Maria Taylor is one of the faces of College Gameday. She is also a former volleyball and women's basketball player at the University of Georgia who covers college sports for ESPN as an analyst, host and reporter. Maria is the first black woman to be a part of the College Gameday cast in its 30 year history. She understands that the title of "first" is long overdue, but it also signals that change is a must. Every week during this year's College Gameday schedule, Maria either spoke to a group of students sharing her story and motivating them, or allowed an aspiring journalist to shadow her on the Gameday set and sidelines. This is her passion. She wants to provide opportunities for students to gain exposure and experience, especially women who are interested in broadcasting. She uses her platform to develop the next generation of women and minority leaders in sports business with a nonprofit, The Winning Edge Leadership Academy.
During College Football bowl week 2014, Maria had a conversation with Corinne Milien, who was working at ESPN as an events manager and teaching sport management classes as an adjunct professor at Johnson C Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte. they talked about the lack of minorities and women in their respective fields of sports business, and discussed the gap of experience many of them faced as these students started their journey into the sports industry. They wanted to do something about it. Maria and Corinne discussed how mentors and an influential network helped them, and wanted to pay it forward.
In August 2015, Maria and Corinne launched their first class of game changers, providing 11 college students with industry professionals as mentors. Together, with a network of influence, these mentors served as a community that guided women and minority students, providing insight and a variety of opportunities to gain experience. Their mission was simple, change the landscape of the sports industry to reflect the diversity on the playing field.
Vanessa Taylor, a senior at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte and a women's basketball player, was part of the first class of Winning Edge game changers, and one of The Winning Edge's success stories. She came in with one goal — to work an X Games, because she wanted to be an event coordinator in sports. As her mentor, Corinne made a few calls and sent a few emails connecting her with the right people. The Winning Edge covered all her travel expenses to work the 2016 winter X Games in Aspen. She left such an impression that she was asked to return to work the 2016 (Austin) and 2017 (Minneapolis) summer games.
Vanessa was also connected with Brooks Downing with bd Global Sports. The Winning Edge offered to pay her travel expenses so she could gain experience working a basketball tournament, but Brooks countered by paying for travel expenses and paying three game changers to work three of his tournaments, with Vanessa working a tournament in Las Vegas. Vanessa, again making another great impression, was asked to work that same tournament the last three years, and was asked to oversee volunteers for a month in the Bahamas for two of bd Global's golf tournaments. Last month Vanessa was offered a full-time position with bd Global as their volunteer coordinator.
All of this success for Vanessa came because her mentor tapped her network to connect her with the right people. Vanessa is an example of how an influential network can work together to close the gap of experience for women and minorities who want to work in sports.
In 2018, Maria and Corinne will take their mission to the next level by hosting the first ever Game Changing retreat in South Florida for 12 student-athletes, featuring five industry professional who will serve as mentors. This four-day, intense professional and personal development experience will prepare these student-athletes for careers in sports business. The retreat will include mentor led conversations, small group discussions, enrichment trips and Jefferson Style dinners with local invited guests who work in sports. Confirmed mentors are Will Baggett, operations coordinator for the College Football Playoffs, Dr. Julie Shaw, Director of Education for the Women's Sports Foundation and Maria. As Maria grows in fame, she wants to continue breaking down barriers for underrepresented groups.
You can read more about The Winning Edge Leadership Academy by visiting www.winningedgeleadership.org.