Chief Executive Officer of Optimize Strategic Agency, Emy Casaletti-Bwalya, believes there is no better time than the present for women to be heard, seen and counted in sports leadership roles.
As the world faces an uncertain future due to the impact of Covid-19, Caseletti-Bwalya’s guidance is timely. She advises women to be innovative, use their instinct, intellect, resourcefulness and commitment to seize the opportunities unfolding before them.
This industry titan has vast experience in sports administration and marketing in a 38-year journey, impacting highly successful brand building projects.
In the early 1980’s, Casaletti-Bwalya’s first appointment with clothing brand KAPPA saw her head up sponsorship with well-known brands like Mamelodi Sundowns FC, Sharks Rugby, Kaizer Chiefs FC and later Bafana Bafana.
In 1994, she was headhunted by Reebok, with the re-entry of the brand into SA. She convinced both Kaizer Chiefs and the Sharks to sign with Reebok. Five years later, Chiefs lured Casaletti-Bwalya to join the club.
To date, she has travelled to over 50 countries across the globe as a FIFA Instructor, mentoring football associations on how best to administer, manage and market football in their countries, leaving a mark in International Football.
With a long list of projects and achievements under her belt, she has faced numerous challenges being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Casaletti-Bwalya shares details of her unfortunate experiences faced over the years working on the biggest boards in the world and reveals how she empowered herself.
Emy, great to have you back on gsport! In 2016, you were nominated for the Woman of the Year award. What did it mean to you to receive this recognition from South Africa’s leading women’s sport awards platform?
I was so truly honoured. You know women are not often recognized as contributors to Sport Administration and Management. The fact that this was acknowledged by gsport gave me huge joy.
“I have been in the industry since 1983, and recognition thereof is uncommon.” – Emy Casaletti-Bwalya, CEO at Optimize Strategic Agency
A platform that celebrates the success of women in sport is an excellent motivational tool to inspire other women to work hard and push through the obstacles.
In 2020, during unprecedented times with the global Covid-19 pandemic sweeping through the country, the Momentum gsport Awards went ahead and honoured women in sport in a spectacular event. What does this tell you about the pedigree of our women who still manage to achieve under challenging circumstances?
It is remarkable what women can achieve even with the barriers that are placed in their way. You just need to look at companies and countries that are doing well. You will find a high percentage of females in leadership roles, this is well documented and is a global FACT.
“We have enormously talented women in leadership positions in South Africa and many more who are rising to the top.” – Emy Casaletti-Bwalya
These women are making their mark across a diverse range of businesses, including sport. gsport4girls has tenaciously succeeded through thick and thin to celebrate these women. I admire the resilience and grit of its founder Kass Naidoo and the remarkable success these awards have achieved over the years.
How was 2020 for you? What did you have to do differently to ensure that your projects were complete, and your clients were satisfied?
We had to be agile and able to adapt quickly. We changed our business model and with our team managed to keep our heads afloat, even though all of our planned events were cancelled.
We rolled up our sleeves and embraced change. Businesses are going to change and move forward with or without marketers who can’t keep up. – Emy Casaletti-Bwalya
We at Optimize, were able to come up with solutions to problems by thinking outside of the box and navigating an ever-changing environment which is crucial going forward.
Moreover the workforce is becoming increasingly culturally diverse, in addition to the younger generations becoming part of it. It is important to have the ability to adjust to and collaborate with different cultures and generations. This thinking has placed us in good stead with our clients.
Please tell about your Marketing journey and where it all began for you.
It began for me in the 80’s with a clothing brand called KAPPA. Being in the sport and leisure apparel retail industry, we sponsored Mamelodi Sundowns FC, and we really took SA technical sponsorships to a new level, not long after that we signed Sharks Rugby and Kaizer Chiefs FC in 1988 and Bafana Bafana in 1991. All along, thinking out of the box, and doing things differently to the rest of the market place. All of these brands had huge success during this time.
In 1994, I was headhunted by Reebok, with the re-entry of the brand into SA. I convinced both Kaizer Chiefs and the Sharks to sign with Reebok. It was not long after that, that Kaizer Chiefs asked me to join them in 1999. Basically, my marketing journey was a combination of all these great brands, turning them into gold and winning with each and every one of them.
During the early stages of your career, what were some of your toughest challenges and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was being a woman in a man’s industry. Many of the men I worked with would ask themselves, “What does this white woman know about football and rugby?”
“I was talked over and I was undermined at every possible meeting. I overcame all of this with discipline and constantly holding my head up high.” – Casaletti-Bwalya chats about challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
I was determined to shock them at every opportunity, and made it my mission in life to empower myself with facts and figures and understand their sport, every marketing campaign, and every form of best practice that was available to me. I loved the look on their faces when I baffled them with clear understanding, ability and knowledge.
