In this episode, travel to Brazil and Bangladesh to learn about the daring leadership and bold actions undertaken by Júlia Vergueiro (owner and CEO, Pelado Real Futebol Clube; founder, Nossa Arena) and Ashreen Mridha (brand manager of marketing, Unilever Bangladesh Limited; Founder and chairwoman, Deshi Ballers) as they step up and help transform their societies through sports.
Carole (0:05) Welcome to the Strong Woman, Better World podcast series, a global storytelling project created by strong women using the power of sport, education, and social innovation to create a better world. Each week, we travel to another corner of the earth and we exchange ideas while exploring Title IX’s ripple effects around the globe. Hello. Hello. I am your host and ref, Carole Ponchon from Lyon, France. And it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the metaphorical ring as two fearless women spar about their trailblazing journeys in sport. Buckle up and get ready to rumble. In today's episode, we travel to Brazil and Bangladesh to hear from two strong women who share a passion for increasing access and opportunities for girls to play sport. Both sisters believe sport creates joy, social engagement, and empowerment. In the right corner from Brazil is Julia Vergueiro. Owner and CEO of Pelado Real Football Club and founder of Nessa Arena, Julia is a pioneer in every sense of the word she's driven by a will to help break the cultural barriers that still limit the holistic development of Brazilian girls. She created the world's first Juventus Girls’ soccer camp and enters the ring as she would a football soccer pitch, whole-hearted and dedicated with a relentless passion to win on behalf of all girls and women. Welcome Julia.
Julia (1:44) Hello, Carole. Thank you so much. So happy to be here.
Carole (1:49) And we are joined in the left corner by another powerful and inspirational leader, Ashreen Mridha from Bangladesh. Ashreen is the brand manager of marketing for Unilever Bangladesh Limited and the founder and chairwoman of Deshi Ballers, a female led sport development group. She also played for and captained the Bangladeshi women's national basketball team. As a pioneer, Ashreen dribbles through many challenges and continues to rebound back to the court after facing many injuries that comes from playing basketball at a high level. Ashreen is driven to empower and enable women to play the sport she loves regardless of age, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Expect her to be the playmaker today, looking for ways to give Julia the assist, thus leading all of us toward victory on and off the court. Welcome, Ashreen.
Ashreen (2:46) Thanks a lot. I'm really happy to be part of this podcast and to share stories from Bangladesh and the work that I've been doing, so hi everyone.
Carole (2:55) Ladies, I'm so impatient to travel the world with you, and I cannot wait to learn about your pioneering work and how you're standing on the shoulder of other Title IX Titans, because that's what you are, Titans. The ring is yours. So, off we go for round one.
Julia (3:17) All right. Let's get just started. So Ashreen, very grateful to spend this short time with you, but before jumping straight into the deep end, I want people to understand a little bit about you, Ashreen. So I'm going to start asking two fun questions. What's the first answer that comes to mind when I ask, “What is one song that always makes you want to dance whenever you hear it, or maybe whenever you sing it?”
Ashreen (3:49) Thanks a lot for that question. One song that I always think about when I'm happy is, uh, is the song called “Don't Worry Be Happy.” I always enjoy uh, singing, “Don’t worry, be happy.” So, and it just makes me feel really happy. And for me, makes me feel, forget all of my worries. And it's also the first song that I ever picked up on my guitar. So it has a very special place in my heart.
Julia (4:13) That is a great answer. And I love when you have someone that knows how to sing because, you know, she just brings this joy to our podcast. Okay. So let's go to the second question, talking about jumping. If you could jump into a pool full of something besides water, what would it be?
Ashreen (4:35) Oh my God. And I'm glad that you asked this question because I don't know how to swim. I think that is not a pool of water, it has to be something that would not make me drown. So maybe a pool of sand, maybe?
Julia (4:38) I love sand too beaches and everything. All right. So thanks for sharing. Now, let's get into the match with more substantive questions. Okay, Ashreen developing sport is difficult in numerous ways. I know from experience. I remember our discussion and the added burden that you face in Bangladesh, a conservative Muslim culture. What is one thing you learn about yourself through the process of developing women's basketball in Bangladesh?
