Gemma Sheehan became the #1 ranked Ontario female MMA fighter at the age of 21, after ten years in the sport, attaining a record of 5 -1 and a Pan Am gold medal in Brazilian jiu jitsu. After a change of values and concerns about brain trauma, Gemma changed gears and quit professional fighting to start a program called Girls Who Fight, which teaches girls and women important skills like how to effectively defend themselves, and how to be confident and assertive. In the last year, she’s worked with over 2000 students from schools, universities, the Girl Guides, and kids summer camps and women’s programs. She also traveled to South Africa to volunteer teaching women and girls for three weeks, and is beginning work with Canadian First Nation groups this fall. Gemma accomplished this all while earning her degree in International Relations from York University, and developing and launching an app that connects people based on sport interests.
My first job ever was…a lifeguard and swim instructor for the City of Toronto. I worked at the same outdoor pool for 6 years every summer and started saving my money at age 15.
I chose my career path because… I want to make a significant impact and difference in the world, I want to be remembered by the good I have done, and I want to live an extraordinary life. I realized I wasn’t getting that out of pro fighting, and that I could get much closer by using my skills and passion to grow a business teaching girls self-defense and confidence, and through entrepreneurship.
My proudest accomplishment is…being able to travel to South Africa to volunteer for three weeks teaching self-defense to women, men, grannies, and kids. I really felt like I had accomplished something meaningful for others, which was using my skills to help empower, protect, and bring joy to people who really, really need it. Winning fights and Pan Am gold medals is an amazing and thrilling feeling, but it’s not the same when the accomplishment has only benefited yourself.
My boldest move to date was…definitely MMA fighting, preparing for high level competition for months, severe weight cutting, daily intense training, and letting go of the fear of getting hit — or at least trying to. After 10 years of that, there’s very little that makes me nervous, although some nerve wracking elements of entrepreneurship can come close… like pitching!
I surprise people when I tell them…that as a 23 year old entrepreneur, one of the biggest things i look forward to is starting a family (when I’m ready and have made big career waves). I feel that among my friends and other entrepreneurs, being excited for marriage and kids isn’t talked about or celebrated. I’m driven by money, accomplishment, and even power, but perhaps even more by the ability to provide an extraordinary life for my family that our previous generations had never been able to experience. I think it’s important to encourage women to do what they really want, not what society wants them to want, whether that’s a bad-ass high paying career, to be a stay at home mom, or to try to manage both or anything in between.
My best advice to women entering a male-dominated field is…I’ve been in two male dominated fields now: pro fighting and business. I never felt like I was held back in fighting, I actually felt like being a female brought me more opportunities than my male training partners because there were hundreds of them and few of me. Don’t ever start your mission with the mindset that you are worse off because you are a woman, but with the mindset that you are just as capable as anyone ever and as long as you work hard, maintain integrity and never quit, you will succeed like anyone else. The world is changing. Don’t focus on the negative, but see and take advantage of all the opportunities and even privileges for women in your field. The ability for success lies within the individual.
“I think it’s important to encourage women to do what they really want, not what society wants them to want, whether that’s a bad-ass high paying career, to be a stay at home mom, or to try to manage both or anything in between.”
My best advice from a mentor was…to accept and appreciate failure. Everything won’t work all of the time and few things will ever work really well, but we won’t get to find those few things without our due share of trial and error first. Don’t be discouraged by failure, be excited to learn the lessons that only someone with the courage to try can learn and then try again.
I would tell my 20-year old self…to aim lower and go slower. I have a habit of extreme future and big picture planning. That’s the eventual role of the CEO/ founder, but starting out it is better to focus more energy on the important short term things that will get you further towards your goal by tomorrow or next month when it’s just you. I tend to set crazy unrealistic goals and then inevitably feel unaccomplished. It was good for me to realize that things take a lot of time. Nothing happens overnight and hardly anything major for most cases over a year. It’s the persistence that brings the fortune.
My biggest setback was…I am lucky that this has so far been my biggest obstacle, as I believe this is everyone’s obstacle at one point or another. Starting in a field where you know nothing, about business, marketing, accounting, tech, funding, etc. I approach these things with confidence and positivity, but every now and then you can really feel like “I don’t know what to do from here, I don’t know what direction to go, I am in over my head in an environment I don’t understand.”
I overcame it by…realizing that everyone great started at that point. And there’s no reason that I cannot triumph if I approach it with the tenacity and dedication that great people do. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Nothing worth doing is ever really easy anyways. I remind myself that greatness is meant to be difficult, and that I can handle it.
I release stress by…taking a really, really, hot bath and throwing on some tv show on my laptop. I used this as body relief when I was training intensely, and now i use it for a mental escape. Bath salts, oil, a candle, and The Office always makes me feel better adjusted!
The last book I read was…1984 by George Orwell. The first fiction book in a long time, but I had heard so much about its importance that I needed to read it. I really enjoy reading about persuasion, strategy, and psychology.
I stay inspired by…reminding myself that life is short, how little I have to lose and how much I have to gain. I think that to have exceptional opportunities and experiences that life can offer, you have to really be exceptional. I think that the more true energy you put into something good, the more amazing opportunities the world kicks back at you. There are so many possibilities, all it takes is the courage and belief in yourself to truly try to be exceptional in what you do to discover them.
The future excites me because…The future is exciting because we all have the ability to influence it. Everyone, to a degree, with the decisions we make and the influence we have through our networks, however small. But some of us have the ability to significantly affect the future if we want to, and that’s an exciting power to have and a good start for finding meaning in life, I think.
My next step is…to expand locations in Toronto to offer programs, and to find great employees who can help further the mission.