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

By her count, Dawn Trudeau has watched at least 340 pro basketball games in her life, many of them as a season-ticket holder for her hometown women’s team, the Seattle Storm. Of them all, the game she attended in Atlanta on September 16, 2010, stands out: That night the Storm were competing for the Women’s National Basketball Association championship, and Trudeau was cheering not as a fan but as one of the team’s four owners, all of them women. If the Storm won, it would be the first time in basketball history that a women’s team owned by women would take the prize.

Honoring the Storm’s official color by wearing a green blouse and her lucky necklace, a green labradorite gem fastened to a silver chain, Trudeau clapped like crazy in her courtside seat as the players racked up points. But toward the end of the third quarter, the Storm’s opponent, the Atlanta Dream, had taken the lead, 59–53. Feeling the pressure, Trudeau hit the refreshment stand. “I had to get some water to calm down,” she recalls. She returned minutes later to discover that the Storm had surged ahead. As the clock ticked down, the lead narrowed to just three points. With seconds to go, Trudeau held her breath—then exhaled as two shots by the Atlanta team caromed off the rim, sealing the Storm’s victory. The fans erupted, cheering wildly. Moments later, surrounded by her players on the floor of the arena, Trudeau hoisted the championship trophy over her head. Wow! she thought. We did it! We did what we set out to do!

The win was the apogee of an adventure begun two years earlier when Trudeau, formerly a general manager of consumer products for Microsoft, learned that the Storm’s owners wanted to relocate the team. Together, Trudeau and three of her friends—Ginny Gilder, once an Olympic rower, who now runs her own investment business; Lisa Brummel, senior vice president for human resources at Microsoft; and Anne Levinson, a consultant—bought the Storm for $10 million. “None of us had any experience running a sports team,” Trudeau says. But all four loved the game, and they were determined to keep the Storm in Seattle.

Trudeau’s passion for women’s professional sports began during her Iowa childhood, on a day in 1967 when she and the other girls in her fourth-grade class were required to change into their gym uniforms and cheer for the boys as they played. “This was my first awareness of how girls and boys were treated differently for no clear reason,” Trudeau says. She remembers thinking, Why do I have to watch? Why do the boys get to do things? That’s not the life I’m going to have. Trudeau went on to play intramural basketball in junior high, and from then on she was hooked.

Trudeau’s family didn’t understand her feminism. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a truck driver turned real estate agent, Trudeau grew up in an environment where, she says, “the women cooked for the men and ate their leftovers.” At 18, armed with a high school diploma and $200, she headed to Ann Arbor, hoping to get a job and enroll at the University of Michigan.

She ended up with a mind-numbing gig on an assembly line, putting together computer terminals and monitors. Still, she viewed it as an opportunity to educate herself. Promoted to a position in which she tested keyboards to make sure each character functioned, she taught herself to type. “I kept volunteering for jobs and never ended up going to college,” she says. She married at 23; she and her husband moved to Seattle in 1982. The marriage ended in divorce in 1990, and she married a second time, in 1994.

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.”

Trudeau and her co-owners decided to plow more money into the team, at considerable personal risk. That season the Storm racked up 20 wins and 14 losses. The following year, the women won 28 games and lost six—and ended with the big win in Atlanta. Financially, the team was also on a roll. From 2008 to 2010, its gross revenue rose 63 percent. “I hope the team will be profitable by 2013, but 2015 is more likely,” Trudeau says.

Today, Trudeau attends all 17 home games and the playoffs during the May-to-September season and at least a quarter of the away games, driven as much by her love of the sport as by her desire to win. “I feel the same sense of competition the players feel, the sense of participating in something bigger than you,” she says. “Sports is an entertainment business, and winning is what entertains people.” When Trudeau, her management team and the coach decided the Storm needed an infusion of young talent, they traded two of their veteran players for a couple of less expensive draft picks, hoping their talent and flash would electrify the audience. “People like high-wheeling athleticism, so the more athletic our players are—and the more athletic the game is perceived to be—the more likely we are to get support,” she says.

Her efforts have paid off. During the 2010 season, “there was a buzz in the city about the Storm,” says Trudeau. She recalls sitting in a restaurant in a small town 25 miles outside Seattle, where she overheard two men in their sixties—not typical WNBA fans—discussing the team. “These guys were excited about the Storm,” she says. “Their interest showed that the community was expanding.” With seven sold-out games in the 2011 season and a coach who has the most wins of any professional women’s-basketball coach, Trudeau seems entitled to be confident.

But while her career as a sports- team owner was taking off, Trudeau and her husband, who is retired and 14 years her senior, realized they were moving in different directions. They recently made a mutual decision to split, she says. Trudeau still puts in 10 to 15 hours a week working with nonprofits, mainly Social Venture Partners Seattle, and she’s also on the boards of several organizations. But at least for now, the Seattle Storm remains the focus of her days. Owning the team “has enriched my life in ways I would never have predicted,” she says. “It’s expanded my world. I was feeling like a vagabond, and this has given me a strong sense of community. It’s enormously fulfilling to have a place where you belong.”

JULIE HALPERT, a Michigan-based journalist, is coauthor of Making Up with Mom.

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First Published Thu, 2012-05-31 10:18

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