Laurel Richie at the 2010 Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas' State of the Girl event.
It's obvious by now that Laurel J. Richie's business acumen was among the primary reasons she got the job as WNBA president to succeed Donna Orender.
Perhaps equally obvious is that there's not a whole lot else known about her, which could possibly create more anxiety among a fan base that has come to expect that the league will "prioritize making and maintaining those grassroots connections to people who care about your product" as ESPN's Mechelle Voepel wrote yesterday.
But as we all wait to learn more about her vision for the WNBA, I found a portion of her remarks at the 2010 Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas State of the Girl event to be somewhat insightful in terms of what she might bring to the WNBA.
"This generation of girls, unlike any other generation, really cares about changing the world," Richie said in the video above. "I remember when I was in high school, I was thinking about boys and what was I going to wear and what college I was going to go to and whether or not I was going to be popular. Our girls are really thinking about how to change the world. When they say the world, they mean the world. The internet has connected this generation and made an awareness of what like is like on this planet and girls have really taken that on.
"When our Girl Scouts Research Institute does research we find out that changing the world and having an impact, whether it's the local community or literally the world is really important to this generation of girls and our leadership model of discover, connect, and take action really allows them to do that."
3. A substantive theory of "empowerment"
It's not uncommon to hear about how the WNBA "empowers" women and girls and yet the word "empowerment" has been bandied about so often that it has almost lost any semblance of meaning. However, I don't think that means the notion of empowering women and girls should be abandoned - leadership just needs to articulate what it means and how specifically the WNBA will accomplish that sometime nebulous aim.
Part of that "empowerment" aim is certainly being good role models, something that Los Angeles Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones described well in her recent piece for Slam Online.
"I’m just signaling a flag of caution towards the growing epidemic that we (as professional athletes, men and women) are a part of," she wrote. "Whether we like it or not, people follow our every action. The success of our future world lies in our hands."
However, the other part is figuring out how to bridge the gap between an aspiration and realizing that aspiration. What stands out about Richie is that she not only has the capacity to articulate clearly what empowerment might look like - "...our leadership model of discover, connect and take action..." - but she has experience working for an organization that has put that into motion to influence the lives of girls nationwide. Empowerment is not giving someone a model, patting them on the head, and wishing them good luck - there has to be some interest, if not emphasis, on mentoring them down that path of following their own potential. If you buy that empowering girls is an important aspect of the WNBA - and I still think it's debatable as to whether a sports league can use that as its foundation - there may be few better leaders to conceive, articulate, and bring about a vision that truly accomplishes that task.
2. Inquiry, advocacy, and action
Sticking with the idea that girls are not only the targets of empowerment, but also the future of the league - both in terms of filling arenas and team rosters - a leader with the willingness to analyze data, define problems and solutions, communicate advocacy that clearly connects that research, and get people to buy in to the agenda is huge. The Girl Scouts Research Institute has done ample research on what "this generation of girls" cares about, which obviously created the key talking points in her speech, but has also created a knowledge base about this generation of girls based on What Girls Say.
To be clear, this is not to say that those lists of research items are exhaustive, generalizable, or somehow inherently "right" - as with any research data, there will be some nuance that changes how the data manifests itself in the lives of people. However, facts do actually matter. And the best organizations - whether they be business, educational, or political - are those that have shared ideals, a common vision (preferably based on facts), attainable goals (definitely based on facts), and a coherent structure that reflects the previous three. That Richie a) has experience working for such an organization and b) that organization has shared ideals with the WNBA is encouraging.
1. An emphasis on brand building through the "Call of Stories"
As a marketing executive, we know that Richie has the capacity to build and transform a brand. However, something else that struck me is her emphasis on stories.
"As we've talked to young girls and potential volunteers, we've found that they have a very, very limited view of what Girl Scouting is all about," Richie said in an interview with Good News Broadcast. "So our work in rebranding is really to get the word out and to tell the story of all the amazing things that girls are doing as Girl Scouts...And all of these experiences, underneath them, is an experience that helps girls hone their leadership skills and really decide what kind of leader they want to be in their own life in the community at-large."
At least some of that should sound familiar to WNBA fans, particularly the idea that the mainstream still has a very, very limited view of the league, if not openly pejorative.
Robert Coles describes in his (totally unrelated, but stay with me) book "The Call of Stories) that through stories, we can come to better understand others - their inherent appeal, value, and power of justification resonates with us in ways that simply listing facts (or, in Coles' case, diagnosing patients) don't. The Expect Great campaign, for example, was well-intentioned in suggesting people to (re-)approach the WNBA with an open mind, but did so in a way that initially opened by shouting that people "have a very, very limited view" instead of counterbalancing that people's limited view with the types of narratives that might encourage a more expansive view. Even in the more recent Basketball is Basketball campaign, there's an emphasis on challenging people's pre-conceived notions (e.g. the inferiority of women's basketball) rather than illuminating that which makes women's basketball compelling on its own terms. Both campaigns, of course, have been met with mockery, militant indifference, or dispassionate curiosity.
It remains to be seen whether or how much Richie might lead the WNBA through a significant re-branding process, but if she does there's no better time than right now to "tell the story of all the amazing" progress made in WNBA basketball - even the most dismissive anti-WNBA sports writers are beginning to recognize that women's basketball is building some momentum.
Of course, the unknown factor is how any of this will translate to running a sports league, which is a definitely a different domain than the Girl Scouts. But there are plenty of experienced people around who can help her figure out how basketball fits within these broader shared ideals between the Girl Scouts and the WNBA. What's most encouraging is that the league appears to have selected a good fit given where it and women's basketball is in its development.
If nothing else, the testimonials at the end of that State of the Girl event demonstrate that she has the ability to translate all of those lofty aims into terms that resonate with girls. That alone should be considered significant.