Seattle Storm CEO Karen Bryant (’02) respected by colleagues on and off the court

KarenBryant 250x250Living in Seattle and a passion for basketball have been two constants in Karen Bryant’s (B.A., 2002) life. Going on six years as CEO and President of the Seattle Storm, she has been able to combine her passions with her career aspirations.

“I just really love it,” Bryant said. “I find great meaning in what I do. For me, being the CEO of the Storm is a great combination of my love of sports, my love of the Northwest, and it’s also an opportunity to be challenged.”

Bryant played Division I basketball for the UW after transferring from Seattle University. While at the UW, she worked in the Capital Projects Office, which manages the University’s construction program. Bryant said Janet Donelson, who hired her for that position, was instrumental in her development as a young female professional and remains a positive role model and mentor for her today.

“I had just taken over as the University’s project manager for the Allen Library as construction got underway and the contractor cut down trees and dug the hole,” Donelson said, who now serves as Vice President of Trammell Crow Company’s Seattle Business Unit. “My new boss told me I needed to have a ‘communications plan’ – yikes!”

For someone trained in numbers and pictures, the help from a “bright, young communications major” was well received. For two years, Bryant arranged biweekly ads in The Daily, one-page memos to people in departments directly affected by the construction, and the pair produced a weekly column about construction activities to inform the public about the project status and how it was designed and built.

“Of course she was smart, personable, always striving for the best, and considerate of those around her, but more than that, I think she was (and is) pretty much fearless,” Donelson said. “I never knew Karen to believe she couldn’t do what she set out to do. Just because it wasn’t the normal path didn’t mean she couldn’t do it or make it happen, and she inspires those surrounding her to do the same. This characteristic makes her a born leader and a truly outstanding CEO in a new arena like women’s basketball.”

Bryant worked her way into the local basketball scene, holding increasingly higher positions. Upon relocation of the SuperSonics in 2008, the Seattle Storm became an independent organization. Three local businesswomen, known as Force 10 Hoops, stepped forward to purchase the Storm so that the team would remain in Seattle, becoming one of six independently owned franchises in the WNBA.

“Karen has been instrumental in building the Seattle Storm women’s basketball franchise,” said Lisa Brummel, a member of the owners group and executive vice president for Human Resources at Microsoft. “Bringing fans into the arena, helping coaches and players excel in their jobs, and leading the staff which runs the Storm organization is a deep communications activity.”

Brummel said she remembers Bryant playing as a senior at UW and that she was “tough as tough could be,” never backing down and always competing until the end. This is true for her today as a business woman.

“Karen is a role model for other CEO’s in the WNBA,” Brummel said. “She drives the right business principles while remembering that people are at the center of all that we do; on and off the court. She has insight to the game as well as insight into the fans. The combination of these two things is rare among her peers.”

Bryant has been sharing her knowledge and experiences in a new way by teaching for the Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership Program, a Master’s degree program offered through the UW College of Education. She started as a guest speaker and was later asked to develop and teach a capstone class that focused on leadership and management.

“There’s a real sincerity that comes across with the students,” said Sara Lopez, Co-Director for the Center for Leadership in Athletics, and Director for the Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership M.Ed. Program. “She’s very reflective about her own experience and how she has learned and grown as a leader. She’s willing to share that with the students, which has a tremendous impact because it helps them look more closely at their own experiences and practice.”

As part of the summer session, students attend sports events in the community, including a Storm game. Lopez recalled seeing Bryant courtside one minute, in the concourse area the next, later in the stands talking to the students, and up in one of the boxes to greet a special guest.

“That’s representative of the energy and personal connection that she’s able to bring,” Lopez said. “Here’s the CEO of the organization, but she’s making it a point to reach out and visit with students who she doesn’t necessarily have to interact with, but she is sincere in making those connections. I admire her energy and she’s doing a lot in terms of visibility not only for the organization, but as a role model and leader in the field.”

Under Bryant’s leadership and guidance, the Storm has won two WNBA championships and revenue has increased 162 percent. These are just two measurements of Bryant’s impact on one of Seattle’s most talented sports teams.

Karen Bryant is a 2013 inductee to the UW Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.