Last week, Bonnie Bernstein spoke to AA to discuss her 10-part She Got Game Audible Originals podcast series. That series, out now, is produced by XG Productions and Bernstein’s Walk Swiftly Productions, and it has her interviewing 10 different top female industry leaders, celebrities, and athletes about what their time playing sports taught them. Beyond her comments on that particular series, Bernstein had some interesting things to say about her path to entrepreneurship and Walk Swiftly, saying it felt like a missing piece for her during her earlier broadcast career.
“I would probably characterize myself as a bit of a different animal,” she said. “I was fortunate to spend nearly 20 years at ESPN and CBS, and I’m so grateful for every second, every sporting event I covered, every single opportunity that I had there. And my reality is that part of my ability to be successful as an entrepreneur has to do with the brand I built as on-air talent. But even when I was covering Super Bowls and NBA championships and World Series, and the biggest and best of the events, I still felt like something was missing. Because there’s a creative side to me that I wasn’t really able to dig in on.”
Bernstein said some top talents are able to pitch creative ideas at big networks and see them executed, but that isn’t possible for most on-air staffers.
“It’s very tough as talent to pitch ideas to a network, and for those ideas to see the light of day. If you think about how many hundreds of people are predominantly on-air folks, unless you have a specific deal with your employer that entails development and content creation, it’s just hard to get those ideas across the finish line. Because it’s an extraordinarily competitive landscape. Everybody’s got ideas, everybody wants to do something. And for me, when I finally figured out why I felt like something was missing, I had this yearning, this desire to explore the business side of sports, and then had to figure out how to acquire a skillset I hadn’t realized I didn’t have.”
She said for her, that came through working with Silver Chalice and Campus Insiders.
“In the early 2010s, I had an opportunity at Jerry Reinsdorf’s digital media company Silver Chalice. At that time, they had three different networks, one of which was Campus Insiders. And this is while I was at ESPN, and I was approached about being the face of Campus Insiders, which I was really grateful for, that they wanted me to be part of their venture. But I had already come to the determination that I was thinking about getting out of the sports business and going to business school, because I needed to learn about that side, and I thought ‘Well, the only way I can do that is by going back to school.'”
“But then, fortuitously, the Silver Chalice job came along. And I said ‘Would you be willing to consider a hybrid position?’ Yes, I will do all the on-air stuff: we had a college football show, and a college basketball show, and it was great, and we had a blast. And for the first time, I had a team to work, a whole team to put the shows together. And just having exposure to functioning in a leadership role was a really important part of my growth process. And ultimately, they were so kind and willing to work with me, and created this position where I was the VP of content and brand development for Campus Insiders. And what that did was open up this whole new world to me, where I learned about distribution deals and commercial strategy, and where I had the chance to work with sales teams for the first time.”
Bernstein said that work with sales teams was particularly new and particularly important for her growth.
“I never got to do that at ESPN or CBS. There are a couple of talents that do, Mike Greenberg, Colin Cowherd, they’re the kind of talent who have a solid understanding of the business, so they’re the type of guys who the sales guys can bring on a pitch. But most talent’s not going to do that. So working with the sales team was just so eye-opening, a. because I learned about that side of our world, I had the chance to work with our creative services team to work on how we’re putting decks together, to have a storytelling feel.”
She said she also learned the value of the contacts she’d previously made.
“And then I had this crazy discovery that this network that I’d been building at that point for 20 years had value. Here were all these people at brands that I just thought were really nice people that I’d met along my journey. And, oh by the way, they make the decisions about sponsorship. So I was like ‘Wait, I’ve never done anything with this Rolodex before, why don’t I reach out?'”
She said her overall experience there encouraged her to set out and launch Walk Swiftly, which she founded in 2017.
“Working at Silver Chalice also gave me the skillset I needed to feel confident about starting Walk Swiftly Productions. It’s been a journey. But for me, the why behind it, to put it in a really easy nut, is that growth is just profoundly important to me. If I look myself in the mirror before I go to bed and don’t feel like I’ve grown in some capacity, personally or professionally, I’m like ‘You didn’t do your job today!’ But then I’ve also learned to look in the mirror and give myself grace, that’s part of the evolution too.”
Bernstein said she’s also learned that even things that feel like setbacks can pay off in the long run.
“You have to be hungry and ambitious and driven, and understand that the word ‘No’ as an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean ‘No’ forever. It sometimes means ‘No for right now, but let’s keep talking.’ Sometimes ‘No’ is the perfect way to give you room to cultivate a relationship that ultimately turns that ‘No’ to a ‘Yes.'”
She said that’s one area where she’s had to relearn some lessons from her own sports background, though.
“Being a gymnast, at the time when I was growing up, but I’ve heard this all the time from gymnasts, and this is something that Shawn Johnson and I talked about (on She Got Game), we are conditioned to be focused on perfection. And either we’re perfect or we’re a failure. It’s truly that black and white, there’s no gray. And that doesn’t play well in the real world, and it certainly doesn’t play well in entrepreneurship.”
“So I’ve had to reconfigure my brain to process failure not as something that’s a personal indictment of me, but as a vital, critical key to success. Because if you handle failure the right way, what does it give you the opportunity to do? Learn, grow, and be better. That has been so valuable for me, and I think that shift in mindset is one of the reasons I’ve been able to get some legs on my own.”
As for naming the company Walk Swiftly, Bernstein said that came from observing people in New York.
“I was walking down the street several years ago, and for whatever reason, it was one of those days where I was taking the time to observe what was going on around me. And I began to notice lots of people walking with their heads down at a quick pace, like they had somewhere to be. Now, New York and I think East Coasters in general, I think you’ll see that a lot more in New York than on, say, the streets of Chicago. You won’t see it in LA because nobody walks there, people drive there. But I found myself thinking on that day that if you watch people and see the way they walk, see what their body language is, see the pace at which they’re walking, it can give you a little window into to who they are and what they’re doing, or what they’re trying to do.”
“And as somebody in an industry, who, when I started out, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me, in order to make it, you had to walk swiftly, head down, with conviction. And I had no idea why it hit me the way it did several years ago, but fast forward to it coming time for me to name my production company, and I was talking to my attorney and I had this list, and for whatever reason, I threw in ‘Walk Swiftly.’ And most of the production names were fairly standard, but what I realize now is that if you look at production company names, they’re all funky, and they all have a story behind them. And my attorney goes ‘Why is this even a question? The name of your company is Walk Swiftly.’ And I was like ‘You know what, you’re right, let’s go with it.'”
More on Walk Swiftly can be found on Bernstein’s site here. The She Got Game series can be found on Audible here.