When Dani Rylan arrived at an ice rink at the age of 5, her brothers were handed hockey skates and she was handed figure skates. Wanting to be like her brothers, Rylan refused the figure skates and opted to play hockey—a decision that would ultimately change the course of her life.
Years later, after playing hockey in high school and college and exploring various business ventures, Rylan became the founder and commissioner of the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) in 2015.
Rylan spoke to SCH students on October 11, 2018, in the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership space about how she turned her passion for hockey into a career in business. She also worked with youth hockey teams at the Wissahickon Skating Club and skated with the men’s league there after her presentation at SCH. Rylan’s visit, hosted by the CEL and attended by many 10th-grade Capstone students, was one of the many guest speakers who come to SCH to demonstrate the benefits of having an entrepreneurial mindset in life and for a career.
"There are plenty of our students who have a deep passion for sports, but the reality is that very few will go pro,” Edward Glassman, executive director of the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, said. “Dani provided an interesting take on how a young person can transform their passion for sports into a career ‘off the ice’ or ‘off the field.’ It is yet another example of how the entrepreneurial mindset is applicable across all industries and careers.”
Rylan talked about her childhood aspirations of wanting to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning and for team USA in the Olympics. At Northeastern University, while earning her master’s in sports leadership, Rylan started to “feel that entrepreneurial bug” as she watched herds of people walking by her apartment toward Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox.
“I thought, ‘This looks like a great opportunity. What can I do to maximize this moment?’” Rylan said.
She did her research, looked up the park’s rules on what attendees can bring in, and settled on selling water bottles, $1 on the way into the park and $2 on the way out. Rylan started collecting data on the weather, costs of water and ice, and made business decisions based on that research. She branded herself as “Hydration Nation” and created signs leading up to her cooler that let people know that they could bring in a closed water bottle into the game. That season, she made $30,000.
After graduation, Rylan wanted to pursue her dream of working in the hockey world, so she moved to New York to work for the NHL. However, while crashing on her brother’s couch in Queens and all set to work the next week, the person who hired her told her the summer hires were frozen. She found alternative ways to bring in some income, like walking dogs, until October of 2012, when she stumbled upon an opportunity to open a storefront in East Harlem.
Again, Rylan did her research. She sat outside the store front from 4 AM to 7 PM and tracked the passersby age, race, and gender. She settled on opening a coffee shop called Rise and Grind, and she managed to raise a little capital. On her minimal budget, Rylan taught herself how to build the shop, installing tiles and painting the place, and got the business running, then eventually sold it to her brother.
Around this time, in 2014, the United States played Canada in the Sochi Olympics and lost, but 4.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the game. It was the most-watched event on NBC that year, Rylan said.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way that somebody doesn’t start a pro league in the United States after the 2014 Olympics. There’s no way that I’m the only one who sees this as an opportunity,’” Rylan said.
Rylan gathered market research for starting a professional women’s hockey league. She found that women’s hockey registration was growing exponentially and that it was the second-fastest growing sport in the United States. She started a “monster checklist” of things to do—some of which she wasn’t sure how to tackle.
“As a leader, you feel a certain amount of responsibility to have all the answers,” Rylan said. “You have to get to the point where you’re okay knowing that you might not have all the answers, but if you’re surrounded by great people who believe in the same mission and vision, you can find those answers through those resources.”
Rylan realized that the North East was a hockey hot bed, and so she started the league in 2015 with teams in New York, Buffalo, Boston, and Stamford, Connecticut. (Now the league has grown to five teams with the inclusion of the Minnesota Whitecaps.) Rylan worked to find players and rinks, and in October 2015, she had her players storm social media with the message, “#tbt to when playing professional hockey was just a dream.” This led to viral media success, with NBC and Sports Illustrated reaching out to the league. Rylan also pursued sponsorships, and after cold-calling Dunkin Donuts, NWHL signed a deal with the chain in December 2015. The league has also partnered with Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the New Jersey Devils, and Twitter, which streams NWHL games.
NWHL has been growing its brand ever since. The league has nearly 33,000 followers on Twitter, almost 26,000 followers on Instagram, and it has had 15 million people tune in to watch games.
“One of the coolest things is that in the past three years, we’ve paid women $2 million to play professional hockey, which had never been done before,” Rylan said.
During the Q&A portion of the talk at SCH, one student asked about how to network in an industry where you have no connections.
“When you look around this room here, this is your network,” Rylan said. “Someone might not be doing exactly what you’re doing but someone that they know might be doing something that is relevant to what you’re doing.”
Another attendee asked Rylan about how to know when to keep collecting data versus trusting your gut and taking the first leap.
“My advice there is: as soon as you’re 75% comfortable, jump. Because you’re never going to be 100% comfortable,” Rylan said.