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WWE's Stephanie McMahon: 'Women belong in any room they want to be in'

She works in an industry dominated by men — and a business dominated by McMahons. In managing both of those aspects, Stephanie McMahon has come to know her value and help other women to recognize theirs.
Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer for WWE.
Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer for WWE.Courtesy of WWE.

Stephanie McMahon is the chief brand officer of WWE, but even that C-suite title belies the extent of her connection to the company. Her parents, Vince and Linda McMahon, founded the company when she was only 4 years old. Today, she works alongside her brother Shane and husband Paul “Triple H” Levesque. And McMahon even steps in front of the camera and into the wrestling ring herself.

It’s an industry dominated by men — and a business dominated by McMahons. In managing both of those aspects, Stephanie McMahon has come to know her value and help other women to recognize theirs.

“I’ve grown up in this business since I can remember, and because my mom was the CEO of our company, I never saw gender as an issue,” McMahon, 44, told NBC News’ Know Your Value in an interview this week. “I always thought women could and should be the CEO. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized not everyone thought that was the case.”

Bolstered by her mother Linda’s leadership at WWE — including her tenure as CEO from 1997 to 2009 — as well as her father Vince’s assurances that a confident woman owns the room, McMahon entered the family business and served in a variety of roles from reception work to creative design. But as she ascended to higher roles, particularly in the creative realm, like many women, she sometimes found herself nervous to speak up.

WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon and her father, WWE CEO Vince McMahon.
WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon and her father, WWE CEO Vince McMahon.Courtesy of WWE.

McMahon recounted a crystallizing moment early in her career, when she came up with a great idea as an otherwise all-male team planned how a match would end. Although she had always been a strong character developer in her writing, this time felt different because it was about the stunts and what would physically happen in the ring.

“This was about the physicality of the match, a specific area that few women had contributed to, so I was like, ‘should I even say anything?’” McMahon said. “I finally said, ‘Screw it,’ and I threw it out there. It was very well received — I remember specifically one of the longtime producers in the room latched onto it, though he could have been dismissive.”

McMahon said she immediately “felt so good” that she spoke up. And that feeling (and the lesson she learned) lasted long after she left that room.

“I proved I had value in a room where it had previously not been thought that a woman could contribute in that way,” she added. “We [women] all have those conversations with ourselves about why we shouldn’t speak. But this gave me the confidence that I needed, and now I always tell other women: Use your voice. Don’t be meek. You belong in any room you want to be in — but you have to use your voice to be heard.”

That practice has paid off for McMahon, who is in charge of branding for the $974 million company. (Peacock recently inked a deal to become the exclusive streaming platform for the company’s on-demand content, WWE Network. Peacock is owned by NBCUniversal, which is also the parent company of NBC News

McMahon gained confidence in leadership, which came into play when when her father, who is CEO, tore both of his quadriceps muscles in the ring at WWE’s Royal Rumble 2005. The crew was in the middle of a big tour and was next heading to perform one of its first shows in Japan. McMahon found herself in charge. She called Vince (he’s “Vince” at work and “Dad” at home) as he was healing to ask his opinion about the show.

“He sounded terrible, McMahon said, recounting her father saying “I don’t give a f---" about the show.

“Now, if you know him, the creative is what he cares about more than anything. That particular day [because he was injured], he did not care and he let me know,” she said. “And now here I am leading a team of almost all men, all veterans in this business. I had to be not afraid. That moment before in that production room gave me the confidence to recognize I know what I’m doing, and I belong in that room.”

The show, of course must go on — and it did, under McMahon's leadership. As ever, it was a family affair. But though her family has built a $974 million entertainment juggernaut, she said working together is always a bit of a work in progress.

“Early on, for example, I was told I was really micromanaging to the point the leader of a team had threatened to leave,” McMahon said. “It was this real eye-opening moment for me, and it’s hard when your boss is your father — you take it so, so personally. You feel like you’ve failed him, and it rips your heart out.”

Over time, McMahon and her family members have learned to set boundaries and better understand each other.

“Relationships themselves grow and change, and that’s part of it: You can fall into the trap of knowing someone so well that you assume you know what they think, but you don’t always,” McMahon said. “We have learned how to communicate better too, in that we try to make it clear when we come into a room, we’re speaking about something personal versus business related. So, we can all know our role in that moment.”

A previous announcement for women's Royal Rumble.
A previous announcement for women's Royal Rumble.Courtesy of WWE.

McMahon has also been proud of her advocacy for women in the ring. For example, she took fans’ criticism to heart after they erupted following a 2015 match between two women wrestlers that “lasted all of 30 seconds,” she said, spurring the viral hashtag #GiveDivasAChance that trended on social media for days.

“They were calling for more athleticism, better character development, and we listened,” she said. Changes included rebranding the “Divas” to the “Women’s Division,” creating new championship belts more akin to the men’s and calling the women athletes “Superstars,” just like the men. “Since then, women have been regularly headlining everything, including WrestleMania, which is our Super Bowl,” she noted. (This year’s WrestleMania is streaming April 10 and 11 on Peacock starting at 8 p.m. ET.)

And in 2017, women WWE wrestlers performed in Abu Dhabi for the first time.

“The audience started chanting, ‘This is hope,’” McMahon said. “And that led to not one, but two women’s matches in Saudi Arabia, where the chant was ‘This is awesome.’ And you know what? It really is.”