Breaking Barriers in Sports Marketing

Romina Bongiovanni, Global Director of International Marketing for New Balance, tells us what “ponerte las pilas” means to her and how to pay it forward.

NB: How, as a Latina, has your background played into your work?

RB: I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a very authentic neighborhood called Villa Del Parque. I come from a working family, and as typical Italians in Argentina, we got together every Sunday to eat pasta amasada por la abuela. 

My parents are both entrepreneurs. My mother ran her own travel agency and my dad had his distribution company for textiles. My brother is now in charge of my dad’s business, but it all started with my dad carrying the textiles off his back and selling them door to door when he was 18. And now it’s a national distribution company working directly with manufacturers, so he went a long way and built that from the ground up. 

I was always very inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit at home. Then, once I moved to California and was introduced to the Hispanic community in Los Angeles, as well as others in diverse groups, I met people who ultimately shaped my career and further fueled my interest in business. 

When it comes to my job, I think it’s a combination of those two aspects of my experience – being a Latina and an immigrant – that plays a role in my work. 

In my opinion, being an immigrant makes me more sensitive to people from other parts of the world, as I’m generally interested in experiences different from my own. Plus, I immediately connect and relate to the immigrant experience. 

And perhaps being from Latin America and used to dealing with constant instability has made me a bit more comfortable with change and uncertainty in ways that help me at work as well, especially in the last few years during a pandemic.

NB: Who is your Atrevida/o/e preferida/o/e? 

RB: I love that question. I have so many of them. In many ways, they are the result of the collective experience that we create with others in our lives.

There are so many atrevidas and atrevidos that I want to keep very close. My first two mentors were Martin Llorens and Roxanna Lisa, and I still love to talk to them and bounce off ideas about everything that is going on in our lives. 

Most recently, I’m super proud to work with people that I consider to be atrevidos and atrevidas. The New Balance family are fearless and intentionally push boundaries to achieve a higher purpose. 

My former boss at Saatchi & Saatchi, who just joined the IPC – the Paralympics movement – has been incredibly influential to me for his dedication and sensitivity to diverse communities. 

Reflecting back to my years on the agency side, I met so many amazing Latinas at Edelman who are now running their own businesses – like Audrey Ponzio with APC Collective; the president of BODEN Agency Sara Garibaldi; and Angela Sustaita-Ruiz, who have thrived because of their entrepreneur spirit.

These atrevidos and atrevidas have taught me so much about who I am and what we collectively do to elevate our community. 

NB: What was your ‘ponte las pilas’ moment?

RB: Honestly, I feel like I have a “ponte las pilas” moment every single day. For example, this interview is one of them. I don’t really do interviews, but I do play a role in our community and it’s important to me to pay it forward. So, if my story can help others positively shape theirs, me pondré las pilas para contarla. 

In Argentinean culture, “ponte las pilas” is something that you tell people to entice them to do something. It’s a very common phrase and I love using it as the foundation for a lot of the thinking that I do day in and day out because it gives me strength. 

There are plenty of examples of that. We’ve all been in our fair share of meetings where you’re the only one. The only Latina, the only woman, the only person with an accent, the only member of a minority group. The “ponte las pilas” moment comes in that room and, equally important, after you leave, too. It’s how you use your power to create the change that you want to see and bring more minorities and diverse thinking into these conversations and positions of power.

NB: What advice would you give to those who might feel like “the other,” like they are the only one?  

RB: My advice is to embrace one hundred percent of who you are. And that takes a ton of commitment and dedication because there are going to be days where you will feel like “I got this, and no matter what, I’m going to do what I know is true to myself and my values.” And other days will be more challenging.

Look at the holistic opportunity and embrace one hundred percent of what you have to offer to it. 

NB: ¿Suerte o sudor? What percentage do you attribute your success to in terms of luck vs. hard work?

RB: I think it’s sudor with a pizca de suerte. You work on your luck, you craft that internal message, listen to that voice inside your head that helps you feel gratitude, whether you accomplish what you wanted or not. And that voice gives you inner strength when times are not easy. 

So for me, it’s a lot about sudor because you are constantly working towards that lucky moment. I will say 1% suerte, 99% sudor. 

NB: Whose work right now do you find really exciting?

RB: I’m going to give a shout-out to the NFL here. I feel they deserve a lot of credit. (My friends are probably laughing now as the commercials and halftime show are my favorite parts of the Super Bowl.) But the NFL is doing an incredible job engaging those who are not the typical fans of the sport, especially those from Latino communities. 

The work that they’ve recently done with Diana Flores, the quarterback of Mexico’s world-champion women’s national flag football team, is inspirational and I love the approach they took in including her family in the storytelling. It’s so relatable. I also love the fact that she’s a Latina opening doors for many others, not just in football, but anyone in female sports. That’s major and we need a lot more of that in every sports category.

NB: Now that you broached the topic of Latinas in sports, is there an opportunity you find there for brands? Are they being celebrated enough? Are their challenges being spoken about enough? 

RB: In Atrevéte, you talk a lot about how the work can be the vehicle for change in the community, and I think sports is going through the realization that enough is enough. 

We have to elevate women, professional women in sports more often, more consistently, and with more investment, with equality to our men’s sports. Seeing everything female players bring on and off the field, in their unique ways, is super key. As women, we bring a different sense of community and purpose, and our goals go above and beyond the performance. So, brands need to recognize that and lean in to play an authentic role. 

Going back to the work that we’re doing, I believe that the work is the change, it is not just the vehicle. I want my marketing storytelling and our teams to lead by being part of the community and co-authoring moments with those who share our values. It’s about building strategic recommendations that are intimately tied to culture and truly contribute to advancing current and future players of sports. 

We try to do that all the time, whether we’re launching a new campaign and being inclusive in our messaging and in our casting, or by signing a new partner and looking at the shared values and the co-authorship that we bring to the marketplace. No matter what we do, it must tie back to who we are and be an authentic proposition, or we don’t do it.

NB: Is there any last thought or piece of advice that you want to share?

RB: Going back to bringing your full self to work, an example is the work that we are doing with the Global Sports Mentoring Program – led by ESPNW, the U.S. State Department and the Center for Sports, Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee. We are mentoring women from around the world to learn how to shape businesses by bringing more women and girls into sports.

Every year, we host a couple of delegates from different countries and it has been some of the most amazing experiences in my career. I’ve been mentoring since 2015 as part of the program, and it’s not only personally rewarding because of its impact on the delegate and her country of origin, but I always learn a lot about myself from mentoring. My advice is to take part in mentoring programs as an opportunity to help resource communities properly and, simultaneously, make space for improving yourself in the process.