The Legacy of USTA Eastern, Through the Eyes of the Women who Lead it: Part 2
Throughout USTA Eastern’s long history, many women have made major contributions toward enhancing the quality of the tennis landscape and infrastructure in communities across the section. That is especially true today, as women hold most of the leadership roles within the organization. Jenny Schnitzer, who joined the Eastern staff fresh out of college 29 years ago, serves as its CEO and Executive Director, and four of its six departments are led by women. Julie Bliss Beal heads up the Competitive Department, which organizes and directs all junior and adult competition; Jocelyn Cruz-Alfalla leads the Community Department, which helps develop, support and sustain tennis programming in schools, parks and neighborhoods across the section; Monica LaMura manages the Marketing & Communications Department, which publicizes and promotes all organization initiatives; and Lauren Bull and Susan Friedlaender oversee Adult Leagues, which is the largest section-wide competitive program. Bliss Beal just celebrated her twentieth anniversary at Eastern, and Bull and Cruz-Alfalla have both been staff members since 2007. In honor of Women’s History Month, we gathered all six women together for a (virtual) roundtable discussion. In the final installment of this two-part series, they talk about their greatest memories and accomplishments working together, and how they feel about leading an organization in a field that has historically skewed heavily male. Read Part 1 of the conversation here.
Most of you have been with USTA Eastern for over a decade at a minimum. What are some of your most long-lasting memories of your time with the organization?
JENNY SCHNITZER: My focus was on community tennis. I’ll never forget it was the first week on the job, and I had a volunteer call me, an older gentleman. And he just reamed me out for twenty minutes, just yelled at me about how upset he was, how he sent in a volunteer form and nobody called him back. I finally said, “Give me one thing I can do right. Let’s work on one project together, and I promise you’re going to be happy moving forward.” From that conversation we became best friends. I went to his little town of White Meadow Lake, New Jersey. We got a CTA parks program started and we were able to grow this little community park program that had 20 people to over 100 kids. To be able to watch somebody take a small program, reach out to the entire area and build it up like that...I just saw the big picture. We could do this across the section, and that really became the goal.
JOCELYN CRUZ-ALFALLA: The fondest memories I have are being with tennis providers [in the field]: Being directly part of an inservice training or talking to coaches and understanding what their drive is about tennis, or working with P.E. teachers directly and chatting with them. Seeing the product from start to finish, which is kids with racquets in their hands. Even some of the [events] we’ve held. I remember being at MetLife Stadium and seeing so many people excited about wanting to try tennis. That was fun and memorable and important. Just knowing that my role professionally can help the sport grow.
SCHNITZER: The things we do make an impact. You can really make a difference in kids’ lives. Even where you hold an event! For instance we used to hold “regional rallies” [for kids]. You have kids from all over the section coming to this one area. And we just happened to be able to do this one regional rally up at West Point. One of the little boys was enthralled with West Point. At the end of the day he said, “I want to go to West Point. I want to be a cadet here.” His mother texted me six years later. She says: “Guess what, he is going to West Point.” This kid worked so hard because he wanted to get there. And he did. To me that’s a small thing—where you host an event. But it made a huge difference in his life. If he never went to that event, he might not have realized he wanted to go there.
What would you all consider some of your greatest accomplishments during your time here? How do you feel you’ve contributed to making the sport stronger in the section?
LAUREN BULL: When I transitioned from working in Adult Tournaments to working in the Leagues Department in 2011, I started working with league coordinators who were all independent contractors, not staff. We started entertaining the idea of hiring them as staff members. It took a couple of years. It was a lot of interviewing and training. And I remember really, right before COVID-19 hit, I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve really got the entire Leagues department in place as staff.” In the long run it’s definitely worked out, in terms of the product and how we all are able to collaborate.
SUSAN FRIEDLAENDER: My biggest goal is I want to make Leagues a friendlier place. People sometimes don’t feel welcome into leagues because it can seem very rule-driven and intimidating. I feel like what we’re trying to do is tell people, “This really is fun. I’ll show you how it’s fun.” And make it friendlier, warmer and more inclusive.
