Hilary Ash is quite the celebrity within our Wharton Global Youth community at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Hilary, a 2013 graduate of Wharton, serves as the client for the 2023-2024 Wharton Global High School Investment Competition. Raised in Los Angeles, CA (U.S.) and now living with her husband (who works at YouTube!) and dog Riggins in San Francisco, Hilary is the vice president of games delivery and venue infrastructure for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games. We sat down with her over Zoom to learn more about her job and passion for sports.
Wharton Global Youth Program: Have you always been interested in the business side of sports?
Hilary Ash: I grew up in the Los Angeles area, and my parents still live here. As I think about my family profile, in some way, shape or form, we all ended up in sports. My brother works in sports marketing, my dad works in major events, including the Olympics and FIFA World Cups and major football events. And that was really what ultimately inspired me to get into sports. We all work in the same industry in different markets. It’s quite fun because we constantly run into people in our orbit who know each other. To me, it’s a really core part of my professional and personal identity.
Wharton Global Youth: What is your role in the LA 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games?
Hilary: I’m the vice president of games delivery and venue infrastructure, which means that I oversee our venue masterplan strategy for the LA 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games (the 2028 Summer Olympics). I work closely with a lot of different groups within our organization to help identify and then be able to design and build what we’re going to need from a competition and non-competition venue for the Games. We don’t have to build anything permanent, which is a really cool part of the LA history of sports in general, but also the Olympics. This is LA’s third time hosting the Olympics – 1932, 1984 and now 2028 — and we basically have two of every sports team in this market. When you think about the existing venues and buildings, we have so much to work with. A huge part of my team’s job is about re-envisioning and reimagining how we take the venues and what they do today and make them ready for the Games.
We also need to supplement those venues with temporary venues. For example, we don’t have an existing beach volleyball arena. So, we will build one. It’s all about delivering the venues that are needed to host both the Olympics and the Paralympic Games, and all the sports that will be hosted for both editions. We are working on all aspects of venue design and architecture, and working with the operational teams to make sure that as we design these venues that will ultimately get constructed much, much later, they meet the needs of the various teams.
Wharton Global Youth: What business skills do you bring to this job?
Hilary: I love that intersection of business and the creative. Working with designers is a big piece of what I do. Even though I have always been a numbers, analytics and strategy person, I love being able to bring the data and the business aspects to even the most creative outlets of what we’re planning for. It’s been heavy in the architecture, design space. As we progress closer and closer to the games, there are new challenges. It’s never the same thing. We’re designing over 32 competition venues, and we’ll transition into envisioning how they need to get delivered and constructed and working with different suppliers and vendors. And ultimately, when it is time for the Olympic Games, being able to see the physical output of what we’ve been working on will be super special. I don’t have a background in architecture, I have a background in business. I first started at the LA 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games more in a broad corporate strategy role, but have been able to bring together a lot of my passions from the creative side. With my father working in sports, I always loved going to events with him and being in buildings and feeling how special it is — how spaces create such amazing experiences. And so, while I didn’t study architecture, I think that idea of sports infrastructure has always been something that I have loved and gravitated toward.
Wharton Global Youth: How do you help young people understand that the business of sports is more than just becoming a star athlete?
Hilary: A couple years ago, I was part of a new class of Under 30 award winners. I had a great opportunity through the Sports Business Journal to be paired with a bunch of people who are all under 30 and are rising voices in the sports industry. We started working with an organization called Year Up — not in a formal affiliation from any of our companies, but as this unit of people in the industry.
Growing up, there’s this specific view of what it means to work in the sports industry. It starts first with being an athlete, and then being an agent. It’s so much more than that. This organization focuses on helping to create a pipeline for underserved communities, and especially communities of people where they aren’t necessarily planning to get a college degree — they don’t have the means, or they don’t have the ability to get a college degree for a variety of reasons. How can we create better access and better pipelines into the sports industry? We want them to know that you can be in sports and be in tech, you can be in sports and be in finance, you can be in sports and be in analytics. You don’t have to necessarily be directly related to the athlete and the competition to be in sports. This is a big business, and we need to treat it like a big business. And we need people who can do big-data analysis. We are transforming the profile of what it means to work in sports, which is exciting, and I think opens up more opportunities for people to be in sports. We want to help those kids who are wondering, ‘How do I figure out how to do it and not just be a fan of sports? And how do I make my way into the industry?’