Ashreen (5:22) Yeah, I think, you know, I grew up playing sports and over the last couple of years I've been working on developing sports and lots of challenges for me here in Bangladesh, like you mentioned, conflicts, um, uh, around, uh, and you know, the religious barrier comes first. Me coming from Bangladesh being a primarily a Muslim country, we have conflicts with women being outdoors because in Islam it's often misrepresented that women need to be covered, they need to be indoors. So a lot of challenges with having girls outside playing sports, especially after 6:00 PM. Which we, you know, in our culture, we say after Maghrib prayers, women should not be outside when it's dark. Similarly, you know, lots of issues with wearing uniforms, particularly shorts, women are expected to be covered up. We don't necessarily wear a lot of hijab or burka. I mean, there are, there are many girls who do, but, uh, lots of challenges with the uniforms, the sports attires, and of course, safety of women is a big concern. All of these challenges are there and we're battling it every day. We are trying to change perceptions and things like that. But what I have personally learned is that talking and discussing about these issues help. Right now, I do have a lot of programs where we actually speak to parents and we pick two players. We bring them together and we help them see each other as allies. We encourage families to come so that, you know, parents can see the joy that, uh, playing sports brings to their daughter's lives. And right now, you know, we're, we're bringing boys and girls on the court together. We encourage parents to come and actually see that, you know, this is, this is sports. This is not something bad, it's beneficial for people. And another thing that I've realized that really help is, you know, to showcase examples. Like when I showcase the example of my own life, all the positive impact that sports has had on my life and other girls who are playing with me on my team. And I, when we take these girls and we give them the mic and we ask them to speak in front of the people. Uh, it really helps them. It helps change, change mindsets, and convincing them that the women in your life deserve a chance to play sports or do anything that they want to do.
Julia (7:30) Loved it. I totally relate to this challenge that you were saying about the parents that we need to convince them of how important it is to take their kids, their girls mainly for me, to play sports and how big it is when we showcase our own experience, because they see us as someone that, you know, like you said, has succeeded in life. So of course that's what they want for the kids too. So if sports can help that, then why not bring in my kids to sports?
Carole (8:04) Ladies ref speaking here, I must interrupt. Just one question that came to my mind. How heavy can it be to be the role model for those people, like, to be the one that need to show up as the good example so that you break barriers?
Ashreen (8:20) Yeah, I think it, it does feel a bit lonely. And like I said, I grew up not having an example in front of me. I became the example that I wanted to be for others. So it feels a little lonely out there, definitely. But right now I'm seeing more and more people taking my place. And that gives me a lot of hope. And that gives me a lot of happiness thinking that, you know, I'm not going to be here forever, but there are, there are girls who are taking steps and filling in the, in the gaps.
Julia (8:51) Yeah, I agree with Ash and I think that's the biggest deal here. It's terrible when you feel that you are the only example or the only person who is trying to change this. So by the time we see other girls and other women taking a step in also becoming an example for others, that helps a lot. Also because we are not going to reach everyone by ourselves, so we need more people reaching more people. And that includes boys and men. I always say that when we have men saying what we are always saying, the conversation changes a lot because a lot of men will not listen to women, but if there's another man who they relate to saying something that they maybe did not agree before, they may start changing their minds. So that's why they also need to join the conversation. Alright, so let's get to our next question. And let's dig into this entrepreneurial mindset that we all have created and that you, Ashreen, has created through Deshi Ballers and ask you, what skill set in or important lessons are you bringing to the business field that you learned from the basketball court?
Ashreen (10:09) I don't think, uh, these are, these are skills that are only learned on the basketball court. I think there are some common skills that we learn on any, any sports arena, things like teamwork and discipline and all of those things. And I always believed growing up, and this is something that I used to hear from my parents, from people around me as well. So I always loved that. And I always believed that the things that you learn through sports can easily be transferred into other spheres of life, the ability to deal with victories and failure and learning from failures, and then leading a team, guiding a team, being a team captain, or even just being a team player. So all of those things really help, but what I'm more proud of with, with the work that I'm doing and my leadership role at Deshi Ballers is the community that I'm building here. And I think we've sort of formed a family through sports, which we've never, which we never had before. A small example that I could give is that sometime last year, during the pandemic, when we were in lockdown, there was a girl there from my community who came out, talking about, some sort of physical and sexual abuse that she felt that she experienced from somebody who was coaching her. Coach that she had when she was younger and she exprienced sexual abuse and she never spoke about it. And she came out and she started talking about it. And every single girl in our community, every single teammate came and supported her with her fight. So that is something that a lesson or an experience that I probably wouldn't have gotten if it weren't for Deshi Ballers, if I didn't have Deshi Ballers. Apart from that, I think on the business side or the entrepreneurial side of things, I would say that the events and the tournaments and the sports sessions and programs that we're organizing is building a lot of volunteerism. I think for me, I take a lot of pride in the fact that all of my tournaments and events are run by school kids. I explain what needs to be done, and then they go ahead and they do it. And sometimes they make mistakes and that's okay. And I think through these events of, and where we are getting these young boys and girls organizing and hosting tournaments and arranging things and taking responsibility, we're just building a culture that we are here for each other, and we're not rejecting anyone really, we have opportunities for everyone to come and play, have a good time, build community, build volunteerism.
Julia (12:31) That's so amazing. Ash, I wish we had more time. I told you guys, she is amazing. Everything she says, it’s a life lesson. So just to finish, we often say that sport is a universal language, right? Would you agree? And if so in one word, what ways has basketball helped you become a part of a global sisterhood and community of sports women?
