We often speak of sport as being one of the world’s great equalisers. It’s used to cross cultural and language barriers, build communities, and of course, celebrate the underdog. Where sport around the world fails is in its handling of gender inequality. It’s a desire to rectify this and create an equal playing field that has taken an MBS alumna around the world.
Laura Youngson is football (soccer, as we call it in Australia) mad, as soon as she says the word her eyes light up, and there’s an energetic crackle that makes it clear we’re officially entering her domain. She’s also an entrepreneur, coach, athlete, STEM advocate and activist. It’s no surprise then, that she’s also been responsible for breaking two world records, through Equal Playing Field, an initiative that Laura began while studying at the University of Melbourne.
“Before I came into studying Melbourne Business School’s Master of Entrepreneurship at Wade Institute I had been working on this project to play the world’s highest altitude soccer match with women. We went up Kilimanjaro in the winter break to set the record. It was this insane experience, and it’s given us a chance to make a huge impact and start this amazing social change movement that has run away and is now doing its own thing.”
It’s a movement that has evolved so much in fact, that Laura and the Equal Playing Field team were recently invited to Jordan, where they visited the Dead Sea and broke their second record, for the lowest altitude football game.
“The nice thing about Kilimanjaro was that everyone was a bit equalised, because the air was thin and no-one could breath. This time, I was like ‘I need to train!’. I’m playing against international players from France and Tanzania, I’m just an amateur, I’ve never played at a professional level," she says. "The other thing we wanted to include in Jordan that was great with Kilimanjaro was some kind of hike, because you’re there without a phone, hiking through the wilderness; it gives you a chance to make these deep connections with people. Then, when you go back to the four corners of the world, they’re there to help you out. They’re your network, they’re your sisters.”
The visit to Jordan also provided a rare opportunity for engagement with the local community, and for young girls and women to take part.“We did this big, high-performance hike, then we ran football camps for little girls in very conservative areas. We had a lot come, even though the communities were saying that the girls couldn’t come because it’s shameful for them to be playing, but on the day of the camp we had 270 girls show up! Some of them had never kicked a football before.” Now, in the lead up to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, there’s talk of new projects. “We’re looking at doing something in Europe. With all the refugees coming into Europe, sport is a great way to provide social cohesion and integration. We’ve also had a couple of coaches contact us; there’s one lady in Albania – who is the only female coach – who wants us to come do something with her. For us, that’s the best outcome, we want to bring our players and build this network for people to join.”
For the time being, however, Laura’s focus is on a project that came about as a result of the world record attempts: Ida Sports, a company that wants to produce quality football boots designed for women.
“Women’s and men’s feet are fundamentally different. The revolution has happened in running, but it hasn’t happened in the traditionally male turf sports. It means that most women have to compromise. I have small feet, so I have to wear boys shoes and they tend to be ill-fitting and of lesser quality. What’s more, if you’re wearing the wrong kind of shoes you’re more likely to get an ACL injury,” she says. “This is something that happens to a lot of women who play sports. When we were researching we found out that women would do things like shave down the stud on their big toe because their shoes don’t fit properly.”
Now, having gone through a comprehensive research process, consulting with the best designers in Melbourne and finding out exactly what it is women want from a football boot (the answer is black on black, not the pastel colours currently on offer), Ida Sports is about to launch a crowdfunding campaign to get the first 500 pairs of boots out into the world. It’s a major project, and to an extent, Laura puts her ability to undertake such an endeavour down to her time at MBS and the Wade Institute.
“Everyone came into the course at a different part of their journey. I’d worked for ten years before coming back to study. I’d done a lot of people management and leadership in the past, but I probably wasn’t as strong on financial models. That’s one of the things I got out of the course, building a financial model for a start-up, which needs its own set of tools. You have to be good at everything, but not perfect. You have to be able to go out and consult with the experts.”