Zola was born into a segregated South Africa, where poverty and inequality were just a few of the challenges she saw every day. But she was lucky to attend a school where her teachers encouraged her to pursue her passion playing sports. She still knows all too well about the lack of opportunities for young girls in her country--and around the world. “Sports kept me from the temptations that so many other girls my age were facing like drugs, alcohol abuse, and teenage pregnancy,” she says.
Now, Zola is paying, and playing, it forward. Today Zola works with disadvantaged children in the Sports and Recreation Development Department of the Durban Municipality, where she has made it her life mission to increase female sports participation in South Africa. And this week, she will travel to the United States to expand upon her mission.
Zola is one of 16 women leaders in sports who are participating in the 2013 U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. She joins participants from Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Poland, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkmenistan, and Uganda. Each will be paired with female American executives from across the sports industry for a three-week mentorship.
This mentoring program engages business, media, and non-profit executives in the sports industry who are committed to strengthening the global network of women working in sports and underscoring the fact that women can be leaders in the industry. So why does the United States have this mentoring program? And why are we promoting sports opportunities for women and girls around the world?
When Zola was less than 18 years old her former president, Nelson Mandela, said, “Sport has the power to change the world…It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” This is something I have seen for myself in local parks at home, and those around the world. Sports instill confidence, teamwork, and build leadership skills--all values that can serve as a gateway to success on and off the playing field. Zola explains that because of sports, “children can learn to be responsible, to be healthy, to be active, to be disciplined, and to improve their concentration and academic performance.” And when women and girls are able to fully participate in and contribute to society, they help create stronger and more stable communities.
During the program, the emerging leaders will work on strategic action plans to create additional sports opportunities for underserved women and girls in their home communities. Last year’s group of women is implementing their action plans with great results. While their time in the United States may only be a few weeks, the program’s participants ensure its impacts will continue. For example, alumnae have created a sports mentoring network to reach more girls interested in sports throughout Macedonia, developed a service-based education curriculum and sports programs for Muslim women and children in the Philippines, and introduced legislation similar to Title IX to President Rousseff in Brazil.
Individually, these women are making incredible strides in their communities. Collectively, this new global network creates stronger, more inclusive societies--on and off the field.