Carole (12:58) Ladies, sorry to interrupt. This is the ref speaking and I feel like I must raise a yellow card. You've just mentioned the GSMP and I bet we need to provide some context to our audience. So the GSMP stands for the Global Sport Mentoring Program. It's a sport diplomacy, women's empowerment initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by the one and only team at the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. And actually the three of us are alumni of this program.
Ashreen (13:34) Yeah, I think the GSMP family just brings us so much closer to every single part of the world. Culturally, we are so different, but there are so many similar issues that we are, we're tackling in our countries. And it's just that, you know, we're just solving them in different ways. The problems with basketball in my country, might be different, might be a bit similar to the ones in India or Pakistan, but some someone from Europe or someone from Africa might be facing some culturally the issues might be different, but, but I think we're just solving them in different ways and talking about it and sharing these cultural things, I think really helps. And of course, you know, we're just one message away. It's really this open-minded culture that I love about this global sisterhood.
Carole (14:21) What a way to end round one about these vibes and the sisterhood, and being here together. We are closing now round one and moving to round two and Ashreen will now interview Julia. The floor is yours, lady.
Ashreen (14:35) Julia, I'm just so happy to be part of this podcast with you. And I cannot wait for you to showcase your work in this boxing ring, but first, let me return the favor with two interesting questions to talk about your personality and who Julia is. So the first question would be, if you were an animal, what would you be?
Julia 14:46) I would choose a lion because first it's my sign. So I am a Leo, but also just because I love the way that this animal leads, I think it's beautiful and strong and fights for what he wants. And it's also a leader in the jungle.
Ashreen (15:16) Yeah. Awesome. I think it really goes with your personality. My next question would be, if there was a memoir written about you, what would be the title of your memoir?
Julia (15:27) Whoa. Okay. I will choose this phrase that my, one of my, my boss’ back there when I used to work at Itaú, which is the largest bank here in Brazil, she once gave me written, “Women who behave, rarely make history.” And it was so nice that she gave that to me because I was so young, like my first professional jobs and I was just starting, but maybe she already saw that I had something different and that my behavior was something that she could relate to when she was younger, because she, as my leader was a very, very strong woman.
Ashreen (16:11) That's awesome. That's awesome. I love it. And I would definitely buy it and read it or watch it. So tell me, who would you consider to be your biggest sports influencer and why?
Julia (16:23) That's actually a question that a lot of people ask me. And I think usually, they expect me to say someone famous here in Brazil for sports or for soccer. And I don't really have that answer just because I think just like you said, we didn't grow up watching women play sports. It was not a reality. It's still hard to see women playing sports on TV and everything here in Brazil. So I always say that my biggest influencer was my mom, because she played sports when she was young. Of course I didn't watch, but she says she played, she also loves to play and to watch. So when I was younger, we would go to the stadium to watch soccer games together, which is definitely not something usual for mom and, and daughters to do together. But we would go just the two of us because we were the only ones cheering for Sao Paulo, which is our team and my dad and my brothers cheer for a rival. So we had to go by ourselves and it was so fun. And for me, it was amazing to see that she wasn't scared to be there and to take me, you know, her young daughter with her. So I think she brought me a lot too. She brought me to sports, but she also influenced me on how to be a strong woman, and on how to lead your family. So I would definitely choose my mom.
Ashreen (17:52) That is so inspiring. And I think I've seen that a lot of successful women have taken inspiration from their mothers, uh, and you know, from, from their time when they actually started breaking barriers. Getting back to the ring and to my next question, I remember you mentioning that your first two years as the head of the Pelado Real Football Club was very hard, but something that was very brave and necessary change for you. And I can hardly picture it because in Brazil, I know we all know that it's driven by the men's game. Everybody knows about Brazil, men's football. So can you tell us a little bit about this daring leadership of yours and how you knew this was the right time to take such a bold action?
Julia (18:35) That's a funny question because I don't actually knew it was the right time. When I decided to quit my job, which was actually a very, very promising career at this huge bank, I remember that maybe, I think six months before I took the decision, the same bank sent me to Europe to France to participate in an international conference. So it was so amazing. It was the first time I was traveling to work in international and representing my job, and so it was, it was very amazing. Of course people would think, why would you quit this job? But the thing is that something was, you know, in the back of my mind saying that I was supposed to do it. And after everything happened, of course, I didn't know at that time. But now that I have reflected about it, I always say that I think I had the duty to do it just because I know how privileged I've been in my life. I mean, I grew up in a very structured family. I have a mom that is a very strong and inspirational woman. I have a dad that always supported me to play sports. I have two brothers who also supported me. One of them actually helped me to learn how to write and read and I could play sports my whole life. And I had a great education. I could go to the U.S Foreign in Exchange when I was a student. So I know I have a very privileged life and that gives me the duty to do something that maybe other people cannot do. But at that time I had no idea if I would be successful, I had no idea if I would get enough money to, you know, to leave, but I had my parents. So again, I was privileged to take that decision and to be brave enough. And that's what I say now to other girls and women who I talk to.
