November 25, 2020 

She Got Next Episode 13: Keia Clarke, New York Liberty

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Keia Clarke and Liberty Legend Sue Wicks. Photo credit: New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty


PEPPER PERSLEY: Hello and welcome to this episode of “She Got Next” with me, Pepper Persley. This episode has a really interesting interview with the CEO of the New York Liberty, Keia Clarke.

KEIA CLARKE: I am here. How are you, Pepper?

PERSLEY: I’m awesome, thank you for asking. How are you, Keia?

CLARKE: I’m doing all right.

PERSLEY: Awesome. Well, I’m so excited to be chatting with you today. And I know you have a really busy schedule, so I’m keeping it to 10 or so questions. I’m just really excited. And whenever you’re ready, we can get started.

CLARKE: I am ready to go. Pepper, I don’t know if you remember, we met many years ago at a New York Liberty game. A few of them. So great to see you.

PERSLEY: Yes, so great to see you — well, so great to hear you too, again. Awesome. So I want to start with talking a little bit about your journey. Let’s go back to look at your journey to where you are now, starting with your journey as a basketball player. How did you get started in the game and what led you to playing Division I basketball?

CLARKE: I’m so happy that you started here, because whenever I have the opportunity to talk about my career trajectory, I often like to start with, I was a basketball player. Believe it or not, when I was eight years old, I picked up a ball — my mother actually loved playing basketball and was a walk-on at Virginia State and subsequently didn’t finish there, but really had a love of the game. And my dad actually played college basketball as well. So I guess it was kind of in my blood to play. And at first it was all just for fun, and as I became older and made a varsity team in high school, it really became a passion and I had a deep desire to play collegiately. I just wasn’t sure if I was going to get the opportunity. So unlike lots of serious basketball players, I only played one single season of AAU basketball, and as I like to say, it pretty much changed my life because that was the moment when I realized and recognized my true passion for basketball. And little did I know, it would actually spill over into my career. So as I said, you know, on an amateur level, in school I played — I was afforded an opportunity to play at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, where I was on a full scholarship. I was not the most talented basketball player while I was there, so quick, fast and in a hurry, I started to turn my sights on what I would do after graduation, and marketing was really, really at the focal point of what I knew I wanted to be involved in. I didn’t know where, I didn’t know how, and I wasn’t even thinking sports at that point. I just knew I really liked consumer behavior, I really liked advertising, and so it was that I majored in marketing and then began my career from there. So you let me know if you want me to continue on to work side now or if you had other questions about me playing basketball.

PERSLEY: I was just gonna say I do know that part of your story. And thank you so much for sharing. But yeah, I mean, I had one question about basketball, which was what do you love about basketball? What led you to playing D-I basketball and just developing that love?

CLARKE: Yeah, I it’s hard to explain. One day, something inside me just triggered and I couldn’t put the ball down. I really enjoyed, unlike most players, playing defense, changing the outcome of what someone else wanted to do. In middle school and high school, I really liked to score and that feeling of adrenaline that comes along with that. But really, and this is probably the part that didn’t make me a very good basketball player, I wasn’t incredibly competitive. It was just really a love for the purity of the game and learning something and getting better at something and, you know, showcasing athleticism. But really those are the things that I fell in love with. Those are the beautiful parts of the game that I enjoy watching and marketing. But at the end of the day, it’s about wins and losses. So now I’m on a different path and I can’t wait for the New York Liberty to win the championship. [laughs]

PERSLEY: I bet you can’t, I bet you can’t. And honestly, being from New York, I can’t either. I can’t wait either. I’m just wondering about your journey from playing college ball to becoming a front office woman in the WNBA.

