Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We’re seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Karen Murphy, Chicago Bears
Position: Senior Vice President, Business Strategy and Chief Financial Officer
How did you get your start in a career football?
It started in my childhood. I both played and watched sports all the time. It was something we did as a family, and I think that thrill of competition, coupled with feeling like you were part of a community, really fueled my passion for sports to begin with. I worked for Disney in my second job out of college, and when I arrived, I pressured my boss to work on the Anaheim Angels account. I was persistent for a while and finally got the assignment. It became clear to me then that this is what I want to do. Shortly after that, I got a call from someone telling me about the Bears job, so I applied, and the rest was history.
Can you explain what your role was when you started in the Bears organization, along with what you do now?
When I started out, I was the controller — similar to a VP of finance — so I was focused on the accounting and finance pieces through the tax returns. After a few years, I was promoted to Chief Financial Officer, and I took on managing the IT and human resources departments. Now, I lead our strategic corporate initiatives and also continue to manage those departments, along with operations and business analytics departments. For us, we’re all about making sure we’re using technology as a competitive advantage. We’re pushing data-driven decisions. We’re all about hiring top-notch employees. We’re demanding fiscal responsibility, and we’re working on maintaining a world-class facility, so we’re keeping busy.
With all of that on your plate, how are you able to prioritize a vast amount of responsibilities?
They all play an important part in figuring out how to help people plan long-term and also give direction to our staff. I think they all play an important role, so in working with my team, it helps me think about the big picture and helps the strategic direction.
What has been one of the most challenging parts of your position?
In my strategy role, we’re really focused on a customer-centric view, so what value do we add to our customers? Well, our customers have a deep, emotional tie to our brand, and they’re impacted by what happens on the field. So it’s really important for us to step back, keep our long-term planning in mind and keep our own business practices while we navigate our wins and losses. I think that’s important for us and something we keep top of mind. We’re eternally grateful for the passion, but it’s important to stay the course.
What is next for you in terms of what you want to accomplish?
I want to be a team president. I am grateful to the ownership of the Bears and my boss, because they continue to give me more responsibilities, and they have a lot of trust in me and allow me to take risks. They’ve allowed me to take a critical role on big projects and launch new departments. I’m a lifelong learner, and I’m never going to sit still, so the status quo is not good enough for me. I’m always creating new challenges, and being a team president, to me, would be the next big challenge.
When you look back on everything you’ve been a part of with the Bears, what are you most proud of?
I would say I’m really proud of the strategic lens I bring to the team. It’s really about keeping people focused on how do we make better connotative decisions and how do we continue to keep a long-term focus on our business. Our business is so seasonal, but we really need to look at what the big picture looks like, and our employees are craving that direction. It’s just as important in strategy to know when to say “yes” to certain projects as it is when to say “no.”
Do you have any mentors who have influenced your career path?
I was raised in a family full of very confident women, even dating back to my grandmother, who was invited to play in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. On my career side, it’s been really important to have mentors along the way at different points in your career. I’ve had a number of people who have been influential, and when I look back on how and why they influenced me, it was mainly about providing a different perspective. They really pushed me and challenged me, and most importantly, they provided honest feedback. Along the way, I’ve had managers with different styles, and it helps you gain your own leadership styles and gives you that 360-degree view into what works and doesn’t work in leadership. Then, I looked at how I can apply that in my own role.
How have you seen the NFL industry change for women since you started?
The league has changed a lot. I’ve been here for over two decades. I would say there is a growing appreciation to diversity of thought. In my opinion, we need to mirror our workforce with our communities, and when we do, we’re bringing new insights to the table. It’s helping us innovate, and it’s really important that we authentically connect with our fan base. If we don’t have a diverse front office, I think that’s a huge disadvantage. Here at the Bears, we just launched a senior vice president role of diversity, equity and inclusion, and I’m really proud of that. I worked closely with our HR department to make that happen, along with a lot of people in the building. It’s clear that it’s a big priority from our ownership and executive team, and I think it’s going to pay off. The companies that prioritize diversity are the ones that are innovating and lead the pack.
How encouraging is that, to see how far the Bears and/or league have come in 20-plus years?
I think it’s really encouraging, but there’s a lot of work to do. For us at the Bears, too. We don’t have much diversity in our leadership group outside of Tanesha Wade, SVP of diversity, equity and inclusion, and myself, so there’s still more to do. We’re looking at our hiring practices and, most importantly, our retention practices. It’s going to be a priority, and I’m really excited to be part of it.
That’s great. Lastly, what would you say to a female who’s interested in pursuing a career in the NFL, whether on the business or football side?
If you want to do a job in sports, you have to be persistent. I run into so many people, especially women, who say they were too intimidated to even apply because they thought getting a job in sports was impossible. To which I say, and quote Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” I really encourage them to apply, because everybody has a chance.
I would also say you don’t need to go into sports for your first job. With a specialization of skill sets, you may want to hone your skills, then come into sports in your second or third jobs, which is exactly what I did. Don’t be discouraged if your first job isn’t in sports. You can still get there.