Ashreen (20:39) That's amazing. And I think I take a lot of inspiration from you because I'm still working, but I'm sort of moving towards the idea of working with sports full-time, but honestly it takes a lot of strength and hats off to you for taking that step so early. Last but not the least. So you recently started a new project to serve your dream where you want to find a safe place for women and girls to play sports. So with the Nessa Arena, you're taking a huge leap of faith. You're no longer just running your programs, your camps, but also you're sort of now becoming an, an owner and a designer for your own stadium and you're doing it in the middle of a pandemic too, which is crazy. When, you know, sports is sort of closed off in all parts of the world, you’re still advancing your community and building this from scratch. Where did you find the energy and the positivity to dream big and having, uh, an arena and a club that is designed by a woman for women is something, how, how necessary did you think this was for your club and for your dream?
Julia (21:46) I think I get all the energy from the girls, of course, because you totally know what I'm saying, that when we see these girls playing and the joy and the development that they get from playing sports and connecting to each other, The sisterhood that they create, you were saying, you know, about the community that we create through sports. So every time I look at them, even in the middle of the pandemic that I have to see them virtually engaging and trying to play at home. They don't have enough space and they break stuff at home and their parents get pissed off, but they keep playing because that's what they love to do. So seeing their smiles it's, it's enough for me to get the energy I need. And of course then when we get in such a difficult and challenging times, we also think, what else can we do? You know, because again, if we are the people who have the opportunity and the ability to do something and to transform our society, then maybe that's the time that this society most need us. So when everyone is sad and hopeless at home, that's the time when we step up and say, “Hey guys, no, we, we can, we can do more. And here's something that is going to help you to do more.” So that's the idea about Nessa arena. It's about not just in creating, not just creating a space for my club, Pelado Real to play, but also to give opportunities for other clubs, other women who are creating their girls' sports projects. They have a structure where they can play because that's something I didn't have, and now we see other groups of women who are trying to create something similar and it's so important. Having the opportunity to create a space where all of these groups will be together and it will be able to grow and develop together, it's, uh, it's amazing. I'm very, I'm very honored that we are actually creating and transforming this dream into reality. And yes, I do believe this is very, very important and relevant to have a space that it's only for girls and women. And when you say safe space is not only about security, but it's about feeling that it's okay to be there, to be you and having a coach who is also women and who understands. That's why we need this place for girls to, to be there and to have a massive grow of female soccer and female sports in Brazil and in other places.
Carole (24:30) And that’s end of round two. Ref speaking here. I'm not going to create any red card or et cetera, rather building on the safe space we just mentioned. I want to give you two green and white cards because you're such an inspiration helping us to dream and to believe and to become so thanks a lot. Let's move now to round three. With your thoughts on empowerment.
Ashreen (24:57) Yep. I guess I'm going to ask this question to Julia, what is your definition of empowerment?
Julia (25:03) I think an empowered woman is someone who has the capacity and the opportunity to take their own decisions. Sometimes you can have the ability, you can have the capacity, but you don't have the opportunity to take your own decisions to choose what you want for your life. So I think that when we actually want to empower someone, we need to give all of these. Ashreen what’s your definition of empowerment?
Ashreen (25:32) I don't know what I should say right after you gave such a brilliant answer. Only thing I would add is that I think women in general, as we grow up, we're just taught to be quiet and not, not speak and, you know, and as a result, women around the world are just fearful of, of, of the choices that they need to make. And so I always feel that on the other side of fear is empowerment.
Carole (25:55) Ref speaking here, I could not help, but end this friendly fight with a sincere thank you to our audience. And guess what the winner of today's episode is, communities around the globe who are benefiting from greater equality and inclusivity. Thank you ladies for your priceless time and energy. You're the stars here and today, so I leave you with the final words.
Ashreen (26:20) We hope that you've learned something new about developing sports, uh, be it football in Brazil or basketball in Bangladesh. And you have a feeling of inspiration to make a difference in your own community, I think, and I'm sure Julia would agree that social change is a team sport and we're counting on you to join us as we celebrate the global impact of Title IX. And here are some easy ways to get on the action.
Julia (26:46) Click the “like” button and subscribe to our channel and share this podcast with your family, friends, and colleagues. You can also leave your questions and comments on social media. And remember you can listen to more episodes of the Strong Women, Better World Podcast Series, on your favorite podcasting platform. I actually already listen to some of them and they are very inspirational, so I highly recommend you do the same.