CLARKE: Yeah, you know, I think sports has so many lessons and particularly being a collegiate athlete forces you into many, many life lessons that became a part of my journey overall. When I think about time management and being a student, and writing papers and taking tests and studying, while you’re also balancing a travel schedule and practice schedule and, you know, all of the things that come along with being a collegiate athlete. Those are, I guess, the hard skills that I took from that experience, I think from a mental standpoint, being able to move on after really tough losses, being able to have humility when your team is doing well, being a great teammate, and getting along with others and working together with others, like, these are all things, I think that we all learn as people as we’re growing up. But it’s that much more intense when you’re playing at a high level in college while you’re academically studying at a high level. So I think all of those things kind of roll into one for me, and is also why I so admire the professional women who are the greatest in the world at what they do. And they’ve kind of been — most of them, most of them have been through that same kind of trajectory, and now it translates to, how do I do it at an even higher level, at a bigger stage? And that’s the part that drives me to want to market that. But really, yeah, I would say, you know, those are some of the things that that time taught me. Interestingly enough, I was not a team captain during my four years at Canisius because my coach believed that a point guard should be able to lead without a title. And it’s something that I thought was like, completely, just him being ludicrous, and like creating obstacles for me. And then I thought he didn’t like me. But when I came out on the other side, and as I came into management and started to manage people, it was one of the greatest lessons that I ever experienced. Because, you know, to be able to lead others without the title is something that I did and had to do for many, many years of my career when I didn’t have a lot of direct reports, when I wasn’t a CEO. And it’s, you know, that lesson and those lessons, I think that were helpful along the way.

PERSLEY: What a lesson, and I feel like that, if you think about it in the context of what you just talked about, it works for basketball. And as you mentioned, it works for marketing, but that seems to work for life. So thank you for that advice for all the listeners and for me. What do you do in your role as CEO of the New York Liberty? And what is your favorite part of the job?

CLARKE: So my favorite part, I’ll start with that one because it’s a very easy question, is that in a typical, normalized season, my job is to go to basketball games. [laughs] To watch basketball, to make people happy when they’re watching basketball and create an experience, both in-arena and on television. So I think that’s my most favorite part by far. What I do is a very typical corporate role in leading and running a business. So I have oversight of all of the business mechanics that go into making the games possible and making the season possible and employing the people that make all those things possible. So that includes, you know, overseeing the financial statements and the P&L, it includes working to sell corporate partnerships to different sponsors that want to align with our brand, it involves selling tickets and creating new fans and lifelong fans and meeting people where they are whether they already know they love basketball and love the Liberty or whether they have never been to a game before. I think, you know, selling tickets and how we market to them, which I’ve already brought up marketing as my background, it’s another key factor, I oversee the marketing department as well. And that’s changed a lot over the years. When I began work right out of college, a lot of the social media platforms didn’t even exist. So a lot of my career has been on-the-job training and figuring out new and innovative ways to do things, and learning from different industries, and learning from the NBA and the NFL and the airline industry. You name it, it’s a constant learning experience and trying to get better so that we can grow our business. The other portions of the business that are important to what I do include social responsibility, our community relations efforts and what we do on the grassroots side, and then communications and PR — what is the image? What do people think of us? How do we present? What are people writing about when it comes to the Liberty and the women who play this game? So I really appreciate days like today, where folks like yourself give us the opportunity to talk about our league and our team, because the more people know, the more inclined they are to support.

PERSLEY: Well, thank you for that. And I honestly just wanted to interview you to hear what you have to say, because I’m so impressed by what you’re doing with the Liberty. And thank you for that insight. You are among five African American women currently holding high-ranking front office positions with WNBA teams. What does it mean to you to be one of five?

CLARKE: Well, I’m very pleased that I’m one of five. I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity such as this. But I think it’s less important for how I feel and more important for the folks who are younger than I who are coming up behind, because they then don’t have to be the first. I think it’s really hard to envision yourself as doing something in life if you’ve never seen someone do it who looks like you. And that can mean women, and it can mean women of color, it can mean people with disabilities, it could mean people from non-traditional family settings. I mean, you name it, there are just so many ways that people still contribute to positive aspects of society. But sometimes I think it’s our differences that naysayers like to hold us back on. So the more, you know, one of five, or one of one or one of a million that we have, you know, this will grow over time, and it’ll just become a normalized thing where, you know, people are really being valued and placed in positions for what they bring to the table. So, you know, like I said, I’m really proud and excited about that, but more so for the next generation that is coming up behind.

PERSLEY: I’m honestly inspired by what you’re doing as a Black woman in that position. And just like the courage to be one of five, I know that you’re not the only one but still being of five is pretty impressive. Let’s transition to the 2020 season. What are your thoughts on this season in the wubble?

