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On International Women's Day, Panthers inspire from the top

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CHARLOTTE— Whenever Nicole Tepper walks into a room full of executives, typically men, she thinks of her childhood best friend.

While the two were still in elementary school, both tomboys, as Nicole tells it, tryouts opened up for the Pop Warner football team. It wasn't a place typically meant for girls, but one her friend was determined to infiltrate.

That confidence, to boldly bust down the doors of the boy's club, stuck with Nicole. It inspired her as a child and motivates her still as an adult and owner of the Carolina Panthers.

"I didn't have the courage to do it at the time," Tepper admitted. "I don't think my mom would allow me either. But watching her do that, that stayed with me forever. It was such an amazing thing."

Tepper shared the story on Friday, acting as hostess and panelist for an event on International Women's Day. The Panthers Den on Friday was filled to the brim with some of the most powerful people in the greater Charlotte area. Pro sports team owners, team VP's, those who normally sit in the C-suite at national companies, such as Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Atrium Health and more, they all milled about with each other, laughing and catching up, making connections for the future. And they were all women.

The day, as Panthers team reporter Kristen Baldoni said, was a day, "that we can all be together and celebrate ourselves and other women that we know."

The Panthers were well represented, thanks in large part to the fact six of the top eight executives for the club are in fact women. They were joined by those, as mentioned, who serve in executive roles of other businesses, such as Grace Nystrum, senior vice president, Charlotte market executive at Bank of America. Asked if it was difficult for each woman not to compare themselves to the others there, Nystrum shared advice she got long ago.

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"Never compete against your peers," she shared. "Compete against yourself and you'll go a long way."

It's a valuable but tough lesson to remember for a subset of the workforce—especially in sports—that is underrepresented and too often held up against one another for measurement of merit. This though is why it was so important to Tepper to create not only her own role upon arrival in Charlotte, but one that would serve the larger community, particularly those other women around her.

"I was a tomboy. I wanted to play Pop Warner football. I loved it from the day I was literally born. I drove my mother crazy; I wanted to wear eye black and my shoulder pads and a helmet," Tepper laughed. Still when she joined her husband Dave in ownership of the Panthers, she was careful, creating a place through time and patience, knowing if she wanted to be a woman at the top, she'd have to earn the respect of those along the way.

"I just wanted to sit in meetings. I wanted to know how the inside of these walls work, how each employee thinks, the departments work," Tepper continued. "They're here longer than me. There're employees that have been here for 30 years. So, I really wanted to give them that perspective, showing me how it really operates and then slowly developing this role."

Perspective was a key word on the day. Heather Hucks, vice president of consumer connections at Coca Cola Consolidated, in true marketing style, offered three "P's" to the women in the room, on how to maintain their role in business and in the world, two entities that demand all and more from the women in charge.

Perspective was her first P, then prioritization and partnership.

"There are always times in your career, you are going to be the only woman in the room, the only woman in the meeting," Hucks said. During those times, she continued, you had to draw on all you'd learned before to react with wisdom, not ego.

Prioritization means understanding there is no such thing as a true work-life balance. Instead, prioritize what's most important and work around those things.

And finally, partnership; find allies in other women. Perhaps just as important, find allies in the men around you. "You can have as many women in your corner as you want. But if they're not in that boardroom with you, to support you and give you credibility and to back you up—" what's the point?

It was said of Ginger Rogers, longtime dance partner of Fred Astaire, that she could do everything Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. In other words, she could match everything a man at the top of his game was doing but add an extra degree of difficulty to it all.

The world of women in sports, particularly the NFL, has grown exponentially in recent years, with those in both leadership roles, football operations roles and even coaching roles, increasing end over end since 2020. The ability to break through is still tough at times. The mobility within an organization can seem daunting more often than not. And there inevitably is still times we fall. But with each woman that steps into the room, there is another hand to pick us back up and help us walk through the door.

View photos from the Carolina Panthers International Women's Day event, where women around the organization and the Greater Charlotte area where recognized.

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