Melissa Parnagian (NHL), Fatou Bah (BGHC), Kim Davis (NHL), Corinne Douglas (BGHC), Erica Ayala (BGHC) at the NY Islanders Women + Sports Panel, March 3, 2020

Written By Guest Contributor, Erica Ayala 

On Tuesday, March 3 the New York Islanders invited the Black Girl Hockey Club to partake in their first Women in Sports panel and networking event at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than hearing from BGHC supporters and panelists Jessica Berman and Kim Davis. I first met Berman when the National Hockey League invited BGHC to visit the NHL Headquarters last February. She brought Davis to the NHL as a consultant in 2017, then worked alongside her when Davis was named executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Berman has since moved on to work as the deputy commissioner of the National Lacrosse League.

Four other women sports executives joined Berman and Davis on a powerful panel: Susan Cohig, the National Hockey League’s Executive Vice President for Club Business Affairs, Deanne Pownall, Managing Director of Partnership Marketing for the United States Tennis Association, Claudine Lilien, Senior Vice President of Client Solutions for Fox Sports, and Tara Gutkowski Schwartz, the National Basketball Association’s Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility. 

Lea del Rosario, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for the Islanders, began the panel by reminding us there are only 33 women (6.6%) CEO’s among the Fortune 500 companies. 

It is widely accepted that business often follows a “go with who you know” practice when developing a shortlist of candidates for open positions. Despite making up half the workforce, companies seldom seem to offer women for executive jobs. Is this because they don’t know any women? Is this because they don’t know the skill set or professional aspirations of the women they do know? Is it because companies assume women are not interested in working in sports?

Likely it’s a mix of all of these things. 

Therefore, having the opportunity to hear from a panel of amazing women and discuss their career paths was a great experience for me. I ended up sitting next to a woman who works at the Canadian Consulate in New York. We spoke about our backgrounds, our familiarity with hockey, and our impressions of the panel. We hope to keep in touch about opportunities to collaborate. 

Networking is essential for all professionals, but especially women in traditionally male-dominated spaces. It is not only a good practice for those seeking new or expanding roles, but also for those looking to take their company to the next level. 

Differing perspectives in a boardroom are good. Progress is slow if leadership cannot or will not occasionally challenge the status quo. 

We live in a time where people freely throw out phrases like ‘diversity & inclusion’ or ‘collaboration’. Sports teams over time have seen value to their bottom line by hosting Pride Nights or other cultural-themed events. Devils fans can celebrate the first night of Hanukkah with their favorite sports team. Teams like the San Francisco Giants (or Los Gigantes) embrace the history and culture of Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The Pittsburgh Penguins recently held a Black Hockey History Weekend. 

All of these examples are relatively new to sports and likely came from the commitment of the front office to think outside of their own identity. Last week, Kim Davis underscored the importance of looking outside of sports for best practices. 

“I don’t think that our best in models around diversity and inclusion are necessarily going to come from the sports industry. I think it’s important for every industry to look outside of itself  for those best in class models.” said Davis.

For this reason, she encouraged women in business to bring their authentic self to the job. Whether it is through dress style, problem-solving tools, or the various languages and cultures that define us. 

“Demographics have shifted significantly in our sport and in the business and we have to tie that to the growth of our sport in a very intentional way,” Davis added. 

Thus, having a room full of women working in, passionate about, or curious to learn more about sports was a fantastic opportunity. By billing the evening as both a panel and a networking event, the New York Islanders shifted the purpose of the event in a subtle, but intentional and effective way. 

Women were provided with time, space, and resources (by way of the panel and invitees) to build their network. In this way, the event falls in line with the hopes of the Black Girl Hockey Club. Women congregating in sports spaces is empowering. It is transformational from a social aspect, but also has the ability to dissolve the systemic economic barriers that exist in society. 

Since her first hockey meet-up in Washington, Renee Hess was invited to speak to NHL teams about intentional and effective diversity and inclusion efforts. Hess consolidated her speaking points into an infographic. She recently told me she designed the resource in order of importance. The first of her six points: Hire Black Women. 

The same month Hess presented to the NHL, the LA Kings hosted Black Girl Hockey Club. Professional hockey player Blake Bolden joined the group that November and had the chance to meet Kings President Luc Robitaille. During the conversation, Robitaille asked Bolden if she’d ever considered scouting. 

“He just asked me about my interests and if I had ever thought of scouting,” Bolden told “He made the spark in my brain and we just continued on with the conversation.”

This season, Bolden became the first Black woman to work as a professional scout. There is no way of knowing if the New York Islanders invited the next sports business pioneer to their first Women in Sports event. 

What we do know is, when given an opportunity, women can make the most of it!

Erica L. Ayala is a freelance sports writer and non-profit consultant in New York City. She is rather new to hockey, especially the NHL. Her favorite hockey team is the Metropolitan Riveters of the NWHL. Erica excels at leading discussions about race, women and hockey and has moderated panels for BGHC in Nashville and Pittsburgh. Visit her website at:

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