CLARKE: I think the wubble was a major accomplishment on the part of the league and on the commitment of our players, you know, as COVID-19 was affecting everyone globally in a really negative way. And there’s so much uncertainty even now on what this virus can do and has done, even for the folks who have lost their lives. I think in the midst of that, the fact that we were able to come together and safely, and adhering to medical protocols, still have a season, I think is a major, major accomplishment, especially for a league of our size. I was not in the wubble, but I tip my hat to everyone who was from a staffing standpoint, firstly, and then most importantly, the players. They made major sacrifices to play the game that they love and I think they did it with a level of class and tenacity that’s been unparalleled, just given everything that they particularly had to go through and the ways that that season came together. So I think it was a huge accomplishment on that and that it happened. On the other note, I would say the dedication of the season to bring light to Black and Brown women who have lost their lives for no reason at all, it seems, and just the tragedy of the movement. And how the women came together I think is a silver lining, again, that came out of this wubble season, to really commit themselves to the #SayHerName campaign, to really commit themselves to educating one another and hearing from experts and doing the work advocating in activism in the name of Black women, I think is just a powerful thing that happened amongst women. And not all of the women, the majority of the women in the league are Black, but all of them came together in that moment, and I could not be prouder to be associated with this league for those reasons. You know, one that it happened, and two, that they went a step further and said, look, we’re going to use our time and our space and our platform to really try to make change. And I think we’re seeing that. And we’ve seen that in many ways for many seasons, but particularly in aggregate, every team doing it just had a totally different impact from where I sit.

PERSLEY: So, so impressive that they were able to pull that off and be taking such a stand against racism and police brutality. So I definitely agree with you and I applaud them as well. Transitioning a little bit to the Liberty season, how do you think this young Liberty team benefited from being in a setting like the wubble?

CLARKE: Well, you know, our team had so many new faces this season, both on the roster and on the coaching staff. So we had the ability, they had the ability, to be together for all of that time, and to really just thrive and play for each other. But really, just to have an incredible learning experience. When you have that many rookies on a WNBA team, you know, there’s always going to be bumps and bruises. But I think the fact that it was a non-traditional season was actually helpful to us, because it just created a different type of bonding experience, and really learning experience, so that they got lots of reps in and lots of minutes played. And, you know, I think that’s a real confidence booster. But really just on-the-job training, in a typical situation where you just would not get that many minutes if you’re, you know, one of two rookies on a team. So I think in that regard, it was very helpful for us. It’s obviously not what we initially set out to do, but circumstantially, that’s the way things fell. So, you know, I think the silver lining on that one, Pepper, is we’ll get another pack next season. And, you know, we have that season of games underneath our belts, but looking forward to playing in — knock on wood — playing in Brooklyn is really what the prize is right now. And I think it’s just a little bit of deferred gratification. But, you know, what we did was completely stoic, to face superstars every single night, and be brand-new to the league, I think there was just this sort of hunger for, “Let me just play the game that I love,” and not really feel a lot of stress about, you know, everything surrounding that fact.

PERSLEY: Wow, well, that little bit of insight kind of leads me to the next question. I know you mentioned the very young team, but also the very young staff. So I was wondering what your thoughts are on Coach Hopkins in his first season as head coach of the Liberty?

CLARKE: Yeah, so I’ve been with the team for a really long time, so I’ve had the pleasure of working with many coaches, and I would say that Walt was up for a huge challenge this year. And I think he did a remarkable job, because what head coach in their first season has to be in the bubble with their entire team, and get through a season without the roster that they initially thought they had? I just think it was, you know, an incredible feat on his part and his staff in that regard. You know, a lot of my focus, while it’s typically all on the business side, I watched all the games, like a fan would from home, on television, so it was a very different perspective for me to really, you know, watch how from game one, you know, to game 22, the team had changed. And I just think he did a remarkable job. And again, this is, you know, us having conversations and then me watching from afar — his way of, you know, motivating players and keeping everyone’s minds together and, you know, developing folks in a way that, you know, his résumé preceded him in that regard, it actually rang true. So I think that was really, really exciting for me just to see, you know, all of this unfold and unfold, you know, on nearly every other night games that we were all witnessing. And again, you know, non-traditional for me to not be in the arena watching these games, but nevertheless, I think, you know, the players really, you know, gel together and stepped up and played for each other, and quite frankly, played for him.

PERSLEY: Yes, definitely. Kudos to Coach Hopkins for all that he went through that season with not having the roster that he thought he would have, as you mentioned, and being in the wubble and having so many rookies and even being in his first season. Definitely kudos to him. And just wrapping up with a couple last questions. What does Sabrina Ionescu bring to the Liberty team and organization?

