Dawn Trudeau Is a Game Changer

With no college degree, Dawn Trudeau became a millionaire and a philanthropist. Now she leads a WNBA team of champions

by Julie Halpert
dawn trudeau game changer image
Photograph: John Clark

After brief stints at other businesses, she was hired in 1984 at what she describes as “this little company called Microsoft,” in the information-management department. At the time, only a handful of women worked at the company, most in human resources. As someone without a college degree on a staff full of Ivy League MBAs, Trudeau made up her mind to learn everything she could. “My preparation paid off,” she says. Three years later, “I became the first associate product manager for Microsoft Excel.” At the annual sales meeting the following year, Bill Gates presented Trudeau with the Corporate Award for Excellence.

“Here I was, without a degree, getting recognized as the best by a very demanding group,” she says. “It proved to me that I could compete with anyone.” Later, when she was promoted and some male employees made it clear they didn’t think she was qualified, Trudeau was undaunted. “My team rallied around me,” she says.
But the 60-hour workweeks took a toll. “For the sake of my health and happiness, I needed to find something else,” she says.

In 1998 she left Microsoft a millionaire many times over, with enough vested stock grants to support her comfortably for the rest of her life. For the next 10 years, she dedicated herself to helping nonprofits figure out how to become self-sustaining. “I’ve been fortunate, so I feel the need to do what I can to give other people opportunities,” she says. One of those organizations was the University of Washington Women’s Center, which helps disadvantaged minority girls get college degrees through its Making Connections program. “She gave her heart and soul to it,” says Sutapa Basu, the center’s executive director, who has since become Trudeau’s friend. “She’s a good listener—a nurturing, caring person who doesn’t judge. She’s made a difference in so many young women’s lives.” But she also has a playful side. Basu and Trudeau often take turns hosting dinner parties for a handful of women who share a commitment to social-justice issues. Their discussions are followed by music and dancing, and Trudeau always leads the way. “She’s a great dancer!” says Basu.

When the opportunity to buy the Storm came up, Trudeau, then 50, realized that owning the team would be a way to further her mission of creating opportunities for underprivileged girls. “Sports enables young women to bootstrap themselves out of an environment that may not be positive,” she says. “Most of the women who play in the WNBA come from humble beginnings.” Still, there are huge inequities between men’s and women’s professional basketball. The maximum annual salary for a WNBA player—a limit set through collective bargaining—is $105,000. Male players earn, on average, $5.1 million. As chair and managing partner of Force 10 Hoops LLC (the business entity that owns the Seattle Storm), Trudeau is on a mission to fix the imbalance; for that to happen, she says, all the WNBA teams have to attract more fans and media attention.

However, soon after Trudeau took charge of the Seattle Storm in 2008, the men’s team, the SuperSonics, moved to Oklahoma, bringing with it the administrative support Trudeau had been counting on. The Storm’s ticket sales tanked by nearly a third. “We had absolutely the worst convergence, between inexperienced owners, loss of the team’s infrastructure and the economic downturn,” says Trudeau. “None of us would have done this if we’d known what was to come. But we were already in it, so then you just deal. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and say, ‘You know what, I can figure it out. If I figured out other things in my life, I’ll figure this out, too.’ My mantra is ‘Keep learning.’ I’d rather go out in a blaze than shrivel up.”

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