Comment: Marathons and powerlifting boosted my career

I love sport. Growing up in Sweden, I started playing sport from a young age, and grew to play football and ice hockey at a high level until my early thirties.
Sport has made me realise that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, says Ritari-Stewart. Picture: ContributedSport has made me realise that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, says Ritari-Stewart. Picture: Contributed
Sport has made me realise that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, says Ritari-Stewart. Picture: Contributed

I also love business. I joined a Swedish internet company straight out of university as their fifth employee. I held a handful of positions as the company grew to employ more than 500 people based across 12 countries, securing venture capital funding before completing an initial public offering. It was a fantastic journey and a crash course in business. It also brought me to the UK in 1999 to set up their British operations.

It was daunting to arrive alone in my early twenties in London to set up a business. I had a launch plan put together by a management consultancy business, so I felt confident knowing exactly what I needed to do. What I wasn’t prepared for was how hard it felt to negotiate partnerships and deals.

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For the first time in my life, I felt that my gender and age were working against me. I tried to look older and more serious. I even wore glasses and took lessons to get rid of my Swedish accent. I had to work a lot on my confidence, trying to find my leadership style. Sport has been my greatest teacher and the way I tackled sporting challenges helped to drive me forward. I wasn’t going to let anyone get the better of me and, in the end, I managed to set up the company successfully.

Fast forward 20 years and I’m still in the UK today as managing director of iProspect, the leading global digital performance agency. I’m also a board member of Dentsu Aegis Network Edinburgh and a non-executive director of FinTech Scotland.

Sport still plays a major role in my life. An injury stopped my football career but instead I took up running. I started with a 10km race, then marathons before completing an ultra-marathon – 55 miles from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

Once I had my two boys, now aged three and five, I needed a less time-consuming sport, so I took up powerlifting which is now my passion. I won “Best Female Lifter” in the Scottish Masters Championships for the third year in a row this May, have medaled for Scotland at the Commonwealth Championships and hold several Scottish records. It has made me realise that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, if you face your fears and do not give up in the face of adversity. How I approach performance in sport is how I approach driving business performance. By constantly reviewing how to drive incremental gain, it mounts up to fundamental change over time.

I believe that increasing gender equality in sport will also help drive gender equality throughout businesses and in boardrooms. This is why I recently joined the board of Scottish Women in Sport, whose mission is to increase gender equality in the sporting world. iProspect will be supporting the organisation as part of our commitment to corporate social responsibility.

We need to encourage more girls and women into sport, increase funding and sponsorships to allow professionals to make a decent living and increase media coverage of female sport – currently it’s standing at less than 10 per cent. There are many exciting sporting events happening with our football team in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Hannah Ranking fighting for the HBO Superwelterweight world title and the Netball World Cup in Liverpool this July. We need to get behind these women and celebrate their achievements as we create new role models that will pave the way for the next generation.

I’m stronger and fitter now in my mid-forties than I’ve ever been. Excelling in a sport has helped me feel stronger mentally and become a better leader. I hope that by championing greater equality in both sport and the boardroom we can drive positive change.

- Anneli Ritari-Stewart, managing director, iProspect