Former U.S. women’s national team soccer coach Jill Ellis proved Friday in Atlanta that if nothing else, her record-setting career has given her a knack for straight talk and an arsenal of inspirational lessons that transition well from sport to life.
But one quote in particular may best illustrate the reason she was recruited for a fireside chat at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta’s fifth annual International Women’s Day breakfast.
“Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you might get run over.”
“Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you might get run over,” she said at the event kicking off the council’s #LeadHERship series for 2020.
The notion was impactful enough that Georgia Public Broadcasting anchor and journalist Rickey Bevington, the moderator, repeated it so she and the audience could commit it to memory.
For Ms. Ellis, who led the U.S. team to two straight World Cup wins in 2015 and 2019, it was meant to convey that excellence is a continual pursuit, and that was proven when her team was dealt a surprising defeat at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“You climb a mountain and you get back down. It’s rented space up there,” she said during an hourlong discussion that won a number of spontaneous outbursts of applause.
But that lesson of consistent striving also applies females in society today, she told a ballroom packed with mostly women at the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead.
While they’re making progress on many fronts, women continue to fight for equity in areas like pay and representation on corporate boards of directors. Even in coaching, there is a marked gap: By one count, only 40 percent of top-performing female athletes can say that they’ve had a woman as a head coach.
Ms. Ellis, a self-described introvert who didn’t show it on stage, said that when she came to the U.S. from England as a teenager, it took her years to speak to strangers. Sports helped her make friends, but even years later after massive success, her bosses at U.S. Soccer still called her a “reluctant icon.”
But she’s learned from her players that with a platform comes the responsibility to stand for what you believe.
Indeed, they made her choose. Certain members sued U.S. Soccer in 2019 after it was revealed that despite bringing in more profit than the men’s team, the women on average were paid less. That put Ms. Ellis in the precarious position between her employer and her players, who ultimately won her over.
“Any time a female is advancing for herself, I’m in for that, because there are not enough times when we have the courage to advocate for ourselves,” she said, noting that the soccer case is an illustration that women can’t afford to “take a back seat.”
“There is a tide change that is coming, and we have to have the commitment to continue at every opportunity to advocate,” she said. “If my daughter was doing the same job, with the same experience with the same amount of pressure, she sure as hell better be paid the same.”
Women may be “socialized” to be wallflowers, but they must learn to assert their worth as men do, she said, noting a device a friend in business told her to use in salary negotiations: “You pick a number that doesn’t make you laugh out loud and you stick with it.”
She also said women should strive to break through diversity quotas; instead of settling for two designated seats on a board of 12 directors, they should compete for the other 10.
In a talk that was more a treatise on leadership in general than a narrow paean to female empowerment, Ms. Ellis highlighted how diversity not just in gender but in thought, race and nationality is a source of strength — both on the pitch and off.
Women, she said, should never cower when they find themselves as the female in the room but instead should focus on “making it slightly easier for the person that comes behind you.”
Asked for advice from members of the crowd, she said women especially should always celebrate hard-earned successes and never worry about being the smartest person in the room. And she wishes she’d learned this one at a younger age: “Care less about what people think of you.”
Her talk also focused heavily on resilience and recovery from failure, another allegory that applies equally to a missed goal and the fits and starts in the struggle for female equality. Setbacks are growth opportunities for those with the right mindset.
“People who are elite are always looking to grow and evolve. That’s how I define elite,” she said.
While the event was backed by Bank of America for the third year in a row, Ms. Ellis’s speech was sponsored by Novelis, the aluminum giant based in Atlanta.
Beatriz Landa, plant manager for Novelis in Greensboro, Ga., knows how important it is for girls to see a future for themselves in their role models. Playing on dirt fields growing up, Ms. Landa would have to fight through stigma to realize her dreams of playing professional soccer in Spain.
“We were not being ladylike. I probably heard at least once every day, ‘You belong in the kitchen,’” she said.
She’s now one of three women leading the 26 Novelis plants around the world, up from zero just a a year ago.
“We’re chipping away at getting our voices heard,” Ms. Landa said, welcoming the audience makeup since she usually speaks to men in the manufacturing world. “One of the ways I measure the success of our gender diversity progress is the wait to the women’s bathroom — I’m going to be very happily waiting in line today.”
As the event closed, Novelis presented a $5,000 check toward Ms. Ellis’s foundation focusing on helping women pay to test for their coaching licenses. The amount was nearly as much as the $6,000 Ms. Ellis got paid at her first coaching job, which would lead to an illustrious career at UCLA and beyond.
Coaches, Ms. Ellis has learned, are at their core “caretakers of dreams,” whether in soccer, parenting, teaching or any other profession. And they do their best to set the stage for those who will come later.
“Nothing would make me happier than to have a woman win three World Cups.”