For this month's In The Lead, we sat down with IWF member, WABN alumna, @UNICEFCanada ambassador, and current Head of Women's Football at @Concacaf @karinaleblanc.
You engaged with the IWF community initially, as part of the 2016 WABN Mentoring Program. Can you tell us why you applied to the program? How would you describe your experience?
As an athlete, one of the hardest things you do is transition into the unknown, leaving the sport that has defined you for all of the years. A conversation I had with IWF member and former Olympian, Donna de Varona, was the initial catalyst. She was speaking about the WABN Mentoring Program and I knew right away it would be a perfect fit for me. It was life-changing. My mentor, Gail Blanke, was unbelievable. Coupled with the program, the experience shifted my mindset and affected how I viewed myself and my possibilities. Having studied business in college, I knew I always wanted to use my degree for something; I just didn’t know how or when. The concept of a network of women empowering one another and the opportunity for me to be part of a team again…that’s what excited me.
A unique aspect of the program is the opportunity to be mentored by one of IWF’s incredible women leaders. Your mentor was Gail Blanke, CEO of Lifedesigns, LLC, and member of the Women’s Forum of New York. Can you tell us about your mentoring experience?
Gail is a phenomenal speaker. She’s done so many things, but one of the areas she really helped me with was with my public speaking. I’ve always wanted to connect my purpose with my passion—every day of my life. This may seem unrealistic but it’s who I am. Gail and I would talk and she would give me suggestions for my speaking engagements. After these speaking engagements, I would talk to her about how it went and Gail would give feedback while also sharing some of her best practices. She helped me grow and motivated me to go out and champion my authentic self.
You’ve often spoke about creating your life journey and how it has been centered on the question “what is your why?” How has this guided your career?
I think my “why” has guided my career because it is something I make a point of asking myself all the time. I want to impact people every day. Sometimes this means listening to people, sometimes it’s talking with them or speaking, and sometimes it’s just a gesture. Every day I’m looking for that. It’s so fulfilling when you’re able to be of service to others. I feel my “why” happens naturally because I’m here on this earth, I’m alive and I’m able to be of service to others through either sharing my authentic life journey or just being the best version of myself. I think when you start to identify who you are in this world and who you want to be and actually ask yourself the question “why”, things start to fall into place. When was the last time you asked yourself, “why am I here on this earth” and “what do I uniquely bring to this earth”? Once you start exploring these questions and start identifying the answers, you start living your life centered on your “why”.
Since 2013, you’ve been involved with UNICEF and are currently a UNICEF Ambassador. How has it played into your “why”?
During an Olympic dinner, before I retired, one of the women at my table was from UNICEF. We started talking and the conversation turned to the question: Are we living with purpose? I was just starting to explore this myself, asking “who am I without sport?” We entered into this amazing conversation about who I am and who I want to be, and it ended up evolving from there. People always ask me, “how do you become a UNICEF Ambassador?” I think you live your life impacting the people closest to you, the people right in front of you, and you will grow from there. I am privileged enough to travel around the world and personally witness truths that have rocked me, not a story on TV or something I heard. When you see 13 or 14-year-old girls holding their own babies because that’s all they know and you drop a football (soccer ball) in front of them and watch their eyes light up, it changes you. To see these girls do their first ever high-five and feel validation from a peer through the power of a game they’ve never played, that’s pretty incredible. I have so many remarkable stories I’ve been able to a part of and so much of it stems from the honor I had of kicking a ball for my country. UNICEF has become a turning point in my life: it’s what I’m most proud of, more proud of than winning an Olympic medal. I think it’s because UNICEF has enabled me to understand who I’m meant to be and what I’m meant to be doing.
You’re now Head of Women’s Football at CONACAF where you have the opportunity to impact thousands of lives in 41 countries, across North America, Central America, and the Caribbean Islands. What do you want to accomplish in this role?
I hope to accomplish one main goal: to change the lives of girls in 41 countries through the power of soccer. I think that I’m living proof soccer can change lives. It has even given me a platform to help others. I want to help develop and grow the game, increase participation and help more women in their journey in the game whether it is as players, coaches, referees, or on the administrative side. I want to influence the perception of the game. EY studies have shown 94% of women in C-Suite roles and higher have played sport. It begins with changing the perception that growing women’s soccer is not a cost but rather represents a huge opportunity for all.
The mission of IWF’s Leadership Foundation is to support and empower top performing women leaders. How do you plan to support our mission in the coming year?
I want to take the lessons I’ve learned from IWF to further my work. I have my own foundation, the “Karina LeBlanc Foundation” whose mission is to empower young girls to be the women they were put on earth to be and I want to keep doing that. It’s my goal to do this throughout my life. I’m fortunate that I’m able to work towards this goal in three ways: my position with CONCACAF, my motivational speaking engagements about living and working purposefully, and through my foundation. Whether I am speaking to a corporate crowd on unlocking your potential, or a stadium filled with screaming kids, this is where I feel as alive as I did as a player. It’s like it becomes “gametime” all over again. As I mentioned, I get to impact girls and the game in 41 countries but it’s also the people right in front of me every single day. I wish that everyone could recognize their unique strengths and what they bring to this world. When people, especially young girls and women, know their value, that’s when we can truly start to empower ourselves and others.
Karina LeBlanc recently spoke to the 2018 WABN Mentoring Program cohort about leadership and career pivots during the annual Deedee Corradini Leadership Roundtable