Deborah Cross Antoine

Chief Executive Officer, Women's Sports Foundation

How old is your organization? 45 years
What sector do you work in? Nonprofit
How long have you been working in this sector? 40 years
How long have you been with your current organization? Three

If you have worked with CRE in some capacity, what impact did it have?
I have worked with CRE on two occasions: the first with New York Junior Tennis and Learning, and the second time with the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). The purpose of both engagements was to undertake a rigorous strategic planning process at critical moments in each organization’s history.

Our more recent work with CRE in 2017 has shaped the future of WSF in ways I had never imagined when we first began. Many stakeholders participated, including advocates and donors who have been the soul of the organization since we were first founded by Billie Jean King 45 years ago — and others were relatively new to WSF, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives. Under CRE’s leadership, together we went through the serious, impassioned, and respectful work of getting to a consensus about who we are, who we serve, and how we envision our shared future: All Girls. All Women. All Sports.

Together, we dug deeper and laid out the strategies, goals, and objectives to be successful, and then put the plan fully into action in 2018. During this process, we doubled our team, our space, and our resources, and with confidence in our purpose, doubled our revenue from $3 million to $6 million. Truly, none of this would be possible without the landmark work of CRE.

How has the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion shaped your organization over the past 40 years (or since it was founded during this time until now)?
The Women’s Sports Foundation was founded at a time when we needed to fight at every level for access to sports for girls and women. Before Title IX, just one in 27 girls played high school sports (and I was not the one, as no one thought of me as an athlete, nor provided opportunities for me to play). Thankfully, there has been much progress and many improvements since WSF was first founded in 1974. Opportunities for women to play professionally have increased, purse equity for elite competition has improved, and opportunities for girls to play have increased exponentially.

However, inequities still persist, especially for girls of color in underserved communities. And the inequitable treatment of female athletes still persists from youth through elite level sports. Diversity, equity, and inclusion have always been central to our mission — and now, using our research and our advocacy, we are well-positioned to participate on a global scale as awareness of gender inequity gains momentum.

What was your breakthrough moment in becoming a leader?
My breakthrough moment, moving from “volunteer” to “professional,” occurred in the mid-eighties. I was a late starter in tennis, picking up a racket for the first time as my daughters were getting very good. Their pro suggested success might also be “in my genes,” and I learned the game, progressing quickly and soon playing on competitive teams. The Competition Director for USTA Eastern section commented in its newsletter that “it is very rare for an adult to have such a unique competitive profile.” And it was this accomplishment — through sport — that propelled my professional rise. A distinguished gentleman watched a match I played in a sectionals tournament, and when I came off the court victorious after a three-set grueling competition, Mr. John Patterson, founder and CEO of the South Bronx Economic Development Corporation (SOBRO), approached me and said, “I don’t know what else you know how to do, but I want someone like you working for me.” An interview followed, and Mr. Patterson realized that as a Doctor of Education at that point, I really did know a few other things. With that, I accepted my first salaried position as the Vice President of Education, which I led for the next eight years.

Another spike in my career came shortly after a pause in 2008. At the time, I was the Senior VP at Channel Thirteen, the nation’s flagship public television station, responsible for raising more than $40 million each year from individual donors. My father was dying, my mentor, Dr. Bill Baker, was retiring, and my daughter Jessica was pregnant with my first twin granddaughters.

Reading Billie Jean King’s book, Pressure is a Privilege, was exactly the right book for me at the right time. The lessons from her book literally became my mantra. While preparing to serve in tennis, I reminded myself each and every time, “Pressure is a privilege. I love this game, and I deserve to be here.” That year, I decided to do exactly what I needed to do — spending time with my father and welcoming my granddaughters to the world.

Soon after, the world opened up a new opportunity, and I accepted the role as President and CEO of New York Junior Tennis & Learning. And who would have known that there I would connect with my “shero,” Billie Jean King, in the creation of the $26.5 million Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning, and the naming of the Billie Jean King Clubhouse.

How do you hire? What do you want your work culture to be like?
I have a leadership style that most would describe as firm, fair, and friendly. I have always believed there needs to be an element of joy in the serious work of the nonprofit sector and I have consciously and deliberately added “fun” to the mix.

I really trust the people I hire. I value their ideas. I encourage new initiatives. I enlist everyone into a shared vision. I conduct a talented orchestra. I take the blame when things do not go as planned and give the team the glory for their accomplishments. My greatest joy has been to watch the successful blossoming careers of those I have had the privilege to mentor along the way.

Find out more
Women’s Sports Foundation Facebook 
Women’s Sports Foundation Twitter
Women’s Sports Foundation Instagram

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