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As Chief Operating Officer of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Sauder grad Rachel Lewis knows a lot about having the odds stacked against her.

One of just a handful of female executives among a squad of men heading up Vancouver’s pro sports teams, she leads a franchise that only joined its league three years ago. And they’re playing soccer in a country that can’t take its eyes off the hockey rink.

Even with these odds, Lewis has played a leading role in making the Whitecaps operation thrive, selling out every game this season. And now when the Whitecaps take the field, white and blue soccer scarves flood Vancouver’s downtown streets. Not a hockey jersey in sight.

Lewis has been COO of the Whitecaps since 2007 and helped orchestrate the plays necessary to get her team into Major League Soccer – North America’s fast growing premier league.

Sitting in the top five in the Western Conference, the Whitecaps have hit their stride ahead of big-spending teams like the LA Galaxy. Lewis is hopeful, too, that more women will break through barriers of pro-sport management like she has, and join the male-dominated executives heading up the big teams. 

“It’s changing, but slowly,” she says. “And hopefully that change will pick up. Statistics show women in leadership positions help create balance, and more successful companies.”

World Cup craze boosting soccer’s profile

She thinks next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, hosted by Canada, will help bring more women into the picture. The impact will be felt close to home, as Vancouver is among six host cities, with the final game being played at the Whitecaps’ own BC Place stadium.

“A lot of people don’t realize just how massive that will be. And it should be huge for Canadian girls who will have these role models to look up to,” Lewis says, pointing out that the Canadian women’s team is already a major player on the world stage, unlike the oft-forgotten men’s national squad.

And hosting the event should further build excitement for soccer in hockey-mad Canada, given the fervour already gripping Canada over the FIFA World Cup men’s matches in Brazil.

“Vancouver’s such a multi-cultural city. Right now, people here are cheering on World Cup teams from all across the world,” says Lewis, adding that she’s cheering for Argentina and their star player, Lionel Messi. “For the Whitecaps, we want to get all those World Cup supporters involved with the local club. We’re right here where you live. Let us be your home team.”

Finding her way one connection at a time

Lewis, a UBC MBA grad from Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School, describes the pro sports industry in Vancouver as a community, or even a family, that takes care of those who are a part of it. But she notes it’s a small community, so it’s not easy to get into.

Her advice to those wishing to follow in her footsteps is to start out by volunteering. “You won’t see much posted on job boards in this business,” she says. “You have to be really passionate to find your way in. You’ve got to love it – it’s a lifestyle.”

Volunteering is how she got her start in the sports business, while she was working on her MBA. One of her classmates had a father who volunteered for the PGA Tour, the pinnacle of men’s golf. Lewis reached out to him, and he told her there was loads of work she could do right away – just not paid work. So she took him up on that, and worked her way up to paid positions, and even became the director of a major tournament less than a year out of her MBA.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” she says of her first foray into the business. “That network has taken care of me in my career for the 15 years since. Of course volunteering can be a huge challenge when you have bills to pay, but if you can find some time, it’s the way to tap into that network.”

She said making connections like that was the biggest thing she got out of her MBA. “Going in I knew I’d improve my business skills, but had no idea just how important that network of peers would be,” she says. “My classmates all had different experiences coming into the program – that’s been very valuable.”

After years of pushing hard, she now gets plenty of recognition: in 2011, she was named one of B.C.'s 100 Women of Influence by the Vancouver Sun, and she received a 40 Under 40 award from Business in Vancouver in 2008.

Cheering on both her teams

Now that Lewis has found her place within the Whitecaps’ management team, she’s dedicated to building her team’s sport in Vancouver. She says local soccer should get a big boost from the Whitecaps’ announcement this week to bring a new team to New Westminster, which will be both a reserve team for the Whitecaps, and play in the USL, a professional league beneath the MLS.

Her efforts have been paying off, as there will likely be another sold-out crowd at BC Place this Saturday to see the Whitecaps take on Chivas USA at home. But even Lewis admits it might not be the most important game to watch this weekend.

The World Cup final is on Sunday, and she’ll be cheering hard for Argentina, the team she’s been supporting since childhood. “Messi’s the most brilliant player in the world,” she says emphatically. “I want to see him win.”