JULIE BLISS BEAL: The Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) recognized USTA Eastern for our College Showcase Day and how we make college an important part of the junior pathway. And recently we were awarded the Team USA Section of the Year from the USTA Player Development. In terms of how I feel like I’ve contributed to making tennis better in the section? It’s not an “I” thing, without a doubt. It’s a team effort. I think about the Team USA award, and it’s because of everyone in the section that continues to grow the game and strives to bring more people to the sport. I’ve just been extremely blessed to be a part of this organization and learn from the people around me.
SCHNITZER: We want volunteers, community partners to be a part of the Eastern family. And if there’s something that’s not right, let us know. If not, then jump on board and let’s figure out how we can do things better, how we can really grow the game together and also how to really root it in the community, so if we were to leave tomorrow, that program’s still there. And then also help us to develop the pathways from local grassroots programs to our facilities. Again, we want everybody taking part in the growth.
Thinking about Women's History Month: This is an organization in a historically male-dominated field that is largely led by women. That’s probably not something you necessarily think about day-to-day, but what is your general perspective on working alongside so many women in leadership roles? How might that impact the culture compared to other places you’ve worked?
MONICA LAMURA: I think emotional intelligence—just being able to access empathy—is so important. And that’s something that I’ve seen in a lot of the women at Eastern. Being able to support each other, understand where the other one is coming from. I will say I do think it is important to stop and reflect on the fact that there are a lot of women in leadership roles here, in the sports industry no less. I think people would probably make the assumption that [our office] is led by men.
BULL: Just thinking about what Monica is saying, my previous career in IT was very male-dominated, and it still is—especially the management. I also worked for much bigger organizations. Eastern is smaller, it’s more intimate, everybody knows each other, which is nice.
CRUZ-ALFALLA: I’ve just been in awe of the people who preceded me in leadership roles. My past work experience at a school, the headmaster of the school was a Filipino female, which is fabulous. At Hunter where I coached, my Athletic Director was female. At the ambulatory care area where I worked in public health, my boss was female. So I’ve been fortunate enough to be following the footsteps of female leaders ahead of me in a professional space. That has inspired me.
What have you learned working for Jenny as a longstanding leader in the sports industry? What’s a quality about her that you admire?
BULL: I’ve been working with Jenny since 2007, so I’ve seen her evolve into the executive director role. She’s taken on all these new responsibilities over the years, but she has always remained approachable and friendly and upbeat. That’s inspiring.
BLISS BEAL: Jenny’s a natural born leader, and I noticed that right away when I first started working with her. She took me out with her, she showed me the ropes. I saw her teach tennis at the schools during PE classes, run rallies and trainings, girl scout events! She led the audience, she led the room, she commanded their attention. I mean, she just knew her stuff. It was great to be able to learn from her. I still learn from her everyday. It’s just been great being able to have this journey alongside her.
FRIEDLAENDER: One of her best qualities is she is a big-picture thinker. She’s really good at that. She doesn’t focus on one area too much. She looks across all the different programs and tries to figure out what’s best for the greatest number of people. She doesn’t get caught in the weeds.
LAMURA: Jenny’s kindness knows no bounds. I’ve just seen her treat every single person with so much respect. That’s such an admirable quality as a leader. You know that no matter what you come to her with, she’s going to hear you out. I think that’s her best trait: her incredible empathy and kindness.
CRUZ-ALFALLA: She is going to find every reason to pick up the phone and solve something. She’s still so passionate about the sport. She’s seen so much that if you ask her about something, she has a knowledge base about everything at Eastern. It’s just incredible.
To know that she’s come from playing tennis in the parks in NYC, it’s a huge kudos to her.
And Jenny, how do you personally feel, as the leader of this organization, having the opportunity to mentor and lead so many women?
SCHNITZER: When I first started, Eastern was led by a woman, Doris Herrick. I just sent her a message on Facebook for her birthday. And I thanked her because she was an inspiration to me. She mentored me, and I learned so much from her. She knew when to listen and when to be compassionate. On the other end, when she had a direction, there was no stopping her. And out of the 17 section executive directors at the time, I think she was one of only two females. She was really breaking ground for us. So I think I learned from the best. She was the most diplomatic person I ever met. It’s a privilege to be able to pass that along to the other women working in this organization. We’ve been through the same things with having young families and trying to juggle both home life and work life, and still trying to stay healthy and play tennis. So we have a lot in common, and to be able to work with them and guide them to where they are today, it makes this job even more of a privilege.