It was just a few hours before the Seattle Storm faced off against the Phoenix Mercury in a decisive WNBA semifinal playoff matchup. Alisha Valavanis, the Storm CEO, was laser focused on the game as she strolled into Starbucks for a routine coffee pit stop.
As she grabbed her drink, a father approached and wished Valavanis good luck. But then something else happened that made the hoops executive completely forget about basketball.
“We were chanting ‘Go Storm!’ in our house this morning,” the dad told her, “and my son announced to the table that when he grows up, he wants to be [Storm legend] Sue Bird.”
Valavanis walked out with tears in her eyes. The fact that a little boy was excited and comfortable enough in his own home to say that he wanted to be just like a women’s basketball star, and that his father was excited to share that story — “that is real change,” Valavanis said Thursday evening at The Playbook , GeekWire’s speaker series for entrepreneurs and business leaders.
Valavanis sat down with GeekWire editor Todd Bishop in front of a packed room at The Ninety in Seattle for a wide-ranging and thought-provoking conversation that ranged from pay equity to lessons from court that can be applied to work and life.
A native of Valparaiso, Ind., Valavanis grew up playing basketball and shared the backcourt with her twin sister Alexa on the women’s basketball team at California State University, Chico, finishing her career as the program’s all-time leader in three-pointers. She went on to serve as a collegiate coach and WNBA scout, working in the front office for the Golden State Warriors and as associate athletics director at the University of California, Berkeley.
Valavanis was hired by the Storm in 2014 and led a rebuilding effort that resulted in the franchise winning its third WNBA Championship in 2018, after drafting Jewell Loyd (2015 WNBA Rookie of the Year) and power forward Breanna Stewart (2018 regular season and WNBA Finals MVP) to form a new core of the team, alongside veterans such as Bird, the 11-time WNBA All Star who has played 16 seasons in Seattle.
Valavanis has also led the franchise through adversity, as the Storm made the playoffs this year despite injuries that forced Stewart and Bird to miss the season.
In addition to putting the team together as general manager, Valavanis runs the business side of the franchise with a startup approach, negotiating key community sponsorships and partnerships.
On how running the Storm is like running a startup
“It seems very analogous. At the end of the day, you believe in something, you’re trying to find your space, your market share, you’re trying to cut through the noise so that people can experience and hopefully have a lot of value from what you’re doing. My hope would be that that many of you are doing that for some greater cause and good, that it’s actually going to make the world a better place because of the work you’re doing.
I would imagine our day-to-day is very similar to a brand new startup in terms of the hustle, the grind, everybody’s doing a million different things. Everybody’s got to buy-in and lock arms to an idea that has not yet totally materialized. We are all still, every single day ,playing for something that has not happened, which is equality in sports and equal pay.
It’s just the culture, people buying into each other and an idea. Startups have power and fuel just in what is happening with the humans that are apart of them.
There are probably a ton of similarities, but at the end of the day you believe in what you’re doing and you’re trying to show the world to believe in it as well.”
On equal pay
“This is a part of the conversation every day. Every day we’re in a conversation with players and with all of our stakeholders on how we can change this game.
When asked, do you value women’s sports? Do you think this matters for our children, for not only our little girls, but our little boys to grow up in a world where they can see women play professional sports?
Most people would immediately throw a hand up and say they want their children to be raised in a world where women, many of whom are women of color, have a chance to play professional sports and get paid, without the challenges that come with the WNBA where most of your season is overseas away from your family just to make the economics work.
Most people would immediately raise a hand — that isn’t the issue. We don’t have an issue with whether or not people believe it’s right and believe the world would be a better place. And this illustrates a miss in terms of what we do value — not what we say we value. At the end of the day, I believe what you value can be measured by your time, your energy, and your money, your resources.
And our question and our challenge is, as a society, if we value women — not just women in sports — where are we putting our time? Where are we putting our energy? Where are we putting our resources to change the game?
The exciting thing is, the WNBA has a lot of fun. Go out with your family, have a great time, it’s entertainment, and you’re actually making the world a better place. So it’s not this hard sell.