“I love the way that you think about business problems, coming up with new solutions, new products and new ideas. And I enjoyed the way that it evolved my problem-solving skills.” – Hilary Ash
Wharton Global Youth: Are you also devoted to growing women’s sports?
Hilary: We’re at such an exciting time right now in women’s sports, where we’re starting to see a real shift in the appreciation of what it means to buy into women’s sports. We have a new professional women’s soccer team in the bay area (Bay FC), and for the first time, a private equity firm taking the lead role of investing in that property. We also have the success of the U.S. women’s national team in soccer and the fight for pay equity. I would love to have a direct role in seeing more money flow into women’s sports and a proper appreciation for what female athletes can bring to brands and properties. And then also seeing the growth in access for girls growing up, because we are able to build an ecosystem that is well-funded.
This is important to me, even as someone who played sports. When I was at the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton, I played four years of volleyball, and now I co-chair our women’s volleyball board. We’re a support system for fundraising and help run and lead our volleyball mentor program, which includes just knowing how to navigate being a student-athlete at Penn. We have to work really hard to make money through donations to fund the sports, and oftentimes it’s coming from friends and family. I would like to see growth in a systematic valuation of what it means to play women’s sports, watch women’s sports and the power of female athletes as influencers.
Wharton Global Youth: Can you give us a highlight reel from Wharton and your early career?
Hilary: I transferred to Wharton my sophomore year. I came to Penn in my freshman year thinking I wanted to be a doctor and studying bio on the medical track. I was very good at those subjects in high school and enjoyed them. But I started taking some classes with one of my teammates who had gone straight into the Wharton program as an undergrad and realized that a lot of the things that I loved to do and a lot of the things that my brain naturally gravitated toward, were more of the business-related subjects. I guess that’s the point with college. You’re learning about yourself while you’re on your own for the first time. And so, I applied and transitioned into Wharton and very quickly gravitated toward the entrepreneurship and innovation track. Not necessarily because I had always envisioned myself being an entrepreneur. I really enjoyed the frame of thinking. I love the way that you think about business problems, coming up with new solutions, new products and new ideas. And I enjoyed the way that it evolved my problem-solving skills.
I enjoyed taking sports classes, electives that were MBA courses, or other courses like sports law and sports business management. I wanted to work in sports, even at that time, and a lot of my summer internships were in sports. In my internships at ESPN, I worked in customer marketing and the sales department in New York. I realized that I was at this precipice of the sports industry with these massive media deals and massive contracts with athletes, where you were starting to see record-breaking money in the market. A lot of my mentors and bosses during the time were highlighting that it’s so important to bring a strong business acumen to the industry. They were pushing me to consider going a more traditional business route and then making my way back into the sports industry.
So, after Wharton, I started at BCG and went through management consulting to learn from so many different companies. I worked with Fortune 500 companies on a variety of different projects, honing my data analytics and strategy skills. Then I was able to bring that back into the sports industry. I got very lucky that when the bid for the Los Angeles Games was starting, there was a former BCG person who worked there and said we needed someone who was a problem solver and who was going to come in and be able to help us put strategy and process around what we were trying to do. That’s how I got the opportunity. I really believe that it was that way of thinking in my classes at Wharton that opened my eyes to it. I wasn’t necessarily starting a new business, but having to jump into new businesses and be able to quickly grasp what the problem was and then come up with a solution. That has served me well.
Hilary Ash says, “I would love to have a direct role in seeing more money flow into women’s sports and a proper appreciation for what female athletes can bring to brands and properties.” Why do you think this is important to her? Is it also important to you?
Was Hilary always planning to study business at the University of Pennsylvania? How did she pivot and why? How has her experience at Wharton fueled her career choices?
Have you interned in the business of sports? What aspect of the industry interests you? Share your story in the comment section of this interview.