You have travelled to over 50 countries across the globe, sitting at some of the biggest boards in the corporate world. We know women are under-represented when it comes to engaging on boardroom matters: What has the experience been like for you over the years?
I cannot even count the amount of times I was made to feel insignificant and small. I was sent to Iran to do a FIFA administration and marketing mission with a male colleague. The course attendees were only men, and they refused to make eye contact, to ask questions or to converse with me. They did so through my male colleague. This was extremely frustrating, and made me even more determined to return.
I went back two times after that, with special permission from the Iranian government to attend a big derby game in Tehran. It frustrated me to no end that women were not allowed to attend men’s games. The last time I was sent to Iran was for women’s football. Which – by the way – is now thriving in Iran against all odds, and women are finally allowed to go to stadiums.
But times have changed, there is no better time than now to be heard, to be seen and to be counted. Women need to be innovative, use their instinct, intellect, resourcefulness and commitment to take ideas to the market and to tap into the enormous opportunities unfolding before them.
What do you think needs to change in order to see more women feature in boardrooms and leadership positions?
I am a strong proponent of knowledge. If you are going to test the waters, make damn sure you “know your stuff”. If women empower themselves with knowledge, (and I acknowledge most women need to work harder at this than men do), by this I mean, facts, figures and a deep understanding of what they are talking about, they cannot be ignored.
“We need to call out companies that do not have women on their boards (and there are many) we need to awake their consciousness and name and shame.” – Casaletti-Bwalya on the need for women’s representation at board level.
Capable women are out there, there is no excuse today, for women not to take their rightful place on the top of the corporate ladder. If we are disciplined with high values, we can truly make a difference.
What are some of the biggest projects that you have worked on in your career?
Marketing and commercializing Kaizer Chiefs football club was a big project that I was extremely passionate about and that gave me huge satisfaction due to its success, but undoubtedly the biggest was being an International FIFA Marketing and Administration instructor.
This saw me travelling to many countries world-wide to audit national Football Associations and advise how to better run them and explore revenue generating opportunities to ultimately make them more independant and sustainable.
Learning different cultures and beliefs, helping them evolve and eventually succeed. This, to me, was the most fulfilling and in terms of impact. The positive effect of my input is still being felt.
Which women in sport do you work with or previously worked with?
I fondly remember working with Brigitte Motsepe, PRO of the NPSL in the 80’s. Her and I have remained close friends ever since. I also worked with the late Zodwa Khoza, on the Vodacom Challenge, a young lady I grew immensely fond of. She was tough, resilient and called a spade a spade.
My former colleagues at the 2010 FIFA World Cup organizing committee, Moira Tlhagale-Mosimane, Tumi Makgabo, Onke Mjo and Nomzamo Kasana, all dynamic, highly capable women.
My colleagues at FIFA, Sarai Bareman, head of women’s football, Ebru Koksal from Turkey and Yolanda Comacho from Costa Rica, women who stand tall in the sporting world.
“I also work with wheelchair tennis player, Kgothatso Montjane, who for me is an inspiration. We manage her sponsorships and marketing.” – Casalett-Bwalya works with four-time Momentum gsport Awards winner and wheelchair tennis champion, Kgothatso Montjane.
What inspires Emy Casaletti-Bwalya?
I am inspired by success, whilst adding value. Success on and off the field of play, which I believe are intrinsically linked. I love getting involved in a brand and see sales increasing through marketing strategies that have been devised.
It is also important for me to use sport as a platform to create more inclusive spaces for women and to promote diversity. Sport is so influential it cannot stay silent.
I want to be part of the change. Sport is a social phenomenon, that can bring about change in culture and in society. I have seen this first-hand. The promise of a fair and just future for sport, inspires me immensely.
What is your greatest ambition?
My ambition is to ‘make a difference’ at whatever stage of life I am in.
I believe I have made a difference thus far, at every company I have worked for and every brand I have touched. My ambition now is to truly have an impact on Sport Administration and Marketing and the success of other women in this field.
Photo 1 caption: With a career spanning four decades in the SA sports industry, Emy Casaletti-Bwalya has been at the forefront of the some of the most iconic partnerships in our sports world. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 caption: Casaletti-Bwalya’s influence has steered the course major brands including KAPPA, Mamelodi Sundowns FC, Sharks Rugby, Kaizer Chiefs FC, Bafana Bafana and Reebok. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 caption: Apart from her work in the business of sport, dealing with sports codes and sponsorships,Casaletti-Bwalya regards her input as an International FIFA Marketing and Administration instructor among her most significant contributions. Photo: Supplied
Photo 4 caption: Success is what inspires her, says this industry icon, and the path to success is, in the words of this industry icon, to make damn sure you know your stuff! Photo: Supplied
Photo 5 caption: Casaletti-Bwalya believes there are more than sufficient capable women are out there, and that we need to call out companies that do aid progress by placing women on their boards. Photo: Supplied