Katie Sowers is a badass.
Not only was she a quarterback in the Women's Football Alliance (pro tackle football league), but she has competed for the U.S. in the IFAF Women's World Championship; served as general manager of the Kansas City Titans; and is the second woman in history to hold a full-time coaching position in the NFL.
She didn't start her career expecting to end up in the NFL. In fact, she'd never even considered a career in the NFL until something special happened in 2014.
That special event? The NBA hired its first woman coach ever.
When the San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon as their first full-time assistant coach, she wasn't just the first woman to be hired as a full-time coach in that league--she was the first woman to be hired as a coach in any of the four major professional sports leagues in North America (NBA; NFL; MLB; NHL).
And despite the fact that it was in a totally different sport, it was a breakthrough moment for Sowers.
"When I saw Becky Hammon hired for the NBA, I realized I could pursue a job in the NFL," said Sowers. "I even posted a picture on Instagram about it with the caption, 'NFL, I'm coming for you.'"
Come for it she did. It wasn't a certain path--it involved taking significant risks, like leaving a steady full-time position in Texas to take a minimally-paid internship with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016.
But the risk paid off. Within a year, Sowers was hired as a full-time coach.
Here are Sowers' three tips for succeeding in a male-dominated industry:
1. Be valuable--and find a way to make sure people know you're valuable
When Sowers was an intern for the Falcons, she knew she had to find a way to stand out. She was involved in one of the most complex offices (Kyle Shanahan's), and one thing she noticed right away was that there was no central place to look at the rules of the concepts they were working with for the plays.
So she started compiling an expanded playbook of all the concepts -- a resource guide. She wasn't just doing it for the players, she was doing it for herself. "I didn't want to keep grabbing people to take up time asking about the concepts, so I kept working on that expanded playbook."
It was her own way of learning the offense, but it also became a valuable guide for others. "Now I have guys asking for a copy all the time," she says.
When you're an outlier of any kind (in any profession), you feel the pressure to be valuable. One way to make this work for you is to look for the holes--what's missing? What's needed? Take initiative to fill that hole, and your value will prove itself without you even needing to say a word.
2. Stay authentic
When you're one of the only women in the room (or the only one), Sowers says, it's important to not act like more of a man, or less of a woman, to fit in. Instead, she says, "allow people to see who you are and allow them to be themselves with you."
She stresses this as the goal--to let others be themselves and to be fully yourself at the same time. "Don't come in with the assumption that they're going to judge you -- if that's all you're looking for, you're not going to see the other things."
For example, Sowers is an openly gay woman, and the language used in football often includes the use of the word "gay" in a negative way. "If I'd hear, 'That's so gay!' and immediately assume that's homophobic, it wouldn't work," she said.
"What I found was that just me being in the room changed things. And if I did keep hearing it, I'd make a joke--someone would say, 'That's gay,' and I'd say in a lighthearted way, 'Why, because it likes boys?'" It got people to realize how they were using the word without shaming them for doing so.
"You want people to still be able to be themselves," says Sowers. "If they're not, you won't be. We all need to do our part."
And in terms of the behavior of players towards Sowers, she has had only good experiences. "I can't think of a negative experience with players," she says.
They seem to feel the same way. According to receiver Marquise Goodwin, "Katie is a baller, 100 percent."
3. Continue to be visible to the younger generation
Becky Hammon changed Katie Sowers' life. Period. And Sowers herself is changing lives just by virtue of being who she is and where she is. But her point about this is nuanced:
"It's not just about little girls, but young boys too. It's valuable for them to see women leaders as they're growing up. The more visible you are, the better."
She links this value with owning your value. "Women often shrink when they're bragged about," says Sowers. Don't do that. "Be proud of what you've done, and when someone brags about you, acknowledge the credit you've been given. Don't push the credit away."
In fact, the idea here is to not only embrace the credit, but grasp that by doing so, you're helping the next generation. The more visible you are, the more you're showing both girls and boys that women can be leaders, too.
And everyone wins.