Big Ten Network VP Keynotes WSMI Meeting in Chicago

On Thursday Sept. 1, two dozen members of SVG’s Women’s Sports Media Initiative gathered in Chicago for an evening of networking and education. The first Midwest WSMI dinner was attended by women representing a range of sports teams, networks, media entities, and technology companies and was highlighted by a keynote speech by the Big Ten Network’s Elizabeth Conlisk. Currently VP of communications and university relations for BTN, Conlisk has worked in a number of fields in which women are scarce, so she had a great deal of wisdom to share about the challenges she has faced along her road to success.

“I’ve always worked in male-dominated fields — beer, politics, Enron — and let me tell you, politics makes sports look like child’s play,” Conlisk explained. “Enron also made everything else look much nicer. That was a locker room in a way that I haven’t experienced since, even in sports.”

Conlisk earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ohio State University, where she later spent six years developing communication strategies and writing speeches for the university president. Prior to Ohio State, however, she spent 11 years at Miller Brewing Co., held a marketing and communications position for Enron Gas Services Group, and ran a strategic-communications consultancy.

“I had good mentors through my whole career, and I really grew up at Miller,” Conlisk said. “I started there when I was 22 and left when I was 34. It was an amazing experience working with people who wanted to take me under their wing. I sat and asked questions and learned so much so quickly that I got my first vice president job in my early 30s.”

She often had to learn on the fly, as she did in handling the Maurice Clarett saga at Ohio State. Football star Clarett had troubled relations with the school and was eventually suspended.

“The whole situation was very difficult,” Conlisk said. “My advice is to tell all the news and tell it fast. I had made some great relationships, so an AP reporter actually called me on a Saturday afternoon to tell me that the New York Times story had hit the wire. He said that they wouldn’t do anything until they heard from me. Talk about days when you don’t take a shower!”

After adeptly handling that situation, she was ready to take on any challenge. The next one, she lined up for herself, in the form of a graduate degree. Conlisk left Columbus for a year to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School, where she earned a master’s degree in public administration.

“I entered the mid-career program at Harvard, which required that you were out of school for at least seven years,” she told the WSMI gathering. “It was a ton of work but also a life-changing experience. Even though I still have student loans, my master’s degree is paid for in experience.”

In March 2007, Conlisk took that graduate expertise to her next challenge, a brand-new network based in Chicago. As one of the Big Ten Network’s first 10 employees and having no background in television, she certainly had a steep learning curve ahead of her.

“I always know what I don’t know,” she said. “Throughout my career, I had worked in PR, beer, and politics, but I didn’t know TV when I got to the Big Ten Network. I try to ask a lot of questions, and I like to be in meetings so I can formulate things in my own mind. I had gone to journalism school so I don’t have a fear of authority. I challenge people in a respectful way; I have to let people know what I need.

“The Big Ten Network has been a phenomenal experience, though I would not like to repeat that first year,” she added with a laugh.

At the WSMI dinner, in addition to answering questions from the audience about her career choices, Conlisk offered several additional pieces of advice to the diverse group of women.

“Most important to your success will be to get things done through other people and getting people to buy in,” she suggested. “Also networking: every job I have ever had, I knew somebody who knew somebody. They don’t get you the job, but they get you in the door.”

For more information on SVG’s Women’s Sports Media Initiative or to find out about upcoming events, contact Director Carolyn Braff at [email protected].

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