sport for social change to her tenure with The Sanneh Foundation and their founder, Tony Sanneh, a former professional soccer player.
Work with the Wolves and Lynx organization offers Ridgeway an opportunity to utilize the significant platform the teams have in the Twin Cities area to further the work of helping underserved communities. The ability of sports teams to reach people in many different ways is a very special thing and it’s strengthened by the abundance of expertise in the organization. Additionally, Ridgeway enjoys working with players on the respective teams in the organization—whether it be the Wolves, Lynx, Iowa Wolves or the newly-formed T-Wolves Gaming—to share their passions and engage them in meaningful ways of giving back.
“That’s what I love about this type of work—[the players] have a voice that has a presence and powerful force that’s instrumental in being a catalyst for change and impact,” said Ridgeway. “They have a very significant influence and voice, so being able to help them determine where they want to plant their flag in the community and how to amplify the work that we’re already doing.”
As a leader coming into the organization, Ridgeway recognizes the need for authentic evaluation—what is working? What is changing? How can the organization adapt to meet the needs of the community?
“My biggest challenge is pacing the integration of an infrastructure that’s inclusive of all of our teams,” said Ridgeway. “As we celebrate and continue to invest in our current programs that have extended now 30 seasons for the NBA and soon to be 20 years for the WNBA, I’m committed to developing additional partnerships and initiatives that are reflective of the ever-changing needs of our increasingly diverse community.”
Rising to such an important role in an organization like the Wolves and Lynx has not been without its fair share of challenges, and Ridgeway has had to find ways of keeping the many things that are important to her in conversation. A common topic of discussion in workplaces, especially when it comes to female leadership, is work/life balance. Different leaders have different approaches to making their work lives and their home lives fit together. Ridgeway prefers to think about her life as a whole, encompassing both her work and things outside of work rather than trying to keep those things differentiated and separate.
“I think it’s much easier to think of it in that way in terms of how you integrate your whole life together, versus it needs to be this 50/50 balance,” said Ridgeway. “It might be easier in the type of work I do because I’m so passionate whether I’m incorporating my family and friends in the work or sharing it with them, I’m not averse to integrating my personal life and my professional life in this space. I always see it not only as an opportunity, but I’m very passionate about this type of work so I want to share the spirit and the stories of our organization’s impact in the community.”
Ridgeway seems to have figured things out so well that she makes doing everything she does sound easy. However, she is not a stranger to the challenge of being both a primary caregiver and a leader in the workplace—when she earned her MBA, she had a newborn at home and another on the way, and she has continued to raise her children and also pursue a fulfilling career. Due to various life situations, there were times in Ridgeway’s career development that she worked part-time and took leaves, including her transition from financial services to the non-profit sector.
“I never feared the ‘motherhood penalty’ from a career standpoint because I always made it a priority to stay engaged professionally, it was just in different forms,” she said.
Over the years Ridgeway has learned the importance of asking for and receiving help and support. It’s not a weakness to not be able to do everything simultaneously. Being able to prioritize time and effort between many things that need attention is one of the most important skills a leader can have.
“A common thread that I’ve experienced in working with a lot of female leaders is they’re extremely committed and driven, and I would say I have that exact same wiring. I think at times we’re challenged by a sense of perfectionism and at times it can be difficult to professionally feel vulnerable when you’re asking for help or assistance or support,” she said. “Recognizing and accepting the fact that you can do it all, but you can’t do it all at once. You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once. Just really embracing, and it’s easy to say, it’s easy to use that narrative, but to actually live it authentically can be a challenge without seeing it as a weakness.”
Ridgeway is in an interesting position because though sports is a traditionally male-dominated industry, the non-profit sector is not, and even within the NBA, there are many powerful female leaders in the field of social responsibility.
“I definitely recognize the gender inequities in the sport industry in and of itself. What differentiates my position is that my experience in the non-profit space is that I was surrounded by female leaders and in this specific market there are a number of women executives,” she said. “In terms of my experience it’s been very favorable in terms of being surrounded by female leaders in this space.”
As a female leader, Ridgeway has a few key pieces of advice for other women growing into leadership roles in their respective fields. One of the biggest ones is to not shy away from owning the work they do and being proud of it.
“As women leaders we can do a better job of standing in our own success,” she said. “I think we do a great job of amplifying what one another are doing, but I see a lot of female executives not always feeling comfortable because they’re extremely humble and they want the spotlight to be on their work not necessarily on them and how instrumental they were in their work.”
Ridgeway also emphasized the importance of female leaders investing in themselves and in their educations. Female leaders are often expected to support those around them at the their own expense and Ridgeway highlighted how essential it is to find a way to prioritize yourself and your own development. She also advocated stepping outside of ones established comfort zone. Ridgeway talked about being asked to teach a class in the U of M sports management department as an adjunct professor—academia wasn’t a space she had much experience in before, and that title carried a weight of expectation. However, when she got to teaching the class, she realized she did belong, and because of her expertise in fundraising there was no reason she wasn’t qualified to teach the class. She ended up getting a lot out of the experience.
Additionally, Ridgeway underscored how female leaders need to learn to own their space and believe in their ideas and right to a seat at the table without apology.
“One area or piece of advice is not to apologize. I don’t mean apologize in terms of our work, but I mean making apologies in terms of our presence. If we need to interrupt and bop into someone’s office, in terms of apologizing, obviously as female leaders we’re there for a reason,” she said. “Even in responding to emails, I think a great example is apologizing, ‘I’m so sorry I haven’t gotten back to you.’ I think if we’re working 60-80 hours a week, we’re raising human beings, whatever form that is in terms of our family structure, are we apologizing? Because we’re confident that we’re prioritizing. I think being observant, I’m working with my team in terms of being observant and it’s something that I’m personally working on as well, even those indirect apologies, are they necessary? Because we’re here for a reason and we need to own our space and our voice.”
While Ridgeway gives important advice to young female leaders, it’s also extremely important that organizations do their part in examining what they can do to better support women at all levels.
“I think a big piece in equity whether we’re talking about equity at large or specific to gender equity is ensuring that the culture and the environment is supportive of identifying the blind spots in the organization. I think that’s an important first step for any organization,” said Ridgeway. “Ensuring that we’re stretching ourselves and challenging ourselves in terms of what does equity mean. We may be addressing gender equity specifically to attracting more female talent, but it’s also important to focus on equity specific to women of color.”
Ridgeway outlined three important areas in supporting the equitable development of women in the workplace: encouragement, recognition and elevation. She emphasized that elevation is more than just promotions—it’s elevating the ideas of women and supporting creative talent wherever it exists.
It takes a special kind of leader and thinker to head up one of the most flexible and broad departments in the Wolves and Lynx organization. Ridgeway lives by the values she espouses—as she takes her team forward into whatever comes next for Social Responsibility, she will do so with the confidence and introspection that got her to where she is today. Ridgeway understands the challenges and opportunities ahead of her and she’s leaning into them with everything she has. The Wolves and Lynx are lucky to have her.
For more information on women in sports who are making a huge impact for the Lynx and Timberwolves, visit our Celebrating Women in Sports site here.