CLARKE: Well, I think there’s no doubt about it, Sabrina had just an incredible collegiate career, and it’s probably the most anticipated and least-hidden, hands-down, unanimous No. 1 pick in WNBA history? Maybe not WNBA history, I think there’s probably been a few others, but, you know, needless to say, we felt fortunate to be drafting at No. 1 in the season that she was coming into the W. And even for that short stint before she went down with an injury, we could see just why. So I think, you know, she’s a type of generational player who will have a direct and immediate impact on our league. We cannot be happier to have her with us in Brooklyn and with us in New York. So I think, you know, on the court, her résumé will prove itself out when she gets to play a full season. And for that, we’re really, really, you know, on the edge of our seats. But I think off the court, you know, how she builds what she wants her legacy to be. And we’ve had, you know, several conversations of just that, and in the marketability of, you know, her as a person, again, through corporate partnerships, both, you know, on her own, and through companies that, you know, want to work with our team. And as a whole, all of those are positives for us. So, you know, I could not be more excited about Sabrina joining this family. She’s fitting in perfectly right now. And, you know, I think, you know, there’s only upside from here on out. Once we get to next season, and to be celebrating our 25th anniversary, it’s going to be that much more special to have, you know, all these special people that are included in our family, but Sabrina being amongst those for sure.

PERSLEY: So excited to hopefully see her back on the floor next season. And as you mentioned, in the WNBA’s 25th anniversary, so exciting. You inspire so many young people, but who inspires you?

CLARKE: Oh, there’s been so many people who have been inspirations throughout my life. I’d have to say, though, the most inspiring is my own mother. I mentioned up top that my mom loved the game, she loves the game, she still plays basketball with my children, and Grandma — Grandma’s not too bad. Even, you know, getting up there in age. So I think, you know, for me, just that genuine appreciation and passion for basketball. But not only that, just committing yourself to something that you truly care about is the lesson that she taught me. And quite frankly, you know, she sacrificed playing collegiately and being away at college to raise me. So part and parcel, the dream of me first playing, and now the opportunity to lead a WNBA franchise is my dream come true. but I think is just as much hers. So I think, you know, her always being behind me and in my corner and my biggest fan, but also the person who gives me all the constructive criticism that I need to get through a day and so that my head doesn’t get too big. All of those things are important. You know, my kids are six and eight years old, and my mother tells me all the time, well, parenting never stops. And I admire that about her, and I hope I’m half the mom that she is. But definitely, you know, everything that she’s taught me has transferred into my professional and my personal life, obviously.

PERSLEY: Wow, thank you for sharing that. And I’m honestly inspired even by hearing the story of your mother, just like kind of coursing from her dream to trying to, like, fulfill yours and always having your back. That’s so awesome. But what’s the best piece of advice you would give to a young girl who wants to work in women’s basketball?

CLARKE: Oh, I don’t know if I could call it the best, but I would say this has been the most helpful as I’ve gotten to this point, and it would be not to give up. I think a lot of times, people are looking or expecting instant gratification. But if you are really committed to something, if you are passionate, or if you just know, this is what I want, and this is what I want to do, and this is who I want to be, it may take a couple right turns and left turns before you get there. But I think sticking with it and not giving up is really the key. It may mean that you do some things that are uncomfortable. That’s good. It may mean doing some things that don’t feel like it’s on the right path to where you think you’re going. That’s okay. I think it’s staying in the game, if you will, [laughs] to use a basketball moniker, but you know, not completely giving — not ever giving up, I should say is really the key on that one. So that’s the advice that I would give, you know, not letting other people weigh or sway or influence, you know, where you ultimately want to be. Keeping that eye on the prize, if you will, is really important. But knowing some bumps and bruises will come, but really, you know, it’s to stick-to-itiveness that prevails.

PERSLEY: What advice is that! Thank you so much. I honestly am taking that advice in for my life, but I hope that some of the listeners and viewers of this episode of “She Got Next” can also take in that advice to help influence their lives and help them with their dreams. So thank you so much for being here. Again, thank you so much for taking the time out of, I know, your busy schedule. So thank you.

CLARKE: It was a pleasure to speak with you, Pepper. Anytime you want to chat, I’m here for it.

PERSLEY: Big thank you to Keia Clark and the New York Liberty. As always, you can find me on Instagram @dishwithpepper. And please subscribe to The Next to hear more awesome podcasts like this one.

Written by Pepper Persley

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