Anne Cavassa won’t out a former male counterpart, but she remembers his biting words.

“He told me I couldn’t lead a performance sports brand as a woman,” Cavassa recalls of the comment suggesting that women could not be as competitive as men. 

Cavassa, of course, continues proving that prediction wrong.

The president of Saucony since 2018, Cavassa leads one of the globe’s top performance running brands, directing an enterprise that battles the sport’s powerbrokers for market share with a mix of innovative product, savvy marketing and, in a nod to Cavassa’s leadership, unified purpose.

“Competitive nature is genderless,” Cavassa says. “I lean into competition and enjoy it.”

Before joining Saucony, Cavassa led consumer-facing functions such as design and merchandising at outfits that include Eddie Bauer, Eastern Mountain Sports and Nike, as well as marketing and general management roles at Reebok and Ibex. And well before that, it’s worth noting, she learned the frontline efforts of the retail trade while working in the Savvy Department at the Nordstrom in Bellevue, WA.

“Employee number 1177989,” she beams.

In 2013, Cavassa, who holds a degree in psychology from Loyola Marymount University, entered the running ranks when she joined Brooks as VPÐglobal apparel before becoming the brand’s chief customer experience officer.

A mother of two children, ages 10 and eight, Cavassa reflects on her journey as a female in the business world, her role at Saucony and how performance running brands and retailers alike can better connect with female consumers.

On finding female mentors as she climbed the corporate ladder … “I had the benefit of strong female leaders on the HR side, but it was a challenge to find female business mentors since I’m of the age where most of the leaders above me were male. So, what I did was find male leaders I had high respect for from a business and personal integrity standpoint Ð individuals like [former Smartwool and Lucy president] Mark Bryden Ð and I sought out those individuals for thoughts on team leadership, inspiration and authentic leadership.”

On the challenges female business leaders face … “Female business leaders sometimes feel the pressure to be perfect, to not make mistakes, but really we need to be ourselves and use our strengths to chart our own path. Then, there’s those who feel women leaders have higher standards, that they demand more of their teams. But shouldn’t the bar be high for everyone? Shouldn’t we all be trying to achieve great things?”

On how female business leaders can excel … “There’s thinking out there that women are more emotional as leaders, but my experience tells me that people tend to be more uncomfortable with our emotion, which we are more willing to sit with. I actually see this as an advantage and an opportunity because people need to feel valued and know you are thoughtfully considering their perspective and needs. Listening, being present and showing emotion are important parts of being a people-oriented leader.”

On how being a women and mother informs her work … “I feel I’ve had success as a professional because of empathetic leadership. Being connected to people is important to me. Finding balance, a rhythm with my team and openness are all things I value. At home, I find myself trying to apply many of those same principles as a parent: to be open in the moment and to understand what’s happening so I can provide the proper guidance and support. It’s often about understanding where the angst is on something and working through the elements to find the right path forward.”

On women who aspire to lead running brands … “The sports industry has traditionally been a tight boys’ club, though that’s changing, especially in running. That’s a positive. I’d tell others with high aspirations in our industry to be deliberate about where you want to go and focus on those building blocks. Be focused on building a plan, follow your passion and become an expert in it. And don’t sell yourself short. Give yourself the credit you deserve. I believe women’s confidence comes through experience, but you must gain confidence in your expertise and be willing to push yourself to higher levels.”

On the responsibility she feels as a female heading a prominent running brand … “At Saucony, I’m aware that if I’m able to be successful as a female leader it paves the way for female leaders behind me. I understand that and don’t run from it.”

On marketing product to women runners and engaging female consumers … “We’ve had this conversation going on for a long time at Saucony and [head of public relations] Sharon Barbano created the ‘10 C’ checklist on how brands like us can better connect with women. It starts with credibility and communications, listening and responding to her. Community means creating women-specific opportunities. Then, there’s giving her choice and convenience, which has become incredibly important during COVID, and having a standard for goodness by being aligned with causes she cares about. Consistency is key as is understanding the consumer journey, which is definitely omnichannel for her. Finally, there’s customization and connection. Together, these all ladder up to being present for and responsive to her.”