Our call to action is if you care, show up. And Seattle does. Seattle shows up for our team. So I’ve got to give it up to the room and Seattle. But we need the rest of the country, too.
We also need corporate America involved. That what’s going to tip this. We need media involved. That is what’s going to tip it. Because the truth is if your little ones grow up in a household where when you are flipping through channels and you see the WNBA, it changes everything. It changes everything when your little girl or boy can go to the store and pick up signature Sue Bird shoes.
This has to be a collective effort. We have to get in this game together if we want change. And sports is one of those leading spaces. Sports is this incredible platform to really illustrate and show what’s going to happen. We have a real responsibility to drive a societal change through it because we know we have the power to do it.”
On being able to pass to your teammates
“A true belief I have in leadership and team is this concept of passing the ball. It’s really hard in business when you’re trying to have your seat at the table, you’re on your climb, you want to add value, you want to demonstrate that you belong in the room, but it might not always be your strength. You guys have all been in rooms where it’s not necessarily the person’s strength that is going on for 45 minutes about whatever the topic is, right?
But the truth is we have to pass the ball. We have to understand that we have to play to our strengths and pass the ball to the people on our team that have strengths in the areas we don’t. And of course what happens is that player passes the ball back and culture is lifted and trust is built.
For me, some of it is just how I deeply believe in trust in human beings and want people to, you know, be in their space and do what they do. And some of it’s a function of time and energy and the importance of trust so that people in our business can run their line of business.
I don’t micromanage. I mean, there isn’t time for it. And who’s winning in a micromanaging situation? All it’s demonstrating is you do not trust your team. What happens when you pass someone the ball and you offer them trust? They play up.
The algorithm for a high performing team at a Fortune 100 company is the exact same for how you cut down nets. To me it’s about kindness and compassion. It’s about all of these things. And that means passing the ball. And that means as leaders, recognizing that the goal is not to have followers, it’s to build leaders, it’s to trust your team. It’s to let people shoot the ball. I believe that it’s about passing the ball so others can shoot.”
On lessons from her twin sister
“To have a built-in backcourt your entire life is a pretty special thing. And she’s a CEO as well. On my drive over here tonight, she was doing a big keynote this evening for her work for the North Valley Community Foundation in Chico, which is at the center of the relief efforts for the Camp Fire. It’s been one year and my twin is at the front of that, leading those relief efforts with so many stakeholders in Chico.
So it was really cool. This happens often where we’re both on the phone talking — I was sharing with her a little bit about this tonight and she was sharing with me what was going on for her. The truth is, every step of the way I’ve had somebody, I’ve had a teammate. That’s been a unique and special experience. And we talk a lot of business, daily. It’s remarkable how her experience is so similar, although we’re doing something that is so very different.
One story I’ll share with you is when we were in grad school both studying journalism and communications. We were just months away from finishing and I remember the night she walked into our apartment and said, ‘you know, I’m going to finish this, but right now I’ve got to go.’ And I’m thinking, where, to like grab Thai food? I had no idea what she was talking about. She said, ‘I’ve met somebody, I really want to do some work in Shanghai, and I think I’m going to go and teach for a little while and then come back.’
She went to Shanghai, she taught, and then from there she went to Antigua, Guatemala and she started a nonprofit in Antigua for indigenous women there, which is another incredible story.
But what she taught me in that moment is you have got to follow your passion no matter what the timing is, no matter how other people are measuring your success, telling you what winning looks like. And I was thrilled to finish, get the degree, move into coaching and kind of stay on my track. But it has stayed with me that she was willing to kind of abandon any notion of failure or someone saying, you know, that’s not what winning looks like, you just left right before you finished up. And she’s been winning ever since.
That is something that has stayed with me. One of the greatest lessons is to continue to audit what you’re doing with your minutes and your time. This is it. These are the moments. I know so many of you are doing incredible work that has incredible impact in this community and in the other’s lives. This is it. These are our minutes. And so I do that audit. I try to do it regularly and it’s